Untitled 1969 is a flat, dry-stone wall built into a doorway in the gallery space. The stone is sourced locally from the place where the work is shown, requiring it to be remade in every new venue in which it is exhibited. According to the artist’s instructions, the stones should be arranged randomly, following no specific configuration, except that the wall should slope slightly so that the bottom protrudes a little way out from the doorway within which it is placed. The shape and size of the doorway should be in keeping with the architecture of the building or gallery in which the work is installed. This particular work is especially significant as it was one of the first wall pieces created by Kounellis, who continued to make interventions of this kind up until the 1980s. Untitled 1969 was exhibited for the first time at the 8th Biennale of Contemporary Art in San Benedetto de Tronto, Italy, where it became known as the ‘door walled with stones’ (Bann 2003, p.83). It has been shown numerous times since then, including in the exhibition Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972 at Tate Modern, London and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis in 2001. When on display at Tate, it is made using British stone from the Cotswolds.
Untitled 1969 is a work that resonates with many of Kounellis’s key themes and concerns (as well as those of the Arte Povera group in Italy in the 1960s and early 1970s, with which Kounellis was associated). His work often incorporates the use of both natural and industrial materials such as iron, cotton, coal, wood, stones, earth, sacks and occasionally live animals. Each of these materials is chosen for its historical significance and association with the place where the work is displayed, and Untitled 1969 follows these same principles. Kounellis’s works are often site-specific, responding directly to the architecture surrounding them. The practice of using impenetrable materials, such as large stones, to block doorways, windows and other openings has been a recurring preoccupation of the artist’s since the late 1960s. Sometimes referred to as ‘blockages’, these works close off space and deny access to something hidden. The tension created by the placement of natural material of such weight and mass as stone, usually only found in exterior landscapes, within the white walls of a gallery, makes a visitor’s interaction with the space all the more dramatic, an effect Kounellis often tried to create through his works.
Despite the artist refuting associations between his blocked doorways and his Greek heritage, some art historians have suggested that the randomly placed masonry stone evoke the blocked doors and windows of the houses left by Greek people who fled their villages during the country’s civil war in the late 1940s. Works such as Untitled have therefore been read as exploring notions of war and immigration. The art historian Thomas McEvilley has written about the way in which Kounellis’s choice of materials and their placement in the gallery evoke a human presence:
In Kounellis’s iconography these works relate to his characteristic theme of history and measure. The measure ... is always the measure of a person; it is an object or framework made to human dimensions and proportions. Like the bed, the doorway is such a measure, as is the window. The building stone is also a kind of measure ... it is part of a wall that men build to their own measure; and it is sized for the grasp of the human hand ... Modern windows and doorways are measures from one age and the ancient stones placed one on top of the other to make a wall are measures from another, more ancient one. Compressed together they constitute yet another image of a complex of interrelated ideas, including the changing of the measure with the flow of history, the measure appropriate to each age, the loss of measure, and the need to regain, or rather reshape, a new one. Like so much of Kounellis’s work, they embody the passage of human history, of the changing of the human self and of its products.
(Thomas McEvilley, ‘Mute Prophecies: The Art of Jannis Kounellis’, in Jannis Kounellis 1986, p.87.)
Jannis Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1986, reproduced pl.63.
Richard Flood and Frances Morris, Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2001, reproduced p.244.
Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, reproduced p.83.