Jannis Kounellis: Gray is the Color of Our Time

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Jannis Kounellis [no title] (1999) etching, drypoint and aquatint on paper 35.5 x 38.7cm

Painting in black and white gives me plenty of opportunity to think about grey. High contrast black and white can easily create a dynamic effect, but I find painting with grey more difficult. The surface of a canvas painted grey tends to look like concrete, making a flatter impression than colour, and drawing attention to surface irregularities (ie. impasto). Sometimes it strikes me as very ugly, making me miss colour. Other times I resolve to embrace grey, as artists like Jannis Kounellis have done.

Here’s Kounellis in a video from 2015, talking about grey in his own work and others’. I find the video title evocative of the greys in the built environment we’ve created, indoors and out: concrete, steel, frosted glass, slate, etc.

Kounellis cites the transition from the “atmosphere” of Impressionism (usually colourful) to the “classicism” and “interiority” of Cubism (often muted or almost monochromatic greys and browns, eg. Picasso’s Female Nude 1910, below). He says, “We are the children of this transformation”.

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Pablo Picasso Female Nude (1910) oil on canvas 101.3 x 77.5cm

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