Iron structures, burlap sacks, iron beams and oil lamp
22.04.06 | 04.11.06
The work consists of six double sheets, 200x180 cm (c. 79x71”) each, superimposed in two horizontal rows to form a sturdy, continuous architectural partition or an impenetrable wall. Placed on this wall, which is not perfectly rectilinear, are eight girders that support an equal number of metal sheets the size of sheets of drawing paper. Each metal sheet, in turn, is covered by a burlap sack. Despite the weight and solid consistency of the materials, the free spatial dislocation of these structures makes them seem to float on the surface of the support, similar to the black letters on a white ground in the paintings from 1959-62. Their physiognomy, however, undeniably refers to the image of the cross. A pivotal icon in Kounellis’s research, salvaged from a thousand-year-old tradition, the cross recurs throughout his entire body of work. In this symbol, he identifies the thread of a story capable of traversing the entire history of humanity, proposing a moral and heroic stance in the wake of man’s fragility and sorrow. Kounellis underscores his own pathos vis-à-vis this condition, through the lighted oil lamp, which a long curved pole introduces into the work. The cross, moreover, is a symbol that can have a universal dimension, and in the early 20th century the historic avant-garde movements had already proposed it with new, re-established esthetic and semantic values, which alluded to the destruction of the tragic by overcoming oppositions. In the late 1960s, artists such as the German Arnulf Rainer (Black Cross on Ocher, 1968, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich) had worked on this image, and Kounellis himself had referred to it in Untitled, 1972, placing on a wooden cross-shaped shelf the gilded shoes of Damiano Rousseau, offspring of social freedom. There the cross is revived to express, above all, social and civic values; here it acquires more markedly existential significance. The longing for rhythm and rigor within an infinite space that had characterized Malevich’s Suprematist Black Cross (c. 1920, dated 1913, Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg) returns in the work shown here, in the compositional eurhythmy and in the formal arrangement of the metal sheets. The presence of the burlap sacks, however, reveals the distant kinship between this work and Untitled, 1969 (fig. 54), where Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and the image of the Crucifixion are superimposed, again coinciding perfectly, in the cloth of the six sacks stretched inside the metal frame of a double bed.
The dramatic nature of the work, dominated by the dark color of the metal, is heightened by the light from the oil lamp, full of shadows and chiaroscuros, and it is underscored by the comparison with a similar piece, included in the same exhibition installed in 1988 at the Galleria Christian Stein in Milan, where the same elements establish a direct dialogue with the white wall of the gallery, which is transformed into a luminous, infinite, and indeterminate space, conferring a sense of greater lightness on the composition (reproduced in G. Moure et al., 1996, p. 219).
That same year, on the occasion of the group show, Carta, at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Kounellis exhibited another work based on the repetition of the same morphemes, but in this case distinguished by the presence of sheets of white paper, which create a clear chromatic, material, and physical contrast with the underlying metal and with the girders that press down on them (reproduced in G. Moure et al., 1996, p. 213). Again in 1988, at the Galleria Christian Stein in Turin, the girders no longer pin down the sheet metal support, but instead press down burlap sacks full of coffee, flour, and corn, which, left open, softly hold up the compressive force that keeps them in place (reproduced in G. Moure et al., 1996, p. 217). Here, as in 1994, in the ship Ionian, he returns to the theme of body-material that flops down over itself, in a state of inert limpness. It is a theme taken from the iconographic tradition of scenes of the Crucifixion and Deposition, which traverses the artist’s entire creative path: from the unstretched canvas attached directly to the wall (Untitled, 1966, reproduced in J.-C. Ammann et al., 1983, p. 76), to the large cloth of twenty burlap sacks (Untitled, 1966, reproduced in G. Moure, 1996, p. 127, and included, once again in 2002, within the labyrinth of Atto unico, at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome), to the recurring image of hanging garments, which in Untitled, 1990, appear within a triptych: a veritable altarpiece with a Crucifixion scene (reproduced in G. Moure, 1996, pp. 195-196).
In subsequent years the image of the cross returns frequently, but through the repeated intersection of vertical and horizontal girders, which are used to form a dense and angular forest, as in 1997, in a solo exhibition that traveled in the United States and South America, or in 2004 in Bolzano, where Kounellis made more than fifty red metal crosses, painted red, to create a true landscape marked by the presence, strongly contrasting in color, weight, and attitude, of a black overcoat and hat, hung from a crosspiece. The same forest of crosses returned this same year, at the Concert Hall in Athens and at Modern Art in Oxford, where it occupies an entire room of the exhibition space, contrasting its truly austere rigidity to the monochrome softness of both the hanging garments and the colorful kilim carpets.
In Kounellis’s earliest works one can already glimpse this tension between a search for historic and poetic identity and a desire to break with the status quo by opening ...
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Galleria Christian Stein, Milano, 1988; Positionen heutiger Kunst, Nationalgalerie, Berlino, 1988; 1988. Carnegie International, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 1988; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1990; Intersezioni: arte italiana negli anni ’70-’80, Galleria Mucsarnok, Budapest, 1991; Casa centrale degli artisti, Nuova Tretjakov, Mosca, 1991; Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milano, 1992; Belvedere, Giardini del Castello, Praga, 1993; Osterreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, 1999; Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato, 2001