Jannis Kounellis, leader of the “Poor Art” movement of the 60s, dies at 80

Jannis Kounellis, a Greek-born Italian artist who used humble materials like burlap sacks, wax, and charcoal in sculptural works and installations that offered a poetic counter-affirmation to the values ​​of high art and the business world, died on February 16 in Rome. He was 80 years old.

The cause was heart failure, family members said.

Mr. Kounellis emerged in the late 1960s as a leader of Arte Povera (“Poor Art”), a predominantly Italian movement which, responding to the political turbulence of the time, adopted an anti-capitalist and anti- hierarchy of artistic creation. The term alluded to Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of “poor theatre”, stripped of sets and props to encourage direct engagement.

Mr Kounellis had exhibited canvases with stencilled letters and numbers – works he called “phonetic poems” – but soon showed signs of artistic restlessness. He added a discarded road sign to one of his paintings, and during a performance in his studio he wore a canvas suit with letters and numbers that allowed him to blend in with the scene. artwork on the wall. By 1965 he had completely given up painting.

He took part in “The Space of Thoughts”, an exhibition organized in 1967 by Germano Celant at the La Bertesca gallery in Genoa, generally considered to be the birth of Arte Povera. A year later, he was seen with several of the same artists in “Arte Povera”, a show that Mr. Celant organized in Bologna.

In several untitled works reflecting his new approach, Mr. Kounellis placed burlap sacks on a wooden and steel cart and tied tufts of raw wool to wooden frames and poles.

“I changed when I realized there was a risk that my painting would just become a style,” he told the Apollo newspaper in 2016. “So I moved slowly towards the exit Obviously, someone who wrote hermetic poetry on a sheet hanging on the wall was going to become a member of Arte Povera.

Over the years he has proven to be one of the most unpredictable and inventive members of the movement, working with materials of all kinds and defying expectations with a myriad of ingenious strategies.

In 1969, he tethered a dozen horses to the Galleria L’Attico in Rome, an exhibition recreated in Manhattan in 2015 by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, his dealer. “I wasn’t trying to be sensational,” he told Art Pulse magazine in 2012. “I was just interested in mapping the space, creating an image that would represent change.”

In “Woman With Blanket and Flame” (1970), a naked woman wrapped in a blanket lay on the gallery floor with a hot oxyacetylene torch strapped to her foot. “It’s very strange,” wrote the critic John Russell in the New York Times in 1977, during the presentation of the work in Manhattan.

Living parrots and cockroaches appeared in his works, as did ground coffee, doors, meat, windows, stone-filled cupboards, and steel bed frames.

It became a fixture at major international art fairs, beginning with the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, West Germany in 1972. That year also had its first exhibition in New York, at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery.

A retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1986 cemented his reputation as the most enduring member of the Arte Povera movement, as did the exhibition of 33 of his works at Tate Modern in 2009 as part of his Artist Rooms series.

“Every time you see one of its grain sacks or dry stone walls, you are reminded of everything that came before: simple, universal, ancient yet unmistakably modern things,” wrote reviewer Laura Cumming in The Observer of London in 2010. She added: ‘It feels like a word association game played out in objects and pictures, or encrypted knowledge, waiting to be revealed if one hadn’t that key. The experience is powerfully touching and theatrical.

Jannis Kounellis was born on March 23, 1936 in Piraeus, Greece to Gregory and Evangelia Kounellis. His father was a naval engineer, but World War II and the ensuing civil war in Greece disrupted his career and he went to work in Japan and the United States.

Mr Kounellis, who was not exposed to modern art in Greece, started painting at 13 but failed the exams to enter the Athens fine arts academy.

At 17, he married his high school girlfriend, Efthimia Sardi, known as Efi, and the couple enrolled at the Institute of Fine Arts in Rome in 1956. They later separated. He is survived by their son, Damiano; his partner, Michelle Coudray; a half-sister, Angela Kounellis; and two grandsons.

While still a student, Mr. Kounellis had his first solo exhibition at La Tartaruga, Rome’s premier contemporary art gallery. He soon began painting on newspapers and incorporating found objects into his paintings. In a long series, he painted stripes whose color was dictated by the day of the week.

Then he struck for freedom. “I came out of the canvas to have an open dialectical space,” he confided to Flash Art in 2007. “For me, that meant going to thousands of discoveries. In terms of freedom, this gesture opened up a world to me.

Mr. Kounellis has recently experienced a resurgence of interest in his work, reflected in major exhibitions over the past year at La Monnaie in Paris, Galería Hilario Galguera in Mexico City and the White Cube in London.

Christopher S. Washington