Jannis Kounellis



Not on display

Jannis Kounellis 1936–2017
Steel panel, enamel on paper on 2 canvases, fabric, coal, 3 metal hooks and metal rod
Displayed: 2000 × 1800 × 460 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Untitled 1960-98 is a large wall-mounted work by the artist Jannis Kounellis. The work is comprised of two stretched canvases hung near the top of a flat steel panel, a portion of which is painted with enamel. These canvases are covered in off-white paper and painted with black symbols. Over the canvases is a piece of raw-edged khaki tarpaulin, folded and attached to the top of the steel panel by two S-shaped meat hooks that grip the top edge. Between these two hooks, another large metal rod hangs down, with a third S-shaped meat hook at its lower end from which hangs a jute sack full of coal. This work contains numerous elements characteristic of Kounellis’s artistic vocabulary as well as the everyday materials used in arte povera, a label the curator Germano Celant applied to the practice of many artists working in Italy in the late 1960s, including Kounellis.

Curator Dieter Roelstraete notes that Kounellis often refers to the metal sheets in his work as ‘sheets of paper’, suggesting that he considers the metal sheet to be a backdrop or support from which to build up the work, which is how it might be thought of here (Roelstraete 2002, p.16). The first elements attached to the sheet are the two canvases, which are painted with stencilled black letters and symbols. They are mostly hidden from view. The left-hand portrait-orientated canvas has three dashes and a ‘4’ stenciled in black that cannot be seen, but on the right-hand landscape-orientated canvas, the edges of a large letter ‘Z’ are just visible. These resemble the artist’s early alphabet paintings, such as Untitled 1960 (Tate AR00614), in which the artist used cryptic combinations of symbols to create visual rhythm across the picture plane. The addition of these canvases, as well as their canvas overlay, gesture to the artist’s use of different materials throughout his career, with the hooks and coal not only gesturing to the everyday objects incorporated in many works associated with arte povera, but also the frequent use of elements in suspension as well as fire.

In a 2002 interview the artist reflected: ‘You know that I used burlap sacks in many of my works. Those sacks are tied to the idea of maritime commerce. You can find them in every Levantine harbor. But you find them in New York or in South America too, the whole world over.’ (Quoted in Mario Codognato and Mirta d’Argenzio (eds.), Echoes in the Darkness: Jannis Kounellis, Writings and interviews 1966–2002, London 2002, p.317.) The sack of coal in this work might also allude to trade and commerce as Kounellis suggests, recalling the artist’s place of birth, Piraeus, the busy port district of Athens. The khaki tarpaulin adds to this reading, suggesting military attire in an allusion to the movement of troops that takes place in ports. Though the artist left Greece to live in Rome at the age of twenty, the sights, smells and sensations of the busy seaport never left him, and resurface in this work. However, the juxtaposition of banal materials in this work also resists any straightforward biographical analysis, as art historian Stephen Bann notes, ‘Kounellis’s insistence on the use of the term “Untitled” … denotes among other things a determination not to foreclose interpretation with crude literary or anecdotal readings.’ (Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, p.54.)

Further reading
Gloria Moure, Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings 1985–2000, Barcelona 2001, reproduced p.198.
Bruno Corà, Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Centre per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato 2001, reproduced p.51.
Dieter Roelstraete, Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Voor Actuele Kunst, Gent 2002, reproduced p.168.

Ruth Burgon
The University of Edinburgh
November 2014

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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Online caption

In the late 1960s Kounellis played a key role in the foundation of Arte Povera. Literally meaning ‘Poor Art’, this was an anti-elitist movement that promoted a new openness to artistic production characterised by the use of non-art materials. Here, steel panels and canvases create a framework from which a sack of coal is suspended. The tension between the supporting structure and weight of the hanging materials draws our attention towards the centre of the composition and the special properties of the coal. Conjuring up a sense of its mass, texture and distinctive aroma, Kounellis’s integration of this ordinary substance reflected Arte Povera’s ambitions to unite art with everyday, lived experience.

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