“I want the return of poetry by all means available,” Jannis Kounellis proclaimed (J. Kounellis quoted in Jannis Kounellis, exh. cat., Athens, 1994, p. 1). Fittingly, the artist’s 1981 Untitled has a visual poetics that pulls elegiac and elemental fragments into a mesmerizing shared orbit. The cross-media piece at hand is a psychologically dense encounter of startlingly eloquent Arte Povera materials organized “in distinct syntactical units, conflicting and fleeting” (E. Cicelyn, “The Scent of Language,” in Kounellis, exh. cat., Museo D’Arte Contemporanean Donnaregina, Naples, 2006, p. 17). The work invokes Kounellis’s singular iconography, at once lyrical and staccato, of smoke, shelving, and fractured plaster casts of neo-Roman statutory. In the split casts—visages of antiquity made incremental—Kounellis shatters time and uses his authority as an artist to accumulate and rearrange its shards, reincorporating them into the space of the present. With a superlative grace unique to Kounellis, Untitled embeds history, poetry, and politics in a collection of tactile fragments that elegantly elegize the fragmentation of Europe in the aftermath of the World Wars.
Kounellis’ 1981 Untitled combines casts of classical sculpture, which evoke the weight of human history, with the ephemeral natural phenomenon of smoke. This approach is in keeping with a rigorously intellectual aesthetic scaffolding that Kounellis developed in the 1970s in which “an element of inorganic form, which Kounellis calls structure, is combined with an element of organic presence, which he calls sensibility…The situation is an allegory for human presence within an unforgiving causal structure” (T. McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, New York 1999, p. 127). In the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde Italian artists began to explore the incorporation of classical cast elements into their work in response to renewed interest in the form of the plaster cast in the sphere of the museum. Kounellis first used fragmented classical casts in the mid-1970s when he created several partial casts of the head of Apollo. Like a stumbled-upon archaeological ruin, these fragments were at once a “poor” material situated in contemporaneity and a refined art of antiquity pointing to civilization lost. On Kounellis’s shelves, the ruins of the past accumulate.
The use of smoke—elemental detritus—in the 1981 Untitled invokes the passage of time, as Kounellis believed that smoke, which he first worked with as a performative artistic material in the early 1970s on the heels of his work with fire, “creates ghosts” (J. Kounellis quoted in MoMA Highlights, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 281). Far from static, Untitled is a dynamic encounter between disparate elements that proves to be nearly palpable to the viewer. Kounellis left the majority of his oeuvre, like the present work, untitled, suggesting that “the works taken together form a continuum, and true to his professed materialism it is usually the list of materials after each title that differentiates them from one another” (T. McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, New York 1999, p. 123). Indeed, the 1981 Untitled is a key work in a larger story about personal and cultural memory and the dual senses of penetrating loss and dubious hope that come with making something out of pieces.
Greek by birth and Italian by choice, Kounellis was born in the Grecian port city of Piraeus in 1936. At the age of 20, he moved to Rome and thereafter refused to speak Greek. Surprisingly to many who witness his cross-media work, Kounellis was in fact trained as a painter, and had his first solo show of paintings in 1960 when he was still a student. In the early 1960s, the artist began to incorporate wayward materials and found elements into his paintings. In 1966, he turned away from painting after deciding that it ignored the complex realities of history and kept too safe a distance from life. (Kounellis, to the contrary, believed that art and life should be unified.) In 1967 when Germano Celant theorized Arte Povera, a movement that used unorthodox materials and emerged from radical politics critiquing the post-fascism miracolo italiano (the Italian economic miracle), Kounellis emerged as a key figure. His otherworldly work leveraged unorthodox materials, from smoke and shelving, to coffee grounds and coal, to bedframes and birds, to merge art and life in interesting and unexpected ways. The artist used work by Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian as a springboard to fabricate a groundbreaking and remarkably original style. In 1972, Kounellis had his first U.S. solo show in New York at the Sonnabend Gallery; his narrative is thus inextricably intertwined with one of the 20th century’s greatest gallerists, Ileana Sonnabend. Kounellis’s stunning oeuvre, which became increasingly complex and noticeably larger over time, unsurprisingly went on to be the subject of major exhibitions and retrospectives. A distinctive medley of sculpture, performance, and a conceptualist variant on painting, Jannis Kounellis’s work is made up of peculiar and striking juxtapositions that linger in the mind long after viewing. His poetic work has been integral to art’s larger narrative; as MADRE museum director Eduardo Cicelyn penned, “Kounellis began by writing images, then re-writing the text and re-establishing the ideology of the language of art” (E. Cicelyn, “The Scent of Language,” in Kounellis, exh. cat., Museo D’Arte Contemporanean Donnaregina, Naples, 2006, p. 14).