Jannis Kounellis has, since the beginning of his professional career in the early 1960s, steadfastly aligned himself with the Italian movement of Arte Povera. Greek by birth, Kounellis has lived in Rome since he was twenty, and he entered the world of Italian art with a force of originality that secured him an early, loyal following. The art he makes represents in many ways the essence of Arte Povera in its use of wayward materials, ambivalent relationship with the past, and extreme aesthetic refinement. It is also work that brings together the most unlikely materials to create objects of synergistic balance. Three excerpts from a series of provocations by the artist provide crucial insight into his methodology and embrace of the ambiguous gesture: “I am against the condition of paralyzation to which the post-war has reduced us; by contrast, I search among fragments (emotional and formal) for the scatterings of history./I search dramatically for unity, although it is unattainable, although it is utopian, although it is impossible and, for all these reasons, dramatic./I am against the aesthetics of catastrophe; I am in favor of happiness; I search for the world of which our vigorous and arrogant 19th-century forbears left us examples of revolutionary form and content.”1
There is a morbid grandeur haunting much of Kounellis’ work. It elicits a response somewhat akin to stumbling upon the remains of a moss-carpeted stone wall in the middle of a forest; something of purpose remains but its essential rationale has long departed. He draws as close as possible to tableaux of such poetic insistence that the works appear almost played out until a spark (sometimes literally in the artist’s use of torches, candles, and lamps) of conversation between sculptural elements sends the composition of the whole spinning into an indeterminate space where modernity and antiquity achieve a kind of unity. In this regard it is worth noting Kounellis’ legendary gesture when, in 1969, he tethered twelve horses in Rome’s L’Attico Gallery and completely reordered any preexisting notions concerning installation.
In the two works by Kounellis in the Walker Art Center’s collection, plaster casts of neo-Roman statuary play a dominant role. An untitled work from 1974 brings together a marble-topped pastry table used for rolling flour, an antique oil lamp, and an assortment of plaster shards. The table is stolidly bourgeois, its turned legs and brass pulls waiting for the rolling dough, but instead there are broken shards providing the promise of another, more poetic kind of nurture. The untitled work from 1982 is a wall composed of travertine stones in which are embedded an assortment of plaster fragments; the wall is meant to close off a doorway or window and is itself an ornamental version of a work the artist made for an exhibition in 1971 that marked an end to the early Arte Povera florescence.2 The work from 1971 is purely stone and acted as an impediment to moving from one gallery to the next. It is interesting to note that what began as a literal blockage becomes, a decade later, a record of cultural sediment—not closure but rather containment. The latter work is notable insofar as it exemplifies perfectly Kounellis’ 1970s vision wherein closure and fragmentation played major psychological and physical roles. It is also a model of how, in the 1980s, he began manipulating and recombining early ideas and forms. By assigning new meanings to his evolved vocabulary, Kounellis continues to manipulate his chosen fragments to expand his ideological universe.