Jannis Kounellis was born in 1936 in Pireus, Greece. In 1956, he moved to Rome and enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1960 While still a student he had his first one-person show at the Galleria La Tartaruga, the first gallery of contemporary art in Rome. Later on Kounellis incorporates found elements of various kinds into the paintings – he looked to push painting into a new territory. His desire to escape from the traditional aesthetic vocabulary and his aim of transcending the poetics of informel are clearly visible. He moved painting into the third dimension and real space. When he began to perform actions, initially at the studio and afterwards in different artistic and non-artistic spaces, the performance form entered his repertoire.
From the late 60s, the work transitioned toward sculpture- and performance-centered art. Kounellis included two elements in his works: an element of inorganic form (structure) and an element of organic presence (sensibility). It was in this context that he began to use materials from everyday life, such as stones, cacti, instant coffee, carding-wool, jute sacks, empty or filled with corn, fragments of copies of classical sculptures, paraffin lamps, iron consoles and railway tracks. He broke the status quo of pictorial language by adopting the idea of merging life with art. At this stage, he introduced living creatures in his art (a concept unknown in the art world at that time) stressing once again the need for art’s involvement with real life. In 1969 he created one of his best-known works – the installation of 12 live horses in the gallery L’Attico in Rome.
In the same year, in Paris, he started to use fire as a material, exhibiting tanks of gas with a hose emitting a hissing flame at the viewer’s eye level. In this way, the spectators experienced not only the brightness and the color of the flame, but also its smell and the sound it emits. Some fire works were combined with works using bed frames defined by the artist as a measure of the human. Subsequently, around 1976, he introduced another material: smoke.
Kounellis also contributed to the birth of Arte Povera (the first contemporary Italian art movement to be recognized on the international level) and to the formulation of its poetics. Even though the label Arte Povera (first coined in 1967 by Germano Celant) was not meaningful to describe his entire opus, the use of diverse material taken from life circumstances, the union of political and aesthetic ideals and the conception of the role of the artist in society indicated a relationship with the initial expressions of Arte Povera.
Throughout the 1980’s and up to the present day he continued to work on large-scale installations using the “material lexicon” elaborated. The work itself became more complex and groups more objects and more motifs together. He kept developing his visual language that embraced the archaic, the classic and the contemporary. Thanks to the ability of capturing the specific atmosphere of different places and of translating it into a work of art, Kounellis realized pieces characterized by the juxtaposition of objects, materials and actions in the context of temporary exhibitions or semi-permanent installations that transformed theirs immediate environment.
Kounellis is the most frequently exhibited Italian artist in museums worldwide. He has taken part in seven editions of the Venice Biennale since 1972. His work was also featured at the Documenta in Kassel in 1972 and 1982.