Jannis Kounellis was born in 1936 in Piraeus, Greece. He studied at Athens University before leaving his native country for Italy in 1956. In Rome, he attended courses at the Academy of Arts, notably those taught by the Italian painter and poet Toti Scialoja.
In the 1950s, Jannis Kounellis produced his first paintings. In 1959-61, he represented letters, signs and numbers on unusual materials such as wood and newsprint. Gradually, he developed the use of simple, industrial materials: iron, cotton, coal, wood, fire, jute, etc. These elements, often linked to the world of work, were contrastingly used according to their physical or semantic opposites. Through his works, materials or opposing notions are brought into tension: soft and hard, tar and steel, industrial and agrarian, steel and jute. From the 1970s onwards, the artist added a theatrical and musical dimension to his work and designed several opera sets. Using organic, mineral or animal substances, he created true dramatic stagings. Produced on a monumental scale, these installations fully immerse the viewer, making them an actor in the event. He is considered one of the key figures of Arte Povera.
Kounellis first took part in the Venice Biennale in 1972. The same year saw a solo exhibition in several European museums - at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London and the Caja de Pensiones in Madrid. In 1980, he exhibited at the Musée National d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris; the CAPC in Bordeaux devoted a major exhibition to him in 1985, and the following year the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago presented a major exhibition of his works.
His work can be found in several major museums in Europe, Asia and America. During the early years of the 21st century, Kounellis held a series of exhibitions in Europe, such as at the Monnaie de Paris in 2016, as well as in Russia, Mexico and China, where he created spectacular site-specific installations at every opportunity. Jannis Kounellis died on 16 February 2017, in Rome.