Pioneer of Arte Povera, Jannis Kounellis died on 16 February 2017 in Rome, aged 80. He leaves behind a strong and radical oeuvre that still elicits passionate bidding from certain quarters.
Arriving in Rome at the age of twenty to study at the city’s Fine Arts Academy, the young Jannis KOUNELLIS was disappointed by the academic education he received and was swept up by a fascination for radical works by the likes of Alberto BURRI and Lucio FONTANA. In his early paintings, we can already see his desire to eschew ‘easy representation’. Up until 1963, he invented an alphabet of signs and covered his canvases with various symbols, numbers, arrows and black letters. Thereafter, he jumped out of the 2-dimensional frame and started using raw materials like wool, hair, coal, dried fruits, stones, pieces of wood, metal plates, hessian, etc. He created meaning using modest (poor) materials, seeking not to represent but to act via the historical symbolic, ideological and energetic power of the materials. Spotted by the art critic Germano Celant, he was one of 12 artists in the famous collective exhibition of 1967 – the founding exhibition of Arte Povera – along with Alighiero Boetti, Giovanni Anselmo, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Mario and Marisa Merz, Pino Pascali, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio. This exhibition signed the emergence of new artistic practices involving, according Celant, “availability and anti-iconography, the introduction of ‘un-composable’ elements and lost images from everyday life and nature. The material is twisted and turned as if by an earthquake and the barriers are destroyed”…
In fact, Kounellis was a veritable earthquake in his own right. His works were among the most radical of the Arte Povera movement, including his “live paintings” intended to be composed and recomposed “live”. Au revoir fixed shapes: in 1969, he designed an exhibition with twelve live horses in the gallery of the Attico in Rome. A moving horse painting presented in a commercial premises… playing with the idea of possession and ownership of art, undermining Pop art’s “art for the masses” ideology that was taking the Western world by storm. Three years later, another “live” painting involved a ballerina dancing to a violin played by a musician: the exhibition was called To invent on the spot (Da inventare sul posto). Kounellis saw himself more as a creator rather than as a producer of artworks… or as a producer of meaning rather than of objects. A dedicated communist, he worked throughout his life to maintain as much independence from art galleries as possible. According to his former assistant Bernhard Rüdiger “to produce his works – that were particularly expensive – he paid for everything himself”. He never wanted to sign a contract with a gallery, but nevertheless managed to get his work exhibited in all the important ones”.
So, despite his reservations about art consumerism, his works are presented by a number of major galleries, including Lelong, Almine Rech and Cheim Read and are regularly offered for sale at auctions. Among the 30-50 lots sold each year, 40 to 45% are priced below $5,000 including prints, drawings, paintings and even sculptures, as Kounellis created original-multiples in three dimensions. One of these is Fabbrica, a work with three rolled-up newspapers sticking up like torches from a bed of coal, and produced in an edition of 30. In November 2016 one of these fetched just under $5,300 at Blindarte in Naples. His larger sculptures elicit firmer bidding with around 30 having crossed the $100,000 threshold (in $), of which two were hammered way back in 1991. His 7-digit threshold is however relatively new: in February 2014 Christie’s generated a new record for the artist by selling a work made from wool and hessian, produced in 1968 (Untitled, a few months after the founding exhibition of Arte Povera) for $2 million. That record is still low when compared with those of the other great 20th century Italian artists: Lucio Fontana, $29.1 million and Alberto Burri, $13.15 million. Note that the three records – Kounellis, Fontana, Burri – have all been hammered in the last three years, reflecting a clear acceleration of the market for the 20th century Italian avant-garde.