Kounellis was one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century. In his youth, he lived and worked in Rome. Influenced by Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni, in the late 1960s he moved away from pop and Russian constructivism and started to include objects and materials as artistic elements. In 1967 he took part in the legendary exhibition curated by Germano Celant, officially becoming a member of the povera movement. He replaced canvas with metal plates that would later become the main surface for his creations. He designed installations featuring different elements such as jute bags, ground coffee, stones, crystals, linseed oil or smoke. He even exhibited living animals in order to explore the thin line between art and life. He used primitive materials in a symbolic way to create a discourse on the presence and historical importance of art as a healing element, a register and a narrative tool considering the social situation in post-war Europe. In his last years he kept exploring with daily-use materials, yet to a greater extent. He also added furniture to his work, which he displayed in a monumental way.
In the last five decades his works have been exhibited at venues such as the Tate Modern (London), the Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin), the Donnaregina Contemporary Art Museum (Naples), the Tetriakov Gallery (Moscow), the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the Reina Sofía National Museum (Madrid), the Nazionale d'Arte Moderna Gallery (Rome), MADRE (Naples) and the Saint Augustine House in the historic centre of Mexico City, amongst others. He took part in eight Venice Biennales and in three Documenta exhibitions in Kassel. In 2009, as part of the 40th anniversary of Pelaires Gallery, Kounellis collaborated with artist Rebecca Horn, with whom he jointly created Aigüestortes, an exhibition project unique in Spain.