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Tuesday, April 01, 2003


Something Rich and Strange, If Also Tragic

Jannis Kounellis: Works on Paper, Michael Werner Gallery, March 27-May 24, New York City.

The career of Jannis Kounellis is not so much an accumulation of images as it is an accumulation of situations — circumstances in which the artist reveals an attitude toward the imagination and the world. Despite the resolutely abstract, or conceptual, cast of his art, Kounellis is on some level a humanist, a man interested in the predicament we find ourselves in. I say this because his essentially symbolist use of materials relates as much to modes of being — ways in which we recognize ourselves — as it elaborates a purely visual experience. Consequently, his language, central to Arte Povera’s inspired employment of humble means, takes on allegorical meaning, describing not what is but what is meant to be. Social awareness takes on primary importance. Kounellis, who has spoken out against Andy Warhol and his acceptance of popular culture, looks to the past for an inspiration whose intensity and seriousness address a genuine need for meaningfulness in culture. Kounellis’s esthetic, by comparison, removes him from the often stale posturing of New York’s art scene; his view is essentially classical, given to an emotional depth that reads art as inspired activity linked to social comment.

If it is true that Kounellis reads art as a kind of allegorical abstraction, in which symbols take the place of narrative, then it would make sense that he proceeds by indirection, nodding at the implications of art rather than its overt content. There is the famous installation, in 1969, of twelve live horses in a Rome gallery; challenging the notion of art that existed amiably within the constraints of the cube, the inclusion of living animals also expanded the language of what might be seen as art. Even more important, it suggested, as many Arte Povera works do, a link between art and the world. Kounellis’s refusal to work out a visual language in tune with the tenets of traditional painting and sculpture is not a gesture but a stance in which his sense of social meaningfulness is both a method and a goal: his ephemeral materials communicate a grand denial of art as a salve for his audience, confronting instead the intuitive knowledge of social interactions between the artist and his culture. Kounellis’s idiom reaches out to embrace the viewer through a language of suggestion; his gas flames, his locomotive circling a pillar of a church, his fragments of classical statuary, signify the rejection of the prosaic in favor of poetic metaphors that transform his work into vehicles of presence, momentary stays against the depredations of modernity.

What does Kounellis offer, then, if he turns away from the culture that so many accept today? The implications of his art are lyrical and classical; they demand the fragment rather than the whole. As such, they examine our fallen condition through grand arrays of symbolically charged materials: earth, plants, stones, steel, coffee, burlap, fire, gold. Kounellis deliberately eschews the languages of traditional art in favor of a nearly alchemical treatment of materials, such that everyday life is transformed into something rich and strange, if also tragic. From the start, he has been involved with a vocabulary of signs: his first solo show, in 1960, while he was still a student, consisted of paintings of stenciled letters and numbers, as if he was trying to present a new language, one that embodied the wistful knowledge of poetry. Italian influences such as Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri were acknowledged in Kounellis’s use of burlap, a truly “poor” material whose social significance as a container of a commodity might be found in the letters and numbers printed on the material. He is clearly not an idealist — there is a dark, even tragic, awareness found in his art — yet he uses materials such as gold and fire, primarily because of their poetic associations.

Kounellis, who was born in Piraeus, did not return to Greece until he was 40, after he moved to Rome in 1956 at the age of 20. He has commented, “I am a Greek person but an Italian artist.” It appears that he has adopted Italy as his home because he has found a purpose rooted in its history: the elucidation of certain memories that elaborate the measure of a person as essentially human. In his search for a synthesis that would delineate a new humanity, one that transforms not only the individual but also the culture, he posits a new measure of existence. He accomplishes this by defining a dichotomy between inorganic materials, seen as emblematic of structure, and organic materials, understood to be representative of sensibility. Italy’s long, classical history allows him to suggest rather than dictate his preference for the intuitive, the poetic, which remains metaphysical rather than descriptive in nature. In some ways, his metaphorical use of materials reminds the viewer of the “social sculpture” of Joseph Beuys, with the difference that Kounellis is not effecting a personal mythology so much as he is erecting an impersonal one, intended to redeem the crass materialism of the time through an embrace of the past.

