Jannis Kounellis - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, October 2, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Jannis Kounellis, ‘Untitled’, Lot 36

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 2 October 2019

  • Provenance

    Donald Young Gallery, Chicago
    Private Collection, New York
    Private Collection, Milan
    Private Collection, London

  • Exhibited

    Chicago, Donald Young Gallery, New Work. Kounellis, March 1989

  • Literature

    Alan G. Artner, 'Elusive genius', Chicago Tribune, 16 March 1989, p. 9 (illustrated)
    Mary Sherman, 'Greek artist Kounellis crafts baroque set of environments', Chicago Sun-Times, 24 March 1989, p. 19 (illustrated)
    Germano Celant, ed., Jannis Kounellis, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada Venezia, Venice, 2019, p. 124

  • Catalogue Essay

    One of the foremost innovators of his time, Jannis Kounellis bent the conventions of traditional media through an ingenious use of impoverished, raw materials. Comprising two sheets of iron and three lead protrusions folded inwards, with handfuls of coal placed within them, Untitled, 1989, is archetypal of the artist’s later oeuvre, which built on the body of works he had developed throughout the 1960s and constituted the basis of his radical gesture. Coinciding with his growing critical and institutional acclaim in the 1980s, partly defined by his first ever retrospective which took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1986, Untitled was created the same year as the artist’s inclusion in the 43rd Venice Biennale – the seventh out of nine contributions throughout his career – and was exhibited at his important solo show at the Donald Young Gallery in Chicago that same year. Currently the subject of a seminal retrospective at the Fondazione Prada, Venice, bringing together more than 60 works executed between 1959 and 2015, Kounellis has once again been placed at the forefront of the art world’s collective consciousness, his visionary approach being celebrated as an inspiration and springboard for a number of contemporaneous artistic and conceptual manifestations.

    With a practice spanning over sixty years, Kounellis is often referred to as one of the forefathers and cornerstone figures of Arte Povera. The artistic movement, emphasising everyday, ‘poor’ materials, and boasting ‘the sanctity of everyday objects’, counted a number of Italian artists whose practice similarly explored the limits of traditional media, and summoned aesthetics of waste through the use of decaying or time-sensitive materials (Jannis Kounellis, quoted in Andrew Russeth, ‘Jannis Kounellis Dies at 80’, ARTnews, 17 February 2017, online). Layered in textural, compositional and thematic complexity, Arte Povera productions reflected not just a radical development from traditional painterly craft, but also the reflection of a bruised world whose most essential social parameters transformed following the war. War had left a fundamental, and dual, imprint on Kounellis from a young age as, for the first twenty years of his life, he grew up in Piraeus, a primal port town near Athens which endured the Second World War only to observe the developments of its own Civil War immediately after.

    In 1956, Kounellis left his homeland to settle in Rome, and would not return to Greece, or indeed speak his mother tongue, for over two decades. On a par with other Arte Povera protagonists, he would use raw, industrial, or organic materials to render his cross-genre structures; as a result, the uncannily raw dimensions of his work bring to mind those employed by artists such as Alberto Burri or Salvatore Scarpitta, whose perceptions of war also deeply influenced their practice. Having had his first solo show in 1960 at Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome, Kounellis’ inventive creations became increasingly radical in 1967, when he began embracing concrete elements such as soil, wool, coal, cotton and fire, as well as motifs of gravity and equilibrium. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, however, that he developed a deeper dialogue with architectural and urban spaces, and created wall-based sculptures that comprised his signature combination of industrial materials and specific measurements. ‘I do use metal sheets but I adapt them to a particular format – 2 x 1,80 meters – which more or less corresponds to the surface area of a double bed’, the artist declared. ‘That is a universal dimension, like the height of a table, the width of the door […] and the bed, the door, the table are disciplined by human need. I am interested in working with such measurements’ (Jannis Kounellis, quoted in Jannis Kounellis, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada Venezia, Milan, 2019, n.p.). The present work, standing halfway between a painting and a sculpture, aptly exemplifies this approach: with its three lead and coal excrescences protruding from a split iron surface, the layered composition becomes enigmatically alluring, projected into a tangible realm that shifts the spectator’s phenomenological perspective.

    Kounellis’ break with the planearity of the picture plane and engagement with reality did not just happen on a visual level; it furthermore materialised in the artist’s engagement with other senses. The use of coal in Untitled, sneaked into the folded lead, underlines Kounellis’ synaesthetic approach. Instead of using a traditional black pigment to intensify the metal's presence, the artist employs an organic and haptic residue that posits as the darkest of hues, commanding a desire to touch and smell. ‘His paintings... show several strategies for breaking out a hermetic chamber of pure form and establishing contact with the real world roundabout’, wrote Thomas McEvilley (Thomas McEvilley, ‘Mute Prophecies: The Art of Jannis Kounellis’ in Mary Jane Jacobs, Kounellis, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1987, p. 25). Through eluding traditional tenets of representation, Kounellis upturns the viewer’s classic cognitive instincts, celebrating the materiality of metal and coal.

Property of an Important Italian Collector



coal and lead on iron
201.4 x 181.2 x 14 cm (79 1/4 x 71 3/8 x 5 1/2 in.)
Executed in 1989.

£150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for £275,000

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Senior Director
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


Rosanna Widén
Director, Senior Specialist
+44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 October 2019