One of the founding figures of Italian Arte Povera, Jannis Kounellis has spent the past 50 years creating works about everyday life, mixing found objects with handmade elements. Now 77 and based in Rome, the Greek artist, who first showed in New York in 1972 at Sonnabend Gallery, is a pioneer of installation art, especially notable for introducing shelves as a way of displaying common goods in artworks. That innovation alone paved the way for artists such as Haim Steinbach, Carol Bove and many others.
Dominating Kounellis’s second solo show at Cheim & Read is a series of untitled pieces. Each lines a set of wall-mounted, custom-fabricated steel shelves, with examples of ornate glassware bought in bulk from Hasidic-owned shops in Brooklyn. Taken as a whole, the works resemble stanzas on sheet music, or lines from a poem—a lyrical ode, perhaps, to days gone by. Individually, the dusty, disused quality of the glass items summons some ghost of memory.
A separate work, All or Nothing at All, commands an entire room, with a trio of enormous upright steel bins positioned several feet from the wall. The space behind, between and on top of these units is packed with a stilled avalanche of coal lumps, small stone blocks and ancient sewing machines—a monument at once existential and surreal.
Additional installations—such as the hat, shoes and neatly folded raincoat stacked next to a set of railroad tracks—only add to the impression that Kounellis sees existence as a constant churn of transformations.—Paul Laster