Humanistic Relics: the vision of Jannis Kounellis

During my residency at the Morgan as a postdoctoral fellow at the Drawing Institute, I was particularly struck by a drawing in the collection. Made by the Greek-born Italian artist Jannis Kounellis (1936–2017), it was acquired in 2016 thanks to the generosity of the Morgan’s Modern & Contemporary Collectors Committee. The drawing related directly to my research, which focused on Italian drawing in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jannis Kounellis (1936–2017), Untitled, 1979. Crushed charcoal on paper with scratching, 27 9/16 x 39 3/8 inches (70 x 100 cm). Gift of the Modern and Contemporary Collectors Committee; 2016.11. ©Jannis Kounellis / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Kounellis’s practice covers a broad spectrum and offers many contrasting aspects. It includes sculpture, painting, drawing, and performance. His subjects range from the most abstract conglomerates of marks to the most utterly expressive figuration. And his references reveal a commitment to pressing contemporary issues while at the same time reviving the memory of ancient cultures. Such a multifaceted practice makes him one of the most significant representatives of the Arte Povera movement, which defined the artistic avant-garde in Italy in the late 1960s.

Kounellis moved from Athens to Rome in 1956. He studied painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti and remained in Rome until his death. His art was deeply affected by his cultural heritage, which he integrated through a wide range of literary and artistic references. In his work, Greek and Roman classical art and philosophy coexist with late nineteenth and early twentieth-century German and Central European culture. Traditional art history also provided many sources of inspiration, from Byzantine icons to Francisco Goya’s pinturas negras and the work of modern masters such as Van Gogh, Picasso, and Pollock.
The untitled drawing by Kounellis in the Morgan collection is representative of his approach. It was made in 1979, during the so-called “Years of Lead,” a time of intense political and social turmoil in Italy. The upsurge of violence and terrorism that characterized this period was engendered by the transformation of the 1960s ideals of social revolution into ideological positions of urban guerrilla. Such a crisis of the ideas of cultural regeneration and social revolution, in which his generation believed, profoundly resonated with Kounellis and imbued his work with a pervading sense of disillusion and tragedy. The second half of the 1970s marked one of the most intensely creative moments in his career, resulting in a group of works in which he expressed his consciousness of the contemporary crisis through a powerful imagery of human tragedy.

Drawing and performance had always echoed each other since the beginning of the artist’s career, as if they represented the two sides through which Kounellis articulated his identity: his public persona as an artist on the one hand and his intimate, private universe on the other. He often conceived the execution of his famous Alphabets in the first half of the 1960s as a performing act reminiscent of Dada and the avant-garde attitude. In the 1970s, Kounellis often staged his works, conceiving of galleries and exhibition venues as theatrical sets incorporating different media and materials. Sometimes, works on paper were included too.  

The drawing in the Morgan collection belongs to a series of approximately twenty works called Black Masks, made in 1979. The artist created many of them at the Christian Stein Gallery in Turin, on the occasion of a solo show opening on October 30, 1979. The exhibition was installed over three rooms. The first one was empty. In the second one, thirteen works on paper were placed around the room at the height of the cornice, their position evoking the metopes in a Doric frieze. The third room featured, on two adjacent walls, an industrial landscape with a smoking factory chimney, drawn in charcoal, over which two stuffed birds were impaled on arrows, which pinned them to the wall. At a right angle to the townscape, five works on paper were displayed in a vertical column. The thirteen drawings composing the frieze in the second room and the five in the third room carried images of human faces drawn by incising lines with a sharp instrument into thick layers of charcoal. The five drawings that were in the third room are still today part of the same installation, which is now in the Tate Modern collection. The Morgan drawing may have been one of the thirteen drawings displayed in the second room, although it is not possible to know this for certain.  

Such a complex installation encapsulated the fundamental aspects of Kounellis’s effort to reexamine the myths and utopias of modernity through the legacy of classical antiquity. The juxtaposition of the room recreating a classical temple with the room in which a typical nineteenth-century industrial landscape was depicted symbolized the artist’s vision of Western progress as an irreversible crisis.

The Black Masks embody the same duality of modernity and antiquity. The mask-like faces look like relics of a primitive civilization. Displayed as the elements of a frieze at the Stein gallery, they resemble the face-shaped akroteria or the imposing hermae, which served as decoration as much as powerful symbols of the deity’s presence in Greek and Roman buildings. While the face in the Morgan drawing is archetypal, others  retain details, such as hairstyle, that recall Henri Matisse’s works, like the frowning figures of his black-ground linocuts. In contrast with Matisse’s fluid lines, however, Kounellis’s marks are the result of the labor of scratching the layer of crushed charcoal. The process emphasizes the weight of the past on the human condition as in fragments excavated through layers of earth or ghostly presences appearing through layers of time. The grainy texture of the black background is relevant in this respect. The story has often been told that the artist applied actual coal dust and soot to the paper. The artist’s wife, Michelle Coudray, recalls that she helped him grind the coal with a coffee grinder at Christian Stein’s. However, the analysis by Lindsey Tyne, a conservator at the Morgan, revealed that there is no trace of soot or coal dust on the sheet. Coudray’s story may still be reliable with regard to the process and could explain the particularly rough, grainy, and unstable texture of the crushed charcoal.

Soot was a logical material for Kounellis, especially in the installation at Christian Stein Gallery, where a smoking chimney dominated the industrial cityscape. As the residue of a burnt substance, soot evokes absence and symbolizes memory and nostalgia, reflecting Kounellis’s vision of Western culture at that time. The artist had previously added layers of black pigments to sculptures and objects to imitate the effect of layers of ashes over fragments. Furthermore, the darkness of ashes alludes to the of Goya’s works, which for Kounellis represented  the essence of shadow and expressed a harsh and dramatic vision of the world.

The Morgan drawing therefore embodies Kounellis’s conception of art as a representation of the human condition. It also shows how this artist, who would be associated with the non-figurative tendencies of the avant-garde in the late 1960s, was able to revive realistic and expressive representation in the 1970s—preceding the generation of figurative artists that emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s both in Europe and the United States.

Kounellis’s drawing practice points to the specificity of Italian art vis-à-vis the international movements of the time. Moving seamlessly between past and present, artists like Kounellis were able to combine literary and artistic sources with a reflection on contemporary issues. As the sheet in the Morgan collection demonstrates, drawing was for Kounellis the best field in which, as he said, “to attain a complete image of our culture again.”

Francesco Guzzetti, PhD, holds a doctoral degree from the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. His field of expertise is postwar and contemporary Italian art. Francesco was the 2019–2020 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Drawing Institute at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. His research before the Morgan was supported by various fellowships and grants from institutions such as CUNY Graduate Center, the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Harvard University, and Magazzino Italian Art Foundation in Cold Spring, New York. He is currently teaching the graduate course in modern and contemporary art for the department of art history at University of Florence. Among his more recent exhibitions and publications is the exhibition Facing America: Mario Schifano 1960–1965, which he curated and which is currently on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York (January 26–June 5, 2021).

Blog category: