Jannis Kounellis, a giant of the postwar European art scene, will be the subject of a major survey in 2022, marking the first time the artist has been given such a large showcase in the United States in 35 years. The exhibition is set to open at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in October of that year, and it will mark the biggest exhibition in North America devoted to Kounellis since his death in 2017.
Kounellis is considered one of the core artists associated with Arte Povera, an Italian art movement of the 1960s whose purveyors also included Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz, and Giuseppe Penone. Their “poor art,” as the movement’s name translates in English, often combined organic objects and everyday, mass-produced materials to comment on the shifting relationship between people and the natural environment in the postwar era.
Roughly five years in the making, the Kounellis survey will include somewhere between 60 and 70 works, its curator, Vincenzo de Bellis, said in an interview. (That makes the Walker show around the same size of the last Kounellis retrospective, held in 2019 at the Fondazione Prada in Venice.) In tribute to the unusual quality of Kounellis’s output, the Walker survey will be organized thematically. “It won’t be a traditionally chronological retrospective,” de Bellis said.
Having begun his career as a painter, Kounellis took his work in new and bizarre directions during the mid-’60s. Fire, live animals, metals, burlap sacks, and more became recurring elements in his sculptural works, which he believed were imbued with narratives. Because they contained stories, he often claimed, they were like paintings, still.
Today, Kounellis’s performative pieces rank among his most celebrated works, with Untitled (12 Horses), a 1969 piece involving a dozen live horses arranged in a gallery space and exhibited as an art object, regarded by some as a masterpiece. De Bellis said that that the Walker’s survey will place an emphasis on such works, creating a “show within a show.” But the works may be altered, slightly, to befit a contemporary institution. “2022 is not 1969,” he said. “There are different rules in public spaces [now], and we have to be aware of those in museums.”
The show has the potential to be eye-opening for Kounellis fans and new initiates alike, given that it will include early works on paper that have never been shown stateside, as well as some of the artist’s final works, which will make their debut in the show. It will also be the rare Kounellis show held in the U.S.; the last survey of its kind was staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1986. (Kounellis’s work is well-known in Italy, by contrast. He figured in eight Venice Biennale main exhibitions and represented Italy at the art festival in 2015.)
De Bellis said that Kounellis’s oeuvre remains resonant for contemporary audiences. “Jannis is an artist that moved all his life from one country to another to fulfill his dream of being an artist,” he said. “His works speak to memory, history, and migration—things which are very important today.”