Kounellis rides into town but the horses stay in New York

Seven major works on show by Greek artist who has become a major figure in the Arte Povera movement


Jannis Kounellis: Paintings 1983-2012

Until 29 April 2017

The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse


Last summer, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise enthralled New York with its presentation of Jannis Kounellis’s 1969 work Untitled (12 Horses). This impressive piece of relational aesthetics involved 12 horses tethered to the gallery’s walls (as well as many attendants to look after them, to say nothing of the bales of hay).

Interest in Kounellis has hardly waned since the Greek artist emerged as a major figure in the Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s. However, his star has been rapidly on the rise since his show at Tate Modern in London in 2009. During Art Basel Miami Beach, the Margulies Collection warehouse in Wynwood, which presents a rotating display of art from the collection of Martin Margulies, is showing a presentation of work by Kounellis that is sure to be a must-visit for fairgoers.

The collector balked at bringing Untitled (12 Horses) to Miami, despite the large number of visitors it drew at Gavin Brown. “New York is used to stuff like that,” Margulies says. If he had staged the work in the warehouse, he told Kounellis’s studio, “‘I’d have a line of animal protesters all over the place!’”

Instead, Margulies’s exhibition features seven major works by Kounellis made between 1983 and 2012. The collector wanted to limit their number to prevent them from overwhelming each other. Many are monumental, including Untitled (1985-97), a sculptural painting made from steel I-beams and railway sleepers, which dominates an entire wall of the warehouse.

The show also complements work by Kounellis’s contemporaries on view elsewhere in the warehouse, including Cy Twombly, Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer.

Kounellis considers his works—made with materials including burlap, jute, charcoal and copper pots—to be paintings, and has always described himself as a painter. But Margulies says he was drawn to their obviously sculptural nature. Recently, the warehouse has featured other Arte Povera artists, including Pier Paolo Calzolari, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz and Alighiero Boetti.

Although these artists share a common interest in humble materials not typically associated with fine art, “they all had a different vocabulary”, Margulies says. While Calzolari worked with frost, for example, Kounellis is known for using fire and live animals in his work (though not at the same time, animal rights advocates will be pleased to learn).

All seven works in the warehouse exhibition are in the Margulies Collection. Katherine Hinds, its curator, says some of the paintings have been in the collection since the 1980s, but that in putting together the show, she learned new things about the artist, especially his “unique sense of materials”.

“There’s no intimidation there,” she observes. Kounellis is not afraid to use iron panels in lieu of paint or fill bags with charcoal. Often, the true composition is hidden. In Untitled (2002), the work that uses the charcoal: “You can’t really tell the material that is in the bag until you read the label and read the story about the search for fuel and the memories of the miners who have foraged for these basic materials since the beginning of civilisation.”

Although Kounellis’s anti-luxury, quotidian materials might seem at odds with Miami’s bling aesthetic, the city is taking to his work: attendance figures for the show, which opened in October, have been strong, according to Margulies. “I think that in the 16 years we’ve had this warehouse…this is the best work we’ve ever done here,” he says.