Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis

1936 - 2017


Jannis Kounellis was born in 1936 in Kastella, Piraeus where he spent his childhood and adolescence in Piraeus, in the shadow of World War II, in a setting bursting with the smells of coffee and oil, the sounds of ships and the images of travelers. At the age of 17 he married the tenant of his grandmother, Effie. In 1953, he prepared for the exams at the Athens School of Fine Arts with the help of Theodoros Drosos; but failed three times. In 1956, at the age of 20, he moved to Rome with his wife, where he lived for the rest of his life. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts under Franco Gentilini and Toti Scialoja. During his student years, he studied the art of the Italian Renaissance in Florence, Venice and Rome. In 1960, he exhibited his first paintings in black and white at La Tartaruga gallery in Rome. These had the size of his home's walls, as well as drawings such as letters, numbers and bows. At the same time, he investigated the Italian avant-garde and the work of artists such as Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. This resulted in a redefinition of his relationship with the canvas and space, the transition of his interest to the 3rd dimension and the development of a dialectical relationship with the viewer. Thus, he began to focus on the use of natural materials and objects such as wood, irons, cotton, charcoal and sacks, and to highlight their sculptural dimension. Later, he added other elements to his works, sometimes of raw (fire, earth) and sometimes of industrial origin, and created installations that went beyond the usual limits of an exhibition space at that time. He participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions with such creations throughout the 1960s in Europe. Among these, an exhibition that is considered quite important for his career is Arte Povera e IM spazio at the a la Bertesca gallery (1967) in Genoa, where Kounellis was selected by Germano Celant to exhibit among Arte Povera's pioneers, such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Giulio Paolini and Luciano Fabro. Since 1968, he started undertaking stage designs for shows presented in various cities around the world in collaboration with Carlo Quartucci, Heiner Muller, Theodoros Terzopoulos, Pierre Audi, Tadashi Suzuki and other directors and theatrical writers. In 1969, among the many shows he participated in, the ones that stood out are the exhibition at the gallery L'Attico in Rome, where he exhibited the installation Horses, with 12 live horses occupying the space, and the exhibition When attitudes become form – Live in your head at the Kunstahlle in Bern, together with artists such as Joseph Beuys, Walter de Maria, Hans Haacke, Yves Klein, Sol LeWitt, Bruce McLean, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson. During this period, he began creating installations from “built” doors, beds and windows, filled with broken statues, bricks, books, bells, glasses and other objects, a practice he evolved over the following decades by appropriating unified spaces as well as historically and culturally significant buildings. In 1970, his installations and performances became even more intense with theatrical and ritualistic elements. In 1972, on the occasion of the birth of his son, he created a work golden children's shoes. In 1973-1974, he presented the performance Apollo in Europe and the USA and in 1977 in Athens, at first in a tavern in Ampelokipi and later in his first official exhibition in Greece, under the roof of the Bernier-Eliades gallery. In this work, Kounellis stood on a white horse covering his face with a plaster cast depicting the face of the god Apollo while the surrounding area was painted yellow. In the 1980s, he worked mainly on wall-mounted installations based on iron foundations that were made of combinations of various materials, which were selected because of their texture and symbolic references. In 1994, he exhibited in the hold of the “Ionion” cargo ship in his hometown, Piraeus, at the invitation of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, an initiative that addressed the concept of homeland, the multiple meanings of identity and the idea of wandering around time and space. In the same year, he was elected professor at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts in Germany, where he taught until 2001. In 2006, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Architecture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and, in 2009, at the Athens School of Fine Arts. From the beginning of his career until the end of his life he never stopped exhibiting his work in public and private spaces, museums, galleries and art institutions in Europe and the USA. The poetic “scenography” of commercial and non-commercial objects, the exploitation of the physical properties of materials, the exploration of the boundaries between intellectual and material and, finally, the selection of paradoxical exhibition spaces gave Kounellis’ work a critical, political and social dimension and offered him the opportunity to challenge established conventions of art production, expressive standards which allowed him to leave his mark globally. Among the most important international events in which he participated were Documenta (1972, 1977, 1982, 2017) in Kassel, the Venice Biennale (1972, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1993), the Paris Biennale (1967, 1971, 1969), the Istanbul Biennale (1993) and the Sydney Biennale (2008). Other notable exhibitions with his work have been organized in Athens by the National Museum of Contemporary Art (2004) and the Museum of Cycladic Art (2012), in Chicago by the Museum of Contemporary Art (1986), in Madrid by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (1997) and in Berlin by the Neue Nationalgalerie (2008).