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Jannis Kounellis

Interview by
Germano Celant
From Issue 34 – SS 19

Mindful of Caravaggio’s realism while also embracing Pollock’s gesture and openness, Jannis Kounellis always considered himself a painter. In a revelatory conversation with curator Germano Celant–recorded in 2006 and published here for the first time on the occasion of the artist’s upcoming posthumous retrospective–he talks about uniqueness, ideology, and transforming the gallery into a theater.

GERMANO CELANT  It’s been fifty years since 1956, the year you moved to Rome. You and I share memories, encounters and conversations, and we could easily spend all night talking. However, my role here is to facilitate a discourse on the formal aspects of your practice. In order to do so, we will have to begin from the historical context of the late ‘50s. Back then, the art world was a very self-contained universe, at least from my perspective as a student and emerging collaborator of galleries and magazines. There was a closed-minded, static vision of the artist and the dynamics of the art world. Slowly, with the passing of time, this static condition was forced to drift along. Our generation was the one to build a bridge to a more nomadic approach, though I am not sure if it was by choice, or because we felt forced to become wanderers—wandering monks, theorists or artists—in order to survive. I believe we should start by talking about this condition of freedom, which is taken for granted by today’s generation, but which you helped to enable—one which allows movement, circulation and exchange. Can you compare the initially, let’s say, claustrophobic situation you experienced in Italy or Greece,with today’s dynamic universe?

JANNIS KOUNELLIS  The problem is, we belong to a late post-war era in which a provincial middle class was really behind Morandi’s hypothesis of poetry. Not that he wasn’t good, because he was good, and smart too. But for me, his easel painting, the crepuscular idea of tonality, was always extremely distant. Painting was never about the will to paint this or that shape, it was about a certain rhythm and how it affected the space. Since I was a student in the late ‘50s, this is how I differed from the context. My position became more and more that of an outsider, and I started to write about it—about the freedom to decline a return to painting, and rather pursue a vaster dialectic.
The post-war-era crisis of national borders allowed us to go towards Germany, France. We walked in the footsteps of Boccioni. I felt very close to the path he had indicated, though not because he is a Futurist—which he is, though only partly. He dances in Futurism. But his formal experience revolved entirely around the figure of the mother. I often asked myself why, and I believe that it must of course be symbolic. He wanted to say something else about his country, birth, resurgence, the interventionist movement.
Anyway, we were born in this reality, with these narrow perspectives, with these obstacles that created rather significant limitations—the lack of structure, of a convincing middle class capable of supporting a cultural discourse, of the artists’ will to be protagonists in the Italian territory. And yet, even if there wasn’t a clear definition of national identity behind this broad formal discourse that we initiated, the reason we emerged was because of the friends that came before us—not only same-generation peers, but also people like Fontana, Burri, and even Sironi. Sironi’s Periferie (“Urban Landscapes,” 1920-onwards) were an extremely important indication. Without them, you can’t have Pasolini’s suburbs. For good or worse, national identity can come down to just that: the frustration that the country brings, the limits imposed by the obligations of tradition. We are modern artists, but I shall not forget Caravaggio’s indication just because I am a modern artist.

GC  Just as Boccioni put his mother front and center, your work used the doors of a house or the frame of a bed to speak to a very human dimension: the relationship with one’s culture, the country, the matrix of life. At the core is the concept of place as narrative. Caravaggio’s realist dimension enabled you to think that yours is not a static painting anymore, but instead a music sheet, something to sing to, to dance to. This is fundamentally embedded in European culture.
And it’s clear that the European culture that we re-appropriated, or let’s say the strategies that we re-appropriated, had to cut through a certain Impressionism that was only speculating on the eye, as much as Cubism. Thus we moved away from the influence of Paris. We went north, following the Germany-Belgium-Holland axe (including London, which allowed us the dialogue with Anglo-Saxon culture), and from this we were able to expand onto a whole new chapter.
The leap that you and your peers took wasn’t merely to look at Caravaggio, but also at Pollock. Pollock’s large scale allowed you to create a bridge to something else, something different from the act of looking backward to art history: the dimension of the gesture in the painting. The famous photo of Pollock walking on one of his paintings, for example, was a shock to many of our generation, because until then no one thought you could go inside the canvas.
I’d like you to talk about this openness that I am aware is present in your practice, what Pollock represented to you with his scale and openness. It’s not about American culture, but rather about the culture of openness in space, because essentially your Pappagallo (“Parrot,” 1967) is Pollock’s result, in the sense that he opens up a new freedom. If the dripping means throwing pigment on the floor, freeing it, you also free the cactus (Untitled, 1967).

