National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens


05/10/2007 - 16/11/2007


Nikos Kessanlis

From matière to the image

Cultural Center of the Municipality of Elefsis “L. Kanellopoulos”

05/10/2007 – 16/11/2007

Curated By: Tina Pandi

The nomadic mobility that characterizes the National Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibitions policy, which has from the word go eschewed closed museum schemas in favour of approaching the public more directly, offers every time new, creative challenges. Our off site exhibition activities in conventional or alternative spaces, in the centre and its peripheries, or in the open public space of the city, bring about collaborations with other institutions, address various social groups, and create new interpretive contexts for art-works and ideas. They seek a new locality through decentralized practices or convergences.
Elefsis, as vibrantly alive as it is enigmatic, in its diachronic and multicultural specificity, was from our first visit a place of inspiration. Our aim, which intersected with the enthusiasm and openness of the staff of the Municipality of Elefsis and its Cultural Organization, was to design exhibitions and ad hoc artistic events in specific venues and locations in the heart of the city and around it. The start was made in the summer, in Elefsis’ seaside outdoor cinema, which provided an ideally alternative environment for screenings of Rebecca Horn’s decidedly “hermetic” performances and films, and for intertextual approaches to her theatrical and cinematic language.
The choice of Elefsis’ Municipal Gallery to stage this exhibition of works by Nikos Kessanlis, a leading figure in late modernism and post-modernism, provided an ideal opportunity for a retrospectively compendious presentation to which the EMST’s rich collection of works by the artist is especially suited. The visitor will have the opportunity to follow some important transformations in Kessanlis’ work, in its shift from the object towards potentially immaterial forms and back again to their re-enclosure in matière. And perhaps he may recognize in the artist’s ephemeral and poetic Gestures, in which liberation from the conventional art result obeys to random movements and bodily rhythms, a kinship with Rebecca Horn’s performances at some profound level.

