Jannis Kounellis b. 1936. Piraeus, Greece
Lead, wax, and steel
79 x 71 1/8 x 7 1/2 inches (200.7 x 180.5 x 19 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, Annika Barbarigos, 1987
Though born and raised in Greece, Jannis Kounellis reached artistic maturity in Italy. He immersed himself in his adopted homeland’s rich aesthetic history, and came to trust that art’s importance lies in its reflection of the complex web of beliefs and values at the heart of cultural development. Throughout history, Kounellis concluded, art evolved in response to and in expression of fundamental theological, intellectual, and political thought patterns. But he determined that postwar European society lacked appropriate aesthetic forms through which to reflect the fragmentary nature of contemporary civilization. Conventional painting and sculpture, as products of cultural unity, were no longer germane to the erratic situation he perceived. In 1967 he began producing sculptures, installations, and theatrical performances that intentionally embraced the fragmentary and the ephemeral. At that time, he was associated with a number of Italian artists who, for similar political and aesthetic reasons, were pursuing an analogous goal. Grouped together under the name Arte Povera, their work incorporated organic and industrial materials resulting in poetic confrontations between nature, culture, and the fabricated environment. To this end, Kounellis has blocked doorways and windows with accumulations of stones or wood fragments. He even went as far as to include live animals in his work in the attempt to formulate an entirely new paradigm through which to experience art. He also utilized fire in the form of butane torches and smoke residue to evoke the alchemical, transformative potential of the flame, while simultaneously referring to its destructive force.
By the end of the 1960s Kounellis’s repertoire of materials included rock, wood, burlap, wool, steel, lead, gold, fire, and fragments of classical sculpture, which he has since employed in numerous combinations to formulate a body of work that is iconographically consistent yet stylistically variable. The metal wall reliefs, such as this work, are morphologically reminiscent of painting but conceptually distant. The fusion of organic and inorganic substances—here, a circle of golden wax embedded into a sheet of lead—symbolizes the shifting and unpredictable nature of meaning in art. Such a juxtaposition of contradictory materials serves perhaps as an allegory for human fragility and the inevitability of historical imperatives.