Was born in Reykjavik in 1931. He attended art classes in his spare time at the School of Arts and Crafts and the Reykjavik Art School while studying and working as a mechanical engineer.
He qualified as a master of mechanical engineering from the Technical College in Reykjavík in 1952. During the years 1965-1966 and 1967, Jón Gunnar was a post-graduate student at the Hornsey College of Art while teaching at the South London School of Art. In 1973 and in 1983-1984 he taught sculpture at Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavík, and in 1979-1980 at the Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen.
In 1965 Jón Gunnar became one of the founders of the SUM group (a group of artists representing the avant-garde in Iceland). He was also one of the organisers of Sculpture on Skólavörðuholt in 1967; Gallery SUM in 1968; the Association of Icelandic Sculptors in 1972; The Icelandic Living Art Museum in 1978; and, in the same year, Experimental Environment in the Nordic Countries.
Jón Gunnar held his first solo exhibition in 1962, and took part in numerous group exhibitions both in Iceland and abroad. Many of his works can be found in public spaces and public and private collections.
Jón Gunnar’s work mainly takes the form of sculptures, some of which are monumental in form, while others are more environmental. He also created books, sound-objects, knives, jewellery and chess-sets, as well as a range of colourful paintings and drawings. A central characteristic of Jón Gunnar’s art is that whatever material, technique or scale he used, his works where always essentially conceptual. They are closely related to modern technology and Jón Gunnar’s ecological ideas about the connection between man, machine and nature, and the destruction that can take place when science gets out of control
Jón Gunnar’s art works can be broadly divided into three main periods or groups: kinetic art, mobiles and robots such as Elementskúlptúr from 1960, Blómið (The Flower) from 1967 and Hjartað (The Heart) from 1968knife sculptures such as Ego and Homo Technicus from 1969; and finally sun-related works such as Að gera sólina bjartari (Making the Sun Brighter) from 1974, Cosmos and Gravity from 1982, and Sólfar (Sun Voyager) from 1986.
Some of Jón Gunnar’s mobiles and robots took the form of hand-manipulated sculptures which the viewer was allowed to deconstruct and construct at will, while others were auto-kinetic or powered by machines (emitting sound, light or heat, moving and rattling).
The knife sculptures, meanwhile, addressed the madness of the Cold War, man’s destructive impulses toward nature and his
blind worship of the machine.
Jón Gunnar´s works related to the sun share the common feature of making reference to the essential forces that live within nature, along with the power of gravity and sunlight itself. In these works, the artist wanted to involve the forces of nature and the universe as a whole, simultaneously making the observer more aware of his position in the universe.
In Sól I: Að gera sólina bjartari (Sun I: Making the Sun Brighter), set up on the island of Flatey in Breiðafjörður in 1974, he arranged a series of mirrors facing the four cardinal directions which reflected sunlight back to the sun. In Sól II: Sól fyrir Ísafjörð (Sun II: Sun for Ísafjörður), also from 1974, mirrors reflected the sun’s rays into places which lay in shadow. Both involve precise plans and calculations.
In these works Jón Gunnar introduced a totally new way of thinking into Icelandic sculpture.
He moved away from the sculpture as an object, deconstructing it and placing it in a larger, wider spatial context, whereby the observer no longer simply views the sculpture but becomes an active part of the art work, which is itself part of the environment.
As they reflect the rays of the sun, the sun-related works become themselves part of the solar system, sometimes attaining the power to ‘move’ the sun itself.
.Galdur (Magic) from 1988 is an outdoor sculpture that Jón Gunnar was asked to design. It was initially planned to be situated outside the main entrance of the City Hospital in Fossvogur. Now it awaits the completion of the new University Hospital on Hringbraut, Reykjavík. Jón Gunnar made drawings and a model of the sculpture in a workshop he set up in an unfinished wing of the hospital during the time when he was a patient there.
In an interview published in the newspaper Morgunblaðið on December 4th 1988, Jón Gunnar made the following statement about this work: “The pattern is a magical symbol of healing …. The trident is an international symbol for the sun, and the symbol of the sun is present in all magic. … The sculpture will be constructed of stainless steel which will reflect the rays of the sun like a mirror. It will be bathed in the reflection of the sun, and send its rays in through the windows of the hospital.”
Galdur was the final work of art to be envisaged by Jón Gunnar. This work symbolizes hope and healing.
Sun Voyager was built in accordance with the artist’s hand-drawn full-scale plan. Its irregular form involving flowing lines and poetic movement, a distinctive feature of so many of Jón Gunnar´s works, makes it seem as if the ship is floating on air. It reaches out into space in such a way that the sea, the sky and the mind of the observer become part of the work as a whole. As a result, Sun Voyager has the unique quality of being able to carry each and every observer to wherever his/her mind takes him/her.
Few of Jón Gunnar’s works have a simple obvious interpretation. As he stated himself, all works of art should convey a message that transcends the work itself. It is the observer who bears the eventual responsibility for interpreting the works in his/her own way, thereby becoming a participant in the overall creation of the work. Jón Gunnar’s works frequently make such demands on the observers, giving them the opportunity to discover new truths as a result of their experience.
Information about Jón Gunnar Árnason and his works of art is available at www.umm.is, and in the following books: Hugarorka og sólstafir: Jón Gunnar Árnason, published by Listasafn Íslands (The National Gallery of Iceland) in 1994; Súm 1965-1972, published by Listasafn Reykjavíkur (The Reykjavik Art Museum) in 1989; Íslensk list: 16 íslenskir myndlistamenn, published by Hildur in 1981; Íslensk listasaga, frá síðari hluta 19. aldar til upphafs 21. aldar, published by Listasafn Íslands and Forlagið in 2011; Útisýningarnar á Skólavörðuholti 1967-1972, by Inga Ragnarsdóttir and Kristín G. Guðnadóttir in 2017.