When Jannis Kounellis moved to Rome from his native Greece, he marked the change in setting by painting the signs he saw on the street. The gallery where he exhibited them was notably cosmopolitan, also showing Pop artists from the United States. But any similarities between their work and his were merely superficial. From his first show in 1960 until his death in 2017, Kounellis was not so much avant-garde as sui generis.
A major retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the accompanying catalogue show just how unconventional he was, even for a time when artistic conventions were broken as a matter of course. Major works mark an approach to art that defies the very notion that art history moves in one direction. Kounellis often worked with the stuff of modern life – from coffee grounds to propane gas – but his visual language defied any attempt to associate it with the present, especially when the present shared space – as often was the case – with artifacts from the past.
His first exhibition in 1960 set the tone for all that was to come. As he related in a 1972 interview, “I did a performance, uninterruptedly, first in my studio and then at Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome, where on all the walls I placed canvases coated with Kemtone, an industrial house paint, on which I painted the letters, which I then chanted.” One of the canvases was draped over his shoulders like a cloak.
One imagines the overall effect to have been liturgical, the streets of 20th century Rome diverted through Byzantium. He explained this work and everything he did thereafter as an effort to “move away from the limits of the canvas to create a dramatic phenomenon.” He sought to draw art into life, but in actuality he drew life through art, making the pedestrian unrecognizably wonderful.
Kounellis is most famous for an installation staged at Galleria L’Attico in 1969. The piece, which he referred to as a painting, comprised a dozen horses tethered to the gallery walls. Hay was spread in front of them, effectively turning the gallery into a barn. Any distinction between art and life was impossible in this situation. It was the fulfillment of his preferred job title, zōgraphos, which is Greek for painter but literally means “life draftsman”.
Pursuing this vocation led Kounellis in ever more directions, always seeking new passages between domains he perceived as dimensions of the same reality. The tableau vivant was particularly suited to his work. Even classical statuary could be carried into the present when put in touch with a human body. It was Kounellis’s portal through art history, notably achieved in a performative painting of 1973 when he donned a mask with the face of Apollo.
During that performance, a flutist played melodies of Mozart, one of many instances in which Kounellis painted with music. Another, first exhibited a year earlier, brought Kounellis’s expansive view of painting back to the canvas. Untitled (To Invent on the Spot) comprised a painting of a passage from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which a violinist played over and over again while a ballerina improvised nearby. The essentially performative nature of this painting epitomizes Kounellis’s vision of life in art and art in life.
Playful as this was, it was much more than just a game. “This is our task: to find the means for exposing more possibilities of communication,” Kounellis said in a 1966 interview, summing up the role of artists from his point of view. Whether singing the street signs of Rome or impersonating Apollo, Kounellis relentlessly pursued this task by compelling art to express life and life to express art in every imaginable circumstance.