JK  What Pollock teaches is the intuition to place the canvas underneath—even referring, perhaps, to the Indian culture of painting on the floor, and live embedded into it. Pollock’s epic nature is concerned with identity, and today we put Caravaggio on the same level. I stand for painters who embrace uniqueness. Caravaggio cares for uniqueness as much as Pollock, or Franz Kline. Then Pop Art comes, which deals with multiplicity, so I love it less. This idea of preserving the vision of uniqueness creates a substantial disagreement on the subject of singularity—a contrast majorly enacted by Pop Art, but not by Pollock at all. This quest for uniqueness has the same evaluation method as Pop Art, the same research on pathos, but there’s no coldness, no cynicism—so much so that Pollock pays for his vision with his own life, and I couldn’t love him more for that. This is our condition: the idea of being internationalist, while preserving the basic reasons that enabled us to become artists.

GC  You are always trying to keep, and not to break anything; but also you try to remember the dialectic between the natural and animal universe and a more structured society where, although the parrot is forced to go back to its nest to eat, it is not controllable after all. It is indeed placed under a given set of conditions of existence, just as much as the free man. So to me, the work that you’ve been doing lies within the elimination of the myth of the fully free, rational, mythical artist, and allows him into a condition that is consciously political—where politics stand for polis, the system one inhabits. To me, this puzzling identity of yours is essential, both because it’s deeply rooted in yourself and because it’s somehow European, at least compared to Pop’s austerity. After all, Pop Art is pure consumerism, but it’s also minimalism, meaning it carries an excessive belief in corporate mysticism.

JK  In 1958, I made this painting with the inscription “tabacchi” (tobacco shop). What does that  sign written in black on wood stand for? Jumping from there to the parrot is easy. This is the point: the parrot isn’t there for how colored it may be, but for how much it speaks.

GC  And it bites, too.

JK  And it bites too, naturally. For how much it speaks, it’s always a shock seeing it speak. Until my exhibitions at L’Attico, Fabio Sargentini’s gallery in Rome, his father had been showing the Surrealists. I clearly remember the little red dot stickers placed next to the paintings that were sold. The parrot subverts that situation, and the gallery isn’t a marketplace, a luxury shop, anymore; it changes function, becomes a theatre, and the artist builds a single-act dramaturgy. In that space, the power of this artist grows enormously because he gives his critical vision of history. He begins to acquire the language, the level, and the weight of a literate of the 1800s.
The show with the horses (“12 Live Horses,” L’Attico, Rome, 1969) gets further codified, and there’s absolutely nothing to sell. The intention was not to criticize the art market, because I like money; the problem is diversity, the morality that you put at stake, versus the lack thereof presented by others. It’s obvious even when we’re talking about Art Informel, someone like Fautrier, that centralization was the main concern all along, while Pollock frees the surface from this ghost.
Speaking of the ghost of Fautrier, I should add we are born from this as well. We exist because we were able to see Fautrier’s grandiose centralization within the painting. For this, one might use Fragonard’s colors and all these things in order to create a recipe that works—but even when the product itself works, it becomes obsessive. Pollock’s condition, instead, is liberating. It creates an identity, it takes everything: from Picasso, all the way back to the Indians, the Aztecs, everything. From that chaos, a new order and a greater idea of freedom are created. Therefore, Pollock is an indication of a new American space, because the one before was one of colonialism, modeled after Europe. Pollock had the necessary strength and love to create an autonomous condition within the American culture. In turn, we’ve tried to do the same thing, but here in Italy, it’s not possible. We say, or at least politicians say, we have the greatest artistic heritage in the world, but it’s unbelievable how this heritage does not have any influence. It doesn’t even influence Italian painters. How is that possible?
I am not saying we should go back to an archaic, traditional vision of artistic phenomena, but we can’t abandon the dramatic possibilities that our tradition offers. Rediscovering the drama is what I believe to be the solution for a vital future of art. Opening up, without forgetting those grand possibilities.

