Like many budding artists, a young Jannis Kounellis had to leave his native Greece to pursue his creative dreams.
It was in the early 1950s, and it wasn’t until Kounellis set foot on Italian soil that his career really took off.
“His father said, ‘You know, if you want to be an artist, get moving,'” said curator Vincenzo de Bellis, who left the Walker in August for a new position at Art Basel in Europe, but came back to mount this exhibition. . “The first Western country from Greece was Italy, because at that time Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were all part of the Eastern bloc.”
Now, over 50 years later, de Bellis and the Walker Art Center present “Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts.” This is the artist’s second exhibition in an American museum and the first since his death in 2017.
Kounellis is best known as one of the major figures of the arte povera (“poor art”) movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Italy, when artists began to use simple materials such as wool, wood, burlap sacks, metal bed frames, stones, sulfur and other materials that were not new.
“Body art, earth art, all of these practices kind of ask the question, ‘What can you make art out of? “, said Jane Blocker, professor of contemporary art and theory at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “Arte povera is a set of similar questions, but it is also something that responds critically to what the Italians saw emerging from the United States and what they perceived as the American emphasis on industrial materials.”
The circular nature of time
The show spans six decades of work and is organized into six themes – language, travel, fragments, natural elements, musicality and revival. Rather than thinking of the show chronologically, de Bellis looked at the ways in which Kounellis traveled and returned to these themes. All works are simply named “Untitled” and each work is associated with the exhibition in which it was presented.
“The exhibitions were an excuse to make works,” said de Bellis. “He didn’t care about the title. Really, for him to give the title would have been to give a narrative to the work, and he wanted to leave the narrative completely open.”
The first gallery is dedicated to the theme of language and filled with textual works such as ‘Untitled’, 1996 – five hanging canvases each with a letter from the word ‘Notte’ (‘Night’). In the second gallery, themed journey, an unpublished work, “Untitled”, 1963, is a single canvas painted like an oversized letter to his father, who left his family in Greece to start a new life in New York.
“For many, many years he did not return to Greece,” de Bellis said. “Then he started moving back. … It wasn’t an easy thing. He had a home on the island of Hydra, and then he slowly came to terms with himself and having left the country. and having this kind of trauma of the dad leaving. He was very close to his father. He was closer to his mother, because that’s also the Greek culture between son and mother – there’s a very narrow, and that’s true for many cultures – but his father was very important to him becoming an artist, so he had this memory of that man.
“Untitled”, 1977, is simply a column with a miniature model train and a track wrapped around it, spinning in circles, forever. In the fragment-themed gallery, ‘Untitled’, 1982, is a doorway cut into a gallery wall filled with rocks and fragments of Greek sculpture cast in plaster. It’s a paradox — the passage leads nowhere, leading the viewer to reflect on the cyclical nature of time.
“Not only were [arte povera movement artists] thinking about the materials used to compose the art, but materials that have something of the past,” Blocker said.
“The language of the avant-garde is novelty, and ironically it is also the language of capitalism,” she explained.
“New products, new things, new and improved, and so the Italians kind of look at what they see as the dominance of American art over the art world in the 60s and 70s, and the question, think about ways to fight against this.”
The show itself seems to have gone through a time warp. De Bellis began planning it six years ago, intending to focus on Kounellis’ live works – but Kounellis died six months after de Bellis began planning the exhibition.
“For him, doing shows was obviously an excuse to do works, or an opportunity to do works,” de Bellis said. “How do you come up with a show for someone who’s been so involved in making exhibits? We decided to do something he probably wouldn’t have done because he was so unpredictable.”
Jannis Kounellis in six acts
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
When: Ends February 26, 2023.
Information: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.
Cost: $2 to $15.
Hours: 11am-5pm Wed, Sat, Sun; 11am-9pm Thu, 11am-7pm Fri