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Saturday, December 01, 2001

Book Reviews

History as Muse

Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings, 1958-2000 directed by Gloria Moure. Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 448 pages, 2001, $60.00.

Greek- (Piraeus-) born, Rome-based Jannis Kounellis comes to us from Arte Povera – Poor Art – a movement whose name was given by the Italian critic Germano Celant in 1967. Characterized by poetic allusion and the use of poor materials – soil, branches, glass, newspapers – Arte Povera has been associated with conceptual and minimalist art, perhaps in opposition to the confident Americanism of Pop art. Kounellis, who arrived in Rome in 1956, began as a painter; his early work consists of letters, numbers, and signs randomly stenciled onto a canvas. By the mid-1960s, however, Kounellis had turned away from such imagery, becoming involved with Arte Povera in 1967. Since then he has given himself over to the construction of enigmatically lyrical structures that refer to the historical awareness of time, in contradistinction to the atemporality of much contemporary art, especially in the United States. Indeed, Kounellis recognizes this opposition in his writing: “I am against the world of Andy Warhol and of the epigoni of today,” he says. “I want to restore the climate experienced by the Cubists.”

What does it mean to “restore the climate experienced by the Cubists”? Is the quotation a provocation, or does it posit a view of art that, in looking backward, connects with the high tradition of modernism and its history? These questions most likely are a European concern; art identifying with the past is not an interest of America’s continually self-renewing avant-garde, whose investigations attempt not to bridge the past but rather to determine a nexus where the immediate and the imagined are one and the same. In consequence, the appreciation of the art and writings of Kounellis takes on, especially in America, the quality of choice: Where does each stand in regard to a visual poetry that seeks not only the absolute but also a grounding in time? Time is essential to Kounellis’s imagination, which does not so much find assertion through the presentation of historical material as it elliptically, mysteriously refers to a perception woven of the indications of memory – its sly ability to project itself onto an avant-garde that recognizes agreement about intention.

In fact, Kounellis’s relationship to the avant-garde is the major question facing the reader and viewer responding to his emotively dark, classical sensibility. The avant-garde is, by definition, a construction of the moment, a given whose roots seem hidden from view. Its nature is necessarily ahistorical, although time and its ways eventually reveal a relation with, most likely a reaction to, what has preceded it. There are, of course, times when the break appears to be more or less complete with previous art; the history of modernism looks like such a moment. But in light of the permanence of an avant-garde that has become, at least in America, an ongoing cultural presence tied to institutional structures, one feels shy about maintaining the continuing newness of what we can now begin to call a genre, rather than an event. An event is closed historically, distinct unto itself, whereas a genre attempts a definition of category that takes the past unto itself; its meaningfulness is established through time. In the past 20 years, the avant-garde has turned into a genre, with a history, despite its struggle to stay free of the past. The dichotomy we experience with Kounellis, and which infuses his art with so much meaning, turns on the discrepancy between the moment and the genre’s continuity of history; the former seems inevitably new and timeless, while the latter yields to an intention not at war with the past.

As a result, then, Kounellis’s esthetic attempts an identity not only through but also with time; he seeks a union made meaningful by the theatrical understanding of time: “I search dramatically for unity, although it is unattainable, although it is Utopian, although it is impossible and, for all these reasons, dramatic.” His writings and art redeem time in the face of hopelessness. The theatricality of his work attempts a dialogue with an audience whose ghostliness owes its melancholy to the inevitable failure of such a struggle – we can call upon the past forever, but we can never possess it. The avant-garde nature of Kounellis’s art seeks to rupture its sad task through evocation, the suggestion of presence. Art doesn’t point at but rather invokes the muse. Kounellis’s compilations of objects, his coat and hat on hook, most especially the twelve horses he exhibited in a gallery in Rome in 1969: These materials show rather than tell, resonating in ways that fulfill our, and also Kounellis’s, notion of poetic meaning. The lyrical cannot indicate directly; instead, it must convince by intimation. His is a melancholy outlook that not only services the dead; it also cleaves to a view of the present that renders a complex nostalgia comprehensible, that is, graspable in the light of day.

This is not to say that Kounellis’s relationship to the past is rigid or academic. In a telling statement of influence, he admires Pollock, a figure consumed with the passion of the present tense: “I am an admirer of Pollock for his dramatic and impassioned search for identity.” The quotation places Kounellis as a contemporary artist – someone so taken with the demands of contemporaneity that his art, in its sense of destiny, exalts history because it is over. The finished moment, no matter how recent, can only be gained through sadness, a modern emotion; as Kounellis has written, “I honor the dead, thinking of myself as a modern artist.” The mute impassivity of Kounellis’s materials, coupled with his double allegiance to the past and present, results in a stasis understandable not by irony, contemporary art’s handmaiden, but by gravitas. The past is a weight that must be lifted, so that its implications resurrect themselves in a refutation of oblivion. So long as Kounellis’s art registers its connectedness, the content of its assertions is lengthened and deepened by its nostalgia.