Kounellis’s drawings relate to his sculpture in the sense that they, too, are metaphysical assertions concerned with the practice of a visionary attitude toward life. Just as he returns to broad themes in his sculpture, so he turns back to the lyrical as a wish to identify himself with progressive forces. The catalogue published by Michael Werner Gallery includes a series of statements by the artist, one of which reads: “I wish for the return to poetry with all available means: through practice, through observation, through solitude, through words; through images; through subversion.” His vision follows closely on the heels of the prosaic — he also writes, “I have seen the sacred in ordinary objects” — only to transmute the everyday into a golden means. The implication for society is essentially subversive, as Kounellis himself has commented. The drawings indicate his remarkable resolve and willingness to experiment in the face of social indifference, a kind of darkness he explores and struggles to transform. The visionary is to be expected, even if its terms should become hermetic in the face of the onslaught of culture.

As a result of Kounellis’s esthetic, which borders on an ethics of objects, these drawings constitute a space in which depth of purpose is joined to an alchemical regard for materials. In a small, untitled mixed-media work on paper (1977), Kounellis has drawn a gold wall, off to the side of which is a bundle of colors, a nest of energies. The artist has painted walls gold before, recognizing the high hierarchical status of the material even as he often uses ephemera for his art. Gold’s valued place is something to be compared with, in the hope that the comparison will redeem the world’s depths through the illumination of the space surrounding its glow. Equally powerful is the Untitled (Black Heads) (1980), a large vertical drawing of a mass of heads filling up the field of composition. This work is an illustration of a sculptural theme to which Kounellis returns, stacking stones or fragments of classical statues in a portal or doorway, thereby blocking the entrance in a way similar to abandoned homes found in the Greek countryside. The heads are essentially anonymous presences, representative of humanity in the abstract. At the same time, there is something troubled, and troubling, about them; they feel like ghostly presences, shades from the past.

The artist is right to embrace history if he wishes to redeem his time, for without history — without the sense that a different option is available — there can be no alternative to the present state of culture. Actually, Kounellis is rather grim with regard to the implications of a moribund culture, writing, “I have never killed anyone, but I am prepared to do so if my right to freedom is jeopardized.” While the drawings are both formally and metaphysically hazy, that is to say, unstructured in their shape and content, they nevertheless open up the possibility of an inspired content, a spiritual life whose survival is key to a person’s true participation in what Kounellis calls “beautiful things.” In an untitled work from 1980, he has sketched a number of heads on three walls of an interior, the back wall containing a door on the left and a dark window on the upper right. They remind the viewer of the artist’s work with fragments of classical busts, sometimes tied together with hands, as if to underscore the fragility of classical repose. Because Kounellis prepares us for the elliptical perception, and encourages a wordless understanding of his forms, it is sometimes hard to get a fixed reading of his intention. But that does not necessarily mean that he is being willfully obscure, only that he shares his knowledge primarily by inference. In this way, he proceeds by stealth, depositing his knowledge in a language that slowly conveys the wisdom of silence as well as memory’s role in culture.

There is a quickly sketched untitled 1977 image of a locomotive, with smoke blowing from its smokestack and a naked figure standing on top of the cabin. In another untitled work from 1978, the viewer sees a rather ghostly figure with wide-open eyes — an apparition of history. In still another untitled drawing, from 1976, a smokestack spews smoke against what look like walls of an interior, darkened by charcoal. Like the burlap, Kounellis’s smokestacks refer to industrial processes whose valuation is ambiguous. There are, as well, sacks and piles of unrecognizable materials, which are remarkable for their amorphous consistency of mass. In the drawings generally, Kounellis is introducing us to his methodology, which puts a series of symbolic forms out into the world, so as to struggle against its thematic debasement. In relation to his materials, the artist is a bit of a magician, seeing a way to integrity and fixity of purpose in his deliberately ephemeral idiom of stone and steel, gold and fire. The same is true for the works on paper; Kounellis keeps the viewer focused on his thematic concerns, which brings forth a poetics symbolically in dialogue with the past. Like the drawings of Joseph Beuys, Kounellis’s works on paper are revelatory of his procedure, essentially a visionary’s hedge, via history, against the smallness of the present time.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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