GC  I believe that the generation from the ‘50s is still enduring the schizophrenia caused by the detachment from the object. The object, the artifact, is abandoned, and no one takes responsibility for it. Your generation, in my opinion, takes that responsibility by putting the artist’s body within the artwork. Think about the famous photograph from 1963 of you taking the white hood and singing. It’s just like Pollock, to say: “I am in the artwork itself.” The responsibility comes not only from the artist being within the painting, but from the viewer’s automatic feeling of needing to step inside the painting as well. You leave the door to the work open—let’s call it painting, since you still consider yourself a painter.

JK  I am a painter indeed.

GC  (laughing) I know. So the painting is an open vehicle. It’s not a closed window, it’s a physical, sonic arm. Consider “12 Horses.” There’s a certain degree of tension if one visits the exhibition correctly—the smell, for one, and the sensation of walking between two rows of lined-up horses. The fact that the “painting” needs to be fed with actual food suggests that the artwork needs to be nurtured. It’s made for life, but it’s also nurtured from those who approach it. Then there is a dimension where the gap is truly dramatic. There’s the tragedy, the participation in the tragedy of the fundamental artistic event, that naturally comes from a historic and inevitable memory, the memory of the Greek, Italian or European culture that you carry with you. So there is the recurring theme of memory, yet re-elaborated: meant not as a citation, but rather as an intention.

JK  The modesty of Caravaggio’s mise-en-scène, or of Masaccio’s perspective, aren’t merely a visual matter or a citation—they’re an ideological matter. Speaking about Italy, you can’t avoid being placed in the condition of the Italian artist. If two protagonists as important as Masaccio and Caravaggio are so ideological, one cannot disregard this indication. Like Boccioni, who takes his mother into account, Italian artists must also acknowledge this condition: that the reality surrounding the artist is a formal protagonist. Caravaggio’s message is one of cultural, political counter-reform—meaning the artist doesn’t necessarily have to follow the trending idea, but can be against it, rediscovering the drama and the past. In this sense, the past becomes more than a shelter; it becomes a condition itself. That’s why I am doubtful about forced cosmopolitanism: it should be a dialectic where I’m able to assess my own condition. Otherwise I won’t be able to see the reality and find what I’m looking for.

Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017) was a Greek-Italian artist and key figure of the Arte Povera movement, A major retrospective of his work opens on 8 May 2019 at the Fondazione Prada, Venice.
Germano Celant (Italian, B. 1940) is an Italian art historian and curator. He is the director of the Fondazione Prada, Milan.

Images in order of appearance: Jannis Kounellis, 1972, photo credit: Claudio Abate; Untitled, 1969; solo show at Galleria L’Attico, Rome, 1969 (invitation); Omaggio A Morris Louis, 1971, photo credit: Claudio Abate; Untitled, 1967; Pappagallo, 1967; Untitled, 1958; Jannis Kounellis’s studio, 1968, photo credit: Claudio Abate; Untitled (Sails), installation view at La Biennale Di Venezia, 1993; Portrait at L’Attico, 1972, photo credit: Claudio Abate.

All images © The Estate of Jannis Kounellis. Courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York/Rome.

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