Like many aspiring artists, a young Jannis Kounellis had to leave his native Greece to pursue his creative dreams.
It was the early 1950s, and it wasn't until Kounellis set foot on Italian soil that his career actually began.
"His dad said, 'You know, if you want to be an artist, move,'" said exhibition curator Vincenzo de Bellis, who left the Walker in August for a new position at Art Basel in Europe, but returned to mount this show. "The first Western country from Greece was Italy, because at that time Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were all part of the Eastern bloc."
Now, more than 50 years later, de Bellis and the Walker Art Center present "Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts." It is the artist's second-ever U.S. museum exhibition 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 utilizing simple materials like wool, wood, burlap sacks, metal bed frames, rocks, sulfur and other materials that weren't brand-new.
"Body art, earth art, all of these are practices that sort of ask the question: 'What can art be made from?'" said Jane Blocker, professor of contemporary art and theory at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "Arte povera is a similar set of questions, but is also something that is responding critically to what the Italians were seeing emerging from the U.S., and what they perceived to be America's focus on industrial materials."
Circular nature of time
The show covers six decades of work and is organized into six themes — language, journey, fragments, natural elements, musicality and reprise. Rather than thinking about the show chronologically, de Bellis considered ways that Kounellis cycled through and returned to these themes. All of the artworks are simply named "Untitled," and each work is associated with the exhibition it was shown in.
"The exhibitions were an excuse for making works," de Bellis said. "He couldn't care less about the title. Really, for him, giving 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 one letter of the word "Notte" ("Night"). In the second gallery, themed journey, a never-before-seen work, "Untitled," 1963, is a single canvas painted as an oversized letter to his father, who left his family behind in Greece to start a new life in New York.
"For many, many years he didn't go back to Greece," de Bellis said. "Then he started to go back. … It wasn't an easy thing. He had a house in the island of Hydra, and then slowly made peace with himself and the fact of having left the country and having this kind of trauma of the dad leaving. He was very close to his dad. He was closer to his mom, because that's also the Greek culture between son and mom — there's a very close connection, and that's true for many cultures — but his dad was very instrumental for him to become an artist. So he had this memory of this man."
"Untitled," 1977, is simply a column with a miniature model train and track wrapped around it, spinning round in circles, forever. In the fragments-themed gallery, "Untitled," 1982, is a doorway cut into a gallery wall that's filled with rocks and fragments of plaster cast Greek sculptures. It's a paradox — the passageway goes nowhere, leading the viewer to think about time's cyclical nature.
"Not only were [arte povera movement artists] thinking about what materials are used to comprise art, but materials that have something from the past," Blocker said.
"The language of the avant-garde is newness, and ironically that is also the language of capitalism," she explained.
"New products, new things, new and improved, and so the Italians are sort of looking at what they see as the American art domination of the art world in the '60s and '70s, and questioning it, thinking about ways to push against that."
The show itself seems to have gone through a time warp. De Bellis started planning it six years ago, intending to focus on Kounellis' live-action works — but Kounellis died six months after de Bellis began preparing the exhibit.
"For him making shows was obviously an excuse to make works, or the occasion to make work," de Bellis said. "How do you come up with a show for someone who has been so embedded into exhibition making? We decided to do something that he probably would not have done because he was very unpredictable."
Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
When: Ends Feb. 26, 2023.
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., Sat., Sun.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri.