Greek painter, performance artist and sculptor, active in Italy. He studied in art college in Athens until 1956 and then went to Italy. He settled in Rome, studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he was particularly influenced by the non-figurative painting of Alberto Burri. From 1958 to 1960 he produced Alphabets, expanses of colour with letters, numbers, typographical symbols and road markings superimposed (e.g. Z.44, 1960; Rome, G.N.A. Mod.). Such works clearly demonstrated his aim of transcending the poetics of Art informel and pursuing a line of study characterized by contradictory concerns with, on the one hand, the symbols of mass urban and industrial civilization, and on the other, primitive, fundamental, individual values. These were frequently expressed by the artist's physical participation from 1960 in his own exhibitions at La Tartaruga, thus transforming them into performances where, for example, he would ‘sing' the numbers and letters painted on the canvases.
Kounellis's work developed as a spectacular mixture of painting, collages and the staging of installations, ‘environments', performances and theatrical shows, designed to express the tensions and alienation of contemporary society, and the multiplicity, obscurity and fragmentation of its language. From 1967 he became associated with Arte povera, and his work was characterized by the juxtaposition of objects, materials and actions that were both physically and culturally antithetical to one another. These included raw materials such as stone, cotton, wool and coal, and objets trouvés such as bed-frames, doors and, since 1969, shelves. He also used fire, soot and smoke in his installations and in 1969 brought live horses into the Galleria L'Attico in Rome, stressing the fragmentation of modern society by also introducing elements of traditional culture, such as the music of Mozart and, from 1975, casts of Classical sculptures. His experimentation with unorthodox combinations of materials continued into the 1980s (e.g. Untitled, steel panels, burlap sacks and lit propane gas torches, 1985; Bordeaux, Cent. A. Plast. Contemp.).