Anna Kafetsi


A retrospect, even when its scope is selective rather than holistic, should strive, among other things, to take a fresh and critical look at the artist’s work and to carefully avoid the desire to deify its subject. This general observation is resoundingly important in the case of Nikos Kessanlis, an artist with a large body of work to his name in whose career the post-war adventures of the art-object can be traced, and who bore much of the weight, with others, of the «Greek Modern».
The Nikos Kessanlis. From matière to the image exhibition is built around a core of works from the EMST collections and focuses on the artist’s activities between the early Sixties and the Nineties and the shifts and ceaseless transformations of a multi-faceted, spontaneous body of work as it oscillated between material and immateriality, figuration and the deconstruction of the image. The show brings together seminal works from Kessanlis’ career which illuminate his artistic quest, as well as lesser-known works which prefigure future directions.1 Nikos Kessanlis’ work explores the limits of painting and the conditions of existence, gesture’s inherent expressive worth, and the possibilities offered up by the photo-mechanical deconstruction of the image, while entering into a continuous dialogue with the cultural, social and political context in which it was created.
In the mid Fifties, Kessanlis was already veering towards the achievements and theoretical issues posed by art informel with which he was in contact during his time in Rome, and towards a definitive break with the academic representational style he had been trained in at the Athens School of Fine Art. Abstraction for Kessanlis, as for many other artists of the «Sixties generation», became the main means for liberating his plastic idiom. In his art informel compositions, painting is gradually set free both from the axiom of a representational function and its mimetic relationship with reality. The plastic space of his compositions is delimited by the articulation of colour fields, by multiple layers of dense matière and non-art materials, by erasures and scraping away, script and letters. Painting is in this way rendered autonomous and subject to the innate rules of its visual structure, while various dilemmas –representational or abstract, figurative or non-figurative– are eliminated.2
In Walls, a series dating from 1960-1961, a large part of which is included in the exhibition, the painted picture becomes the primary field in which material is assembled and the artist’s bodily gestures executed. The primary role is no longer played by the finished product, but by the act of painting, the process for making violent interventions, and the artist’s impulsive gestures. The thick layers of matière, the points dotted across the painted surface of the work and script and lettering of every sort reveal aspects of the corporeality of the subject through their subservience to his violent gestures and bodily actions.
As painting but as –literally– objects, too, the Walls series marks Kessanlis’ shift in interest from the painting’s enclosed and bounded frame to the object. In the works grouped under the umbrella title Gestures (1960-1962) created when the artist was living in Sixties Paris, then dominated by the New Realists and their theoretician, Pierre Restany, Kessanlis appropriated scraps of urban and industrial reality. His Gestures had much in common with the work of the New Realists, who had reworked a core artistic paradigm of the historic avant-garde of the early 20th century –the ready-made– inscribing it into public space, the society of consumption and spectacle.3 Kessanlis extracts obsolete industrial objects and rubbish like cloths, plaster sacks, crumpled paper and parts of metal machines from the urban fabric and the «And the post-industrial city [which] has become a huge objet trouvé which limits cannot track down» and inserts them in his work.4 From the Nouvelles Aventures de l’Objet show at Galerie J in 1961 to the Propositions pour une nouvelle sculpture grecque exhibition at the La Fenice theatre in 1964, Kessanlis intervened in objects decisively, impulsively and intellectually, pushing the expressive value of the gesture to its limits.
Kessanlis’ ever-changing artistic research borrowed from and reworked the new cultural conditions and centred on the new media of the urban environment. He employed methods for technically reproducing the image, already central to Pop Art, in the context of his own experimental interventions in the structure of the image. In Phantasmagorias of Identity (1963-1965) and Anamorphoses (1966-1987), Kessanlis clearly develops his personal take on the image and modern techniques for reproducing it.
Combining the shadow theatre with rudimentary photographic techniques, in the mid Sixties Kessanlis began photographing his circle illuminated by spotlights moving behind a translucent white screen. By altering the brightness and position of his light sources and giving his models complete freedom, he managed to capture a range of results, movements and gestures photographically which he then blew up; the photographic clichés were finally projected onto photosensitive cloth. In Phantasmagorias of identity, the manipulation of lighting conditions and interventions in the technical processing of the photographs allow the spectral, blurry figures depicted to reveal the fleeting, ephemeral nature of their presence. In 1965, Pierre Restany wrote thus: «The human message is here, manifested in its own way: the click is inevitable and I must say that the communication is particularly moving its effectiveness. […] It fascinates by restoring our identity in an obvious “extension” of ourselves».5 Back in 1931 in A short history of photography, Walter Benjamin had already essayed a paradoxical combination of psychoanalysis and photography and spoken of «the optical unconscious» which, though invisible to the naked eye in the natural world, can be revealed through the use of photo-mechanical means.6
Striving to take the potential for intervening in the image as far as possible, Kessanlis began his Anamorphoses series in 1966. By laterally transposing the focal point of the camera during the act of photography and later intervening in the fixing process, Kessanlis distorted the normality of the subject depicted in such a way that the eye can only reconstitute it from a specific oblique angle. In so doing, he moved away from the Renaissance model of perspective reproduced in photography and placed a privileged vanishing point in the centre of the work. By disturbing the viewing conditions, he is inviting the viewer to move in space in order to locate the viewing angle that reconstitutes the picture. Such photo-mechanical distortions reveal Kessanlis’ thoughts on the new conditions of objective and subjective viewing imposed by the camera’s mechanical eye.
The immateriality of the «mechanical» image meets the materiality of gesture in the Metastructures (1971-1977) and Cement (1996) series in which reproductions of works appropriated from the imaginary museum of art history, ready images and photographs from his personal mythology are subject to distorting techniques and manual interventions. These optical palimpsests are articulated on multiple layers to activate different parts of a fragmented memory. Kessanlis poses powerful questions relating to the deconstruction of the image, the fragmentary assimilation of primary material, the singularity of a work of art and its relationship with memory and the history of art as he renews and rediscovers his plastic idiom and image-making. In every case, Kessanlis’ take on this series of issues shifts back and forth between matière and the image, between the brush and non-art materials, between figuration and photographic distortion.

Tina Pandi
Curator of the exhibition

1.Robert Storr stresses that in retrospectives and one-man shows alike: «Minor, but substantial works that crystallize key aspects of an artist’s sensibility and development are as necessary to the one person show as indisputably major ones. A scattering of such works often engages the viewer first by virtue of their salient and readily accessible qualities, qualities which, when initially seen in relative isolation, teach the viewer what to look for in more complex or rarefied work. A surfeit of show-stopping arts stops the show». Robert Storr, «Montrer et raconter», Artpress 301 (May 2004), p. 31.
2. Metamorphoses of the Modern: the greek experience, ed. Anna Kafetsi, Athens, National Gallery, 1992, pp. 99-100.
3. Hal Foster , «What’s Neo about the Neo- Avant-Garde?», The Duchamp Effect, eds. Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1996, pp. 5-32.
4. Nikos Kessanlis, ed. Yiorgos Tzirtzilakis, Thessaloniki, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997, p. 189.
5. Les Fantasmagories de l’identité, text Pierre Restany, Paris, Galerie Lacloche, 1965.
6. Walter Benjamin, «A Short History of Photography», Essays on Art, trans. Demosthenes Kourtovik, Athens, Kalvos, 1978, p. 52. See also Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998, pp. 178-179.


Editor: Memos Filippidis
Texts by: Memos Filippidis, Thomas Y. Levin and the artists
95 p., 29Χ24cm., repr., EMST, Athens 2002
Bilingual (greek-english), includes reproductions of the works
ISBN 960-87329-0-5
Available for sale: price 20 Euros


Photo: Nikos Kessanlis, From matière to the image
Installation view