Kounellis substitutes drama for a reality taken over by poseurs. It is evident not only in his art but also in his writings. He feels that his argument consists of a politically realized esthetic, one in which morality and emotional depth are as important as the achieved image. Despite his idealism, he is not naive. He writes in response to theory: “Today there is talk of ‘post’ without leading to controversy. This has been a nightmare. The contours are beginning to be defined and one has the presentiment that we are reaching the end of a period of approach.” The “approach” Kounellis speaks of is historical and, for that reason, inevitably political: One cannot speak of the past without speaking of justice, for our interpretation seeks to redeem time in the face of present disappointment and future doubt. As Kounellis writes about his own, personal past:

In 1962-63 we already had the spirit of sixty-eight, so that when 1968 came we were clearly committed politically. It is not a question of continent; it is always a question of history, of the interpretation of history. That is, it is extremely difficult to paint a canvas without having an idea of history.

It is clear from this quotation that Kounellis finds the effort of art a choice with ethical implications. His struggle to politicize his choice within what he calls a “final tension” leads to the assertion of moral rights – the visionary’s task is to transcend the limitations by embracing this tension. Such a thought only seems paradoxical; in fact, art is always of its particular time and cannot but help reveal decisions made in favor of or against the past. If the artist underscores the gap between himself and history, he is actually betraying his interpretation for a naive reading of events. Nothing stands entirely outside its context, and naive art is uninformed art. It is an esthetic in which, as Kounellis says, “the final tension is lacking that creates renovation and creates history.” To turn one’s back on time is to succumb to its final say; death remains the mother of beauty.

When Kounellis fills a doorway with rough stones, he is assigning space, which he characterizes as the “motion of the infinite,” a temporal value: he places space, usually understood as a formal rather than temporal concern, within time. To do so is to celebrate what the artist calls “the transgression of faith” – another linguistic conundrum to be solved by the employment of time. The artist’s writings tend to be vatic for a reason: he speaks as if outside himself, as if the capture of time is best served by the absence of self. Materials, and words as objects, take the place of narrative; his metal flowers, with a propane gas flame in the center, embellish a self fleeing the contradictions of its being. One becomes small so as to be large. This is Kounellis at his most metaphorical:

Let us be clear about this: we are great, all we need to do is formulate a proposal in a small space, but we know this is almost impossible historically; therefore where is credibility born? Credibility is born from mastery of the source; therefore, I can be calm.

The artist’s closeness to mortality lends itself to confrontation, not only with the dead – those who preceded him into the past – but also with those alive with him in the present. We mourn the dead so as to assert the ebullience of life, which cannot be championed without attachment to the past. Kounellis writes: “The funeral like the a departure, like a cultural identity, like a rediscovery after a long period of oblivion due to decline and submission” [emphasis added] [PLEASE CHECK THIS QUOTE, AND WHERE IS THE EMPHASIS?]. Rebellion against the real in a narrow sense supports a metaphorical, metaphysical awareness of death, whose reach is realigned through the erotic charge of art. Kounellis’s writing is like tracings upon a map that has already been drawn; he recognizes those who have come before him and addresses those who will follow. As Kounellis comments on the writer, “The image of the person writing has no relationship with the architecture, even if it has a relationship with reality. He reads it and gives it form.” Truth takes part in that which embodies the “codified essence of his [the writer’s] voice.” The only way to liberate that voice, the essence of the artist’s sensibility, is by rebellion and theater.

It is as though the drama of the artist becomes transparent by building an open space; there is a dialogue with past and present, private and public selves. But in his anonymity, Kounellis truly gives us an unmediated mediation between different kinds of time. Beyond the drama of the temporal there lies all of time; the artist presides over his station in a way that engages the reader, who may, or may not, understand the task of the artist as shaman, intermediator. Kounellis says, “I am a keeper. A guardian. The reality that is not visible is apocryphal and the guardian knows its meaning. So the guardian prevents people approaching the mystical secrets in his custody.” It is rare for Kounellis to be so forthright; in this passage, he declaims rather than suggests, for he recognizes that “the modern painter, as in any other era, is an ancient man.” Like Beuys, this is an artist who will not – indeed cannot – connect with the attentions of ahistorical, atemporal America; he repudiates the disorder of capital and dreams of preservation: “Conservation is not mummification. Conservation is an active factor, not one of decadence.”

It is not that secrecy sustains the secret; it is rather a matter of attitude: form coheres into content in Kounellis, who accompanies sorrow as he makes his way into the unknown. Looking behind him, he sees the numen grounding history’s disorder. It is all he can offer because that is all there is. No one escapes fate, but a deal can be struck – loss is replaced with the drama of the self: “The painter Munch has a real idea of theater.” Munch’s screams are not the stuff of rhetoric but rather the expression of a core sensibility – in a manner that assures an audience. Against loneliness, Kounellis juxtaposes a despair religious in its intensity and unknowing. His writing veers toward the elliptical because it is the best he can say to his audience, even to those readers who are suspicious of belief not grounded in structure, in hierarchy. At times, Kounellis’s words share an intent with Arshile Gorky’s prose poems: the reconciliation of memory with that which cannot be lived or interpreted, only memorialized. In Kounellis’s prose, the vision of what is nearly enough is sacrificed for something greater: a past that claims a more meaningful future.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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