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Obituary. How Jannis Kounellis, who died last week in Rome, transcended words and created a new language of humanism.

A new humanism in the form of coal

We must have the courage to live intensely, said the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis, because “the hermit’s points of view are conditioned by his hermitage. We can choose whether to go to that shelter, or venture out for more decisive, incisive roads.” Of course, since his early childhood, he opted for the latter.

When he was a child, Kounellis used to sit with his mother at the seaside and point his finger at the horizon. At the Piraeus port, ships were departing and Kounellis, who came from a family of sailors, felt a bit like a navigator, too. He could not forget his early maternal education (“always look straight ahead of you”), and in 1956, he decided to cross the blue expanse, embarking for Italy. He was 20 years old and his pockets were full of dreams, which he then turned into stones and coal.

That was just the beginning. He took to exile by choice, with the task of traveling the world inventorying human absence through the things they leave behind. Kounellis found a guiding principle in the chaos of trajectories: The dramaturgy came in the form the story of each disappearance. He began to furnish the space with his silent questions, with the tragedy of some simple objects that bore witness — with their actual physical weight — to the solidity of history. Each item disseminated (and enlightened) thus became a narrative fragment, the line broken a thousand times and then recaptured a thousand times, in a collective discourse.

“Art is not intimate,” Kounellis claimed. “The work becomes dialectic in the space, whether it’s a church, an abandoned factory or a gallery. It always requires a social, and even poetic, space. Each poem has its duration, and in that duration, you can find each other and the emotion.”

Born in Athens in 1936 but Italian by choice, Kounellis died last week at 80 in Rome, from complications of a bad flu that turned into pneumonia. (His funeral was Monday morning at the Artisti church at Piazza del Popolo.)

When he was very young, he brought his roots to Italy. He often said laughing that he had those roots in his head, regardless of the soil he was trampling. He felt Piraeus was a landmark, a boundary to overcome. From a distance, from his house’s windows, he could see the Parthenon — the image of the human and divine measured together, enrolled between columns and perfect symmetry. It engraved into him an order: a new humanism needed to be founded.

The logic (he loved that word so much he often used it in place of a more generic term such as culture) invited him to put man at the core, in a rigorous concentration of history, emotions, joys and tragedies. He spent his life entirely in the midst of primary letters: alphabet signs that “sang their rhythms on the walls,” real horses brought to graze in the art stables (at the Attico Fabio Sargentini gallery in 1969), pieces of coal sorted on metal sheets, rolled lead sheets rolled as if they were beds of stateless vagabonds, jute bags that resembled empty cocoons.

Kounellis’ Arte Povera, in any declination, was a tribute to life’s one-act play, a stage that unveils all our fates. He was loyal to his language for about 60 years, this painter, sculptor and director of space who always flaunted a particular color spectrum, which made him recognizable at first glance: His exhibits unfolded in gray, rust and black. His is a color atlas of nostalgia.

Two years ago, at the last Venice Biennale, where he was invited to the Italian pavilion as a great classic of the late 20th century, Kounellis was standing in the small Arsenale square, leaning against a well. He smoked nervously and judged the preparation of the exhibition as too “clean,” not experiential enough. Kounellis, a lonely helmsman seeking utopian ports, lost and found, was not meant to be in social company or to share common roads (except with his wife Michelle), despite his apparent beginnings with the Arte Povera group, between the Roman and Turinese effervescence of the 1960s.

Because of his poetic discourse, the materials he used — iron, coal, jute bags, rags, rocks, fire, earth — Kounellis could flaunt infinite resonances with many of his colleagues (Fabro, Zorio, Penone Paolini, Pistoletto, etc.). His visual alphabet — especially iron and coal — was never regarded as a subject per se, but it was introjected as a literary presence. The last of the romantics, Kounellis was passionate for the 19th century epic. His coal came from there, born from French literature, from Victor Hugo’s novels. And then there was the weight, the real metric for an aesthetic-artistic judgment. “The painting was once an idealized surface,” he said. “But everything that surrounds us has a weight, and the burden is an adventure in itself. A picture does not polarize the space, but a ton of coal does. It determines it.”

Kounellis said that after the post-war period, a tonal painting was no longer possible. He went in search of harmony, like Morandi’s. The bourgeoisie claimed principle was dead. The urgency was to get out of the picture.

The exploration of the “room of self” was diminished with cages inhabited by live birds that served as a frame to the works, or with the spatial/architectural rows of blacks coats without owners. Or with flames and metal sheets to mark ghosts trails, while threatening hooks hung on the walls. All of them always “Untitled.”

The man, in fact, populated those places. His footprints are everywhere, yet he is now remembered in the absence, in the emptiness. His was a difficult archaeological work: Kounellis reconstructed topographies of movement, interwove threads of stories and left everyone who had just passed by hanging in the intersection. Kounellis was the icon of the migrant explorer, the stranger who approaches others, asking for a meeting. The dislocation, the idea of hasty escape, the exile paginated and classified to sort out the emotional chaos.

Kounellis did not know how to respond to the direct question of why, at some specific moment, he decided to become an artist. “I do not remember if it was morning or afternoon, if the sun was going down when I got the lighting of an image, which became language,” he said. But he knew very well the reasons that had pushed him and other members of his generation to go “out of context.”

His sudden change of perspective had something to do with his fatal attraction for Italy, which had a long history. Since his paternal grandfather was American, he could have turned into a perfect New Yorker, but for Kounellis, after admiring the Titian and Caravaggio madonnas, so strongly carnal, expressing such a powerful chiaroscuro narrative, there could be no other place to emigrate. He was the heir of a history that put a new humanism at the core. “I belong to the world of the shadows,” he said, pointing out that shadow that did not hide linguistic ambiguities, but offered unending possibilities to weave a drama. Italy, therefore, could never become home to a Mondrian and his mystical and modern clarity.

For Kounellis, art history — and by extension that of humanism — followed logical pathways from Masaccio to arrive at the post-war years of the early 20th century and the avant-garde movements, to the far north, the German expressionists or the even more extreme Munch, a painter he loved. The detached artist who was working at the easel was gone. It was necessary to seek a dialogue, to become active in the theater of life, to get one’s hands dirty. Already, the horses exhibited at the Attico could be considered a sort of magical opening of that drama Kounellis refers to as total disruption of language, which no longer had a definite DNA after the war.

This is especially true nowadays, when existential precariousness is the only planetary certainty, “democratically” shared by all, in spite of ourselves.