“I consider myself a silent poet, a blind painter, and a deaf musician,” Jannis Kounellis once said. Such knotty contradictions were a through-line in the Arte Povera pioneer’s work, as a recent show of 20 sculptural assemblages, dating from 1969 through 2016, recently made clear.
The first solo presentation of the radical Greek-born, Italian artist’s work since he died in 2017, at the age of 80, this show felt like an uncannily appropriate coda, not least because of its setting. (The artist’s son, Damiano, and longtime partner, Michelle Coudray, consulted on the installation.) The works were interspersed through all three floors of Brown’s gallery, which occupies a former brewery in Harlem, with many vestiges of its industrial past left intact. Kounellis’s materials—hunks of coal, iron panels, stones, lead, ragged textiles, and ash—looked so at home in the space that the uninitiated might have wondered if the sculptures were made from items left behind by the brewers. One of several site-specific works restaged for the show, Untitled (La Ciminiera) (1976) consists of a hearth and chimney standing alone in a vast, dark room like an industrial ruin. At once a sculpture, performance, and a drawing of sorts, the chimney was ignited to leave an inky swath of soot on the ceiling, its form left to the whim of air currents. (Fire and smoke were among Kounellis’s preferred media.)
Such was the nature of Arte Povera, whose materials were not “poor” or “impoverished” as the direct translation has it (Kounellis thought the term was a misnomer), but stripped of associations with the art establishment and culture-making machine. In Kounellis’s case, the aesthetics and economies of the seafaring industry colored his world view—he was raised in the shipping town of Pireaus—as did the Greek Civil War (an early Cold War campaign between Communist factions and Western democratic interests). The earliest piece in the show, from 1969, takes the form of a metal bedframe leaning against a wall, strung with six burlap sacks arranged in a grid. The dingy, empty sacks, used for transporting such things as coffee or grain, hang like the ghostly byproducts of international commerce, used and then ultimately discarded. But they also suggested six hammocks hanging in the hull of a ship, or cots, or, by association, bodies.
Kounellis once stated that, to him, “weight” was “almost more important than material”—a claim borne out everywhere here. In a series of five works from 2009, he sandwiched three overcoats in a row between iron panels so that only their edges peek out—a visceral and quietly violent display, with the panels hiding the coats while also drawing attention to the absent physicality of the missing bodies. (And it’s not a bad jab at Minimalism, which the Arte Povera artists had no use for.)
Concealment is a classic Kounellis theme, and it took many forms here. In an untitled, site-specific work from 1984, a window is partially blocked by a bin of charcoal, and in another, pierced lead sheaths cover windows, allowing only light to pass. In a series from 1991, rocks line up neatly on iron panels to resemble text, which we, of course, cannot read. And in a 2016 work, a wardrobe is turned on its side, suspended, and partially hidden behind an iron sheath. The takeaway: even as we’re looking, we are unable to see.