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Jannis Kounellis was born in 1936 in Piraeus, Greece. In 1956, Kounellis moved to Rome and enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti. While still a student, he had his first solo show, titled L’alfabeto di Kounellis, at the Galleria la Tartaruga, Rome, in 1960. The artist exhibited black-and-white canvases that demonstrated little painterliness; on their surfaces, he stenciled letters and numbers.
Influenced by Alberto Burri as well as Lucio Fontana, whose work offered an alternative to the Expressionism of Art Informel, Kounellis was looking to push painting into new territory. He was inspired, too, by the work of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, and by the earlier abstractions of Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Kounellis’s painting would gradually become sculptural; by 1963, the artist was using found elements in his paintings. Kounellis began to use live animals in his art during the late 1960s; one of his best-known works included 11 horses installed in the gallery. Kounellis not only questioned the traditionally pristine, sterile environment of the gallery but also transformed art into a breathing entity. His diverse materials from the late 1960s onward included fire, earth, and gold, sometimes alluding to his interest in alchemy. Burlap sacks were introduced, in homage to Burri, though they were stripped of the painting frame and exhibited as objects in space. Additional materials have included bed frames, doorways, windows, and coat racks. People, too, began to enter his art, adding a performative dimension to his installations. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kounellis continued to build his vocabulary of materials, introducing smoke, shelving units, trolleys, blockaded openings, mounds of coffee grounds, and coal, as well as other indicators of commerce, transportation, and economics. These diverse fragments speak to general cultural history, while they simultaneously combine to form a rich and evocative history of meaning within Kounellis’s oeuvre.
In 1967, Kounellis was included in an important group exhibition entitled Arte povera e IM spazio at the Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa. Curator Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera to refer to the humble materials, sometimes described as detritus, which Kounellis and others were employing at the time to make their elemental, anti-elitist art. Kounellis had his first solo show in New York in 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery. During the 1970s and 1980s, his work was shown in many exhibitions; among these was a solo show that traveled in the early 1980s to several museums in Europe, including the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Obra Social, Caja de Pensiones, Madrid; the Whitechapel Gallery, London; and the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden. In 1985, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, mounted an important exhibition of the artist’s production. The following year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, staged a retrospective exhibition of Kounellis’s work; the show traveled to the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal. In 1989, the artist was given an exhibition at the Espai Pobenou in Barcelona. In 1994, Kounellis installed a selection of more than thirty years of his work in a boat called Ionion and docked this floating retrospective in his home port of Piraeus. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía held an exhibition of Kounellis’s work in Madrid in 1997.
In the twenty-first century, Kounellis developed an increasingly architectural vocabulary, creating labyrinthine environments that manipulate the exhibition space, the viewer’s experience, and the materials that have articulated the artist’s oeuvre for decades. Kounellis was honored with major exhibitions at Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome (2002), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina in Naples (2006), and Neue National Galerie in Berlin (2008), among others. The artist died in Rome on February 16, 2017.