On Thursday, the Walker Art Center opened the last show curated by Vincenzo de Bellis, who had served as curator of visual arts at the Walker Art Center since 2016. De Bellis recently left the Walker and has already moved on to his new role with the prestigious festival Art Basel, where he’ll be developing new events and programs for the event, which spans four different cities.
De Bellis calls the Walker “the university of museums.” “It’s where curators like me always try to work because you have a great collection, it’s known in the art world for being a risk taker as a museum — and that’s still very much the case,” he says. “I couldn’t get any better experience than the one I got here.”
Last week, de Bellis was back at the Walker installing the new Jannis Kounellis exhibition, which he says has been in the making for many years.
De Bellis first pitched the show when Kounellis, the Greek artist who lived and worked most of his life in Italy, when the curator first arrived at the Walker.
Being Italian himself, de Bellis had known the artist for many years. He remembers being intimidated when they met in 2005, in part because he was “obsessed” with Kounellis’s work and because the artist was such an important figure. Also, Kounellis didn’t often smile. “At first, I was completely scared,” de Bellis recalls. “Then when I talked to him, I realized that he was the sweetest person in the world.”
As first conceived, the show was quite different than the current exhibition, “Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts,” ended up being. De Bellis had originally planned an exhibition framed around Kounellis’s live action works, but much has happened in the intervening years. Most importantly, Kounellis died at the beginning of 2017, which made doing de Bellis’ original idea for the exhibition impossible.
“We had to stop, basically,” de Bellis says. “We couldn’t do the same show, because for that kind of show, he should have been there with us doing it.”
Besides that barrier, the Walker has faced strife as an institution. In 2017, “Scaffold,” the work by Sam Durant newly installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, spurred protests because of the way it depicted the mass hanging of Native warriors in Mankato in 1862. At the end of 2017, former director Olga Viso announced her departure from the museum. That same year, Kounellis died, and of course, we all know what happened in 2020.
“It was six very difficult years for the institution, for the city, for us as a family,” de Bellis says. “Starting from what happened in 2017, with the scaffold and then moving into the George Floyd assassination, and then all the repercussions in the city, we felt them — all of them on our skin.”
After Viso left the Walker in 2017, de Bellis pitched the idea of a retrospective of Kounellis’ work to the interim leadership, and then to Mary Ceruti, who became the Walker’s new director in 2019.
“The idea at the time was OK, let’s have a retrospective, but we need to find a way to do a retrospective without him, because for him, making a show was really part of the art-making process,” de Bellis says. To make it work, de Bellis took the approach of working with the Kounellis’ family and archive, and instead of taking a chronological approach, organized the exhibit thematically.
“It’s a circular kind of way of thinking, and the themes kind of overlap each other,” de Bellis says.
De Bellis and the curatorial team identified six main ideas to highlight in the retrospective— language, journey, fragments, natural elements, musicality and reprise, with each theme explored in the different gallery spaces.
The language section features text-based pieces Kounellis created early in his career as well as work made much later. The text-based pieces, like the giant letters that hang from the ceiling in the center of the first gallery, speak to Kounellis’s experience of being a Greek person living in Italy. “Language was a barrier at the beginning, and was also a way in which he was the outlier all the time, nonconforming in that culture specifically,” de Bellis says. Riffing on street signs, Kounellis used the Italian language as “a way for him to feel more integrated in the city of Rome, where he was living,” de Bellis says.
The journey section further explores Kounellis’ work around being an outsider. One piece is a copy of a letter Kounellis wrote his estranged father as a young person. On the top left corner where he writes the return address, Kounellis spells his name with a “C” rather than a “K.” That’s because at the time he wrote the letter, Italy, which was fascist at that time in the 1950s, forbid the use of letters that were not used in the Italian alphabet.
The third theme the exhibition investigates is the notion of fragments, which for Kounellis, tell their own story, de Bellis says. The gallery is filled with sculptural works made of plaster neoclassical figures and in one case, an entire door covered in rocks and broken plaster fragments. The blocked door is part of a series Kounellis began in 1969 when he was invited to participate in a biannual in Italy. Even though it’s made of objects, de Bellis says Kounellis thought of the work as a painting.
In the fourth theme, the exhibition explores the notion of elements, with works like piles of sulphur or coffee balanced in hanging discs. From there, the exhibition moves in musicality, and features a work with musical instruments strung together and hung high on the wall.
The Walker hosted one evening of performances in the musicality section on opening night. The performance consisted of two large boxes and a performer in each one. One of the performers stood perfectly still holding a Greek chorus-style mask in front of his face, while the other played Mozart fragments on his flute.
Kounellis created the piece in 1972 as part of a solo show at the Solomon Gallery in New York. For many years, the work was thought lost, but de Bellis made it his mission to find the mask and boxes in order to recreate the performance. 50 years after its premiere, the Walker brought it back to life for a one-day only performance.
It’s no surprise there was a performative element to de Bellis’ last show, after curating a number of shows that looked at the relationship between visual art and performance.
“That’s my sickness,” de Bellis says. “My interest is how performance has impacted the other more traditional media. In exhibitions like “Mario García Torres: Illusion Brought Me Here,” “The Paradox of Stillness: Art, Object, and Performance,” and the Kounellis exhibition, de Bellis brought performance into the gallery space. “They kind of mark that interest that I have, which I believe aligns very much with what this museum stands for,” de Bellis says.
The last gallery of the Kounellis exhibition touches on the musical concept of reprisal. Two large works in the show touch on themes explored throughout the other parts of the exhibition. One, made in 1993, features billowing sails made of muted colors, touching on themes of journeying touched on earlier in the exhibition. There’s also a giant frame filled with wood pieces that weighs three tons, which the Walker had to consult about with a structural engineer to make sure it wouldn’t break the floor, according to William Hernández Luege, a curatorial assistant at the Walker.
“This has really been just an amazing way to finish the exhibition because we always kind of thought of it as this crescendo, leading to this moment that sort of cycles back in the original theme,” Hernández Luege says.
In a way, the exhibition as a whole does a similar thing with de Bellis’ time at the Walker. Flashy, interesting, and engaging in philosophy and ideas viscerally, it’s a hat tip from the curator on his way to new things.
“Jannis Kounellis in Six Acts” runs through Feb. 26 before it heads to Museo Jumex in Mexico City. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays ($15). More information here.