The Art of Horses

0626KOUNELLIS1-master675For four days at the end of June the art gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, on the occasion of the closure of its space so that its old one-story industrial building could be torn down for another condo, rented 12 horses from a nearby stable and brought them into the gallery to spend the day and eat their fill. The horses were equally spaced around the gallery and tethered to rings on the wall. Only seven people were admitted at a time to observe the horses, which were tended by two handlers. Roberta Smith noted in The New York Times,

Gavin Brown’s Enterprise may be leaving its Greenwich Village home of a dozen or so years for Harlem, but not before bestowing a stupendous farewell gift on the art world. It has orchestrated the first re-creation in the United States of Jannis Kounellis’s “Untitled (12 Horses)” a legendary work of living installation art first executed in Rome in 1969.


Jannis Kounellis is one of the founding members of the Italian Arte Povera (poor art) movement of the late 1960s. This movement was rooted in the work of Giorgio de Chirico and followed him by returning to an anti-technological, artisanal practice. The original 12 Horses was staged inside a garage and thus referred implicitly to one of the most traumatic transitions of the Industrial Revolution—from transportation by horse to travel by rail (the first mode of mechanical transportation before the car).

In The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes the physical, bodily transformation felt by railway travelers as a loss of  a connective relationship between humans and nature. Riding in a horse-driven carriage, the body felt every rut in the road and irregular movements of the horses and heard the rhythm of their sounds. The travel of humans with animals through space was a sensory, bodily experience. The mechanical railway severed the sense of being in the landscape, in nature, by the smooth regularity of its progress.

Kounellis’s horses as art viscerally reminds us of our alienation from nature through the advent of technology. His literal representation of art as horse also references the earliest depictions of horses by humans. Horses have always fascinated, art historian Colin Eisler reminds us when he writes in Dürer’s Animals about,

The winged creatures of myth, folklore, and Bible may swoop earthward and lift mortals to the heavens, but one beautiful though everyday animal can carry men and women closer to the sky, raising them above their fellows—the horse. Cherished alike by king and knight, rich townsman and peasant, this costly, skittish, handsome beast, so long essential for war and peace, has been a favorite subject of the painter and sculptor since art began.

According to the Greeks, the horse was sculpted by the sea god Poseidon from the living rock. Athena, divinely wise, devised the bridle so that horses could be controlled and ridden in the great Athenian procession held annually in her honor. Ancient art abounds with images of horse-drawn chariots of sun and sea gods, and steeds bring victorious heroes to their eternal reward. Paired horses, according to Plato, represented man’s divided soul, guided by his charioteer—the mind; the wise, good one gallops heavenward as the foolish, evil partner races down, Hell bound. Our horses, ourselves.

26KOUNELLIS4-articleLarge-v2Standing quietly in the gallery turned temporary stable, one felt a sense of the mystery of these magnificent animals. How quiet they are and accepting of their place. This was evident from the moment they were led out of the horse trailer and into the gallery. Settled in the gallery, they appeared indifferent to the bystanders taking their photos. But, when facing the wall, in a very subtle and wonderful gesture, they lifted one of their rear legs ever so slightly in a graceful contrapposto pose. Like the Greek warrior, they were ready for any untoward danger.


— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Contributor

References: Colin Eisler, Dürer’s Animals. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey. The University of California Press, 1986.

Note: For an illustrated history, see The Horse in Art by John Baskett, Yale University Press, 2006.

Credits: Photos from the Internet. Horse from the rear by the author.

Facts from Schivelbusch: From 1815 onwards coal became cheaper than grain in England. Aware of its rising importance, Parliament passed a Corn Law, which imposed steep taxes on imported grain–and thus, made feeding horses more expensive than the use of coal for mechanical power. At the time of transition from horse-power to steam power, there were one million horses kept for transportation in England.

Personal note: My favorite painter of horses is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824):







The Head of a White Horse, 1810.



Study of horses from the back in the stables, 1812.


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