Jannis Kounellis, a cornerstone of the Italian Arte Povera movement whose bewitching works incorporate a panoply of unusual ingredients, like jute sacks, coffee beans, a Ping-Pong ball, fire (from propane tanks and candles), musicians (flautists, a violinist), a ballerina, and, mostly famously, a dozen horses, died yesterday in Rome, according to the culture ministry of Italy. He was 80.
Coming of age after World War II, Kounellis was among the most radical exponents of an ascendent generation that would create seismic shifts in the way art was made and presented. Using found materials and performative elements, he conjured moods that were by turns dark, otherworldly, and haunted by degradation and destruction. His art often alludes to absent bodies, to loss, as in pieces that feature jackets hanging limp on walls or worn desks or tables massed into sculptures.
For his most well-known work, Untitled (12 Horses), which he made in 1969, Kounellis tethered 12 horses to the walls of the Galleria l’Attico in Rome. That exhibition remains one of the truly indelible images of 20th-century art—huge, impressive animals standing quietly, stolidly, chomping on hay, minding their own business. In 2015, the artist restaged the work in New York as part of the final show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise’s location in the West Village. As is true of so much of his work, it was both utterly beautiful and utterly strange.
Defining his practice in a text for a 1987 show, Kounellis wrote, “I want to see the return of poetry through any means: through exercise, observation, solitude, speech, image, and rebellion.”
Jannis Kounellis was born in Piraeus, Greece, on March 23, 1936, and moved to Rome at the age of 20, studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Two years later, he made his first trip to New York—he would later show there frequently—but returned to the Italian capital city, which he would use as his home base for most of his life. “At that time I considered the European post-war reality much more demanding in a cultural sense,” he told Andrea Bellini in 2007.
He had his first solo show in 1960, at Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome, and became one of the core members of a loose band of artists that the curator Germano Celant would classify in 1967 as Arte Povera, a movement that emphasized everyday, “poor” materials, the juxtaposition of industrial and natural materials, and an expanded notion of the readymade.
“Animals, vegetables and minerals take part in the world of art,” Celant wrote in a 1969, defining the movement. “The artist feels attracted by their physical, chemical, and biological possibilities, and he begins again to feel the need to make things of the world, not only as animated beings, but as a producer of magic and marvelous deeds.”
Though Kounellis began his career making painting, he gravitated quickly toward working in three dimensions. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, he helped forge remarkable innovations, opening up painting and sculpture to chance and performance, injecting them with ephemeral experiences, and, often, doses of delicious humor. For instance, his Da inventare sul posto (To invent on the spot), 1972, which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2014, is a painting bearing a section of Stravinsky’s La Pulcinella (1920), which a violinist periodically appears in the gallery to perform along with a ballerina, who improvises a dance.
In an untitled work from 1971, six flute players repeat sections of a piece by Mozart, a shattered, bizarre rendering of a found work. That same year he crafted a metal propane torch that spelled out his last name. When activated, flames burn along each letter. In his later years, he expanded his practice to include architectural interventions and large-scale installations that involve I-beams, charcoal, metal plates, and sewing machines.
Always resistant to direct, literal readings of his works, Kounellis left almost all of his pieces untitled, generously open to interpretation.
Kounellis’s work was exhibited widely and championed by the leading curators of his time. He appeared in the Venice Biennale’s main exhibition in 1993, 1988, 1984, 1980, 1978, 1976, 1974, and 1972, and was part of the Italian pavilion at the show in 2015. He participated in three editions of Documenta—numbers 5, 6, and 7, in 1972, 1977, and 1982, respectively. His work is housed in the collections of numerous important museums, including MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Tate Gallery, the Stedelijk, Kunsthaus Zurich, and many more.
With Kounellis’s passing, few original members of the Arte Povera movement remain. In recent years, though, museums throughout the United States and Europe have shown a renewed interest in their work, and many young artists have embraced their aesthetic, making work that is in various ways elusive and informal, elegantly dilapidated, and poetic.
In another section of that 1987 text, Kounellis wrote, “I have only ever sought beauty. I measured distance through objectivity. I saw the sanctity of everyday objects.”