Jannis Kounellis



Not on display

Jannis Kounellis 1936–2017
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2200 × 3169 × 37 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 1971 is a large canvas hung on the wall with a wooden chair placed on the floor to the left of the painting. The landscape-format canvas is painted a dark blue-green and marked with a fragment of musical score painted in black on the right hand side. When this work was first exhibited at the Modern Art Agency in Naples a cellist sat on the chair adjacent to the painting and repeatedly played the music shown on the canvas, a fragment of J.S. Bach’s Passion According to St John, composed in 1723–4.

In its marriage of painting and performance, this work can be seen as an extension of Kounellis’s earlier experiments with painting (see, for example, Untitled 1960, Tate AR00614). In these earlier works, created in front of an audience, the artist often sang and chattered as he painted. He has commented: ‘I have always been fascinated by music. I played the violin when I was very young … My early paintings, those with letters and numbers, were also phonetic and, therefore, profoundly musical.’ (Quoted in Mario Codognato and Mirta d’Argenzio (eds.), Echoes in the Darkness: Jannis Kounellis, Writings and Interviews 1966–2002, London 2002, p.315.)

Art historian Stephen Bann notes that Kounellis’s use of the Bach oratorio might also refer to Georges Braque’s cubist painting Homage to J.S. Bach 1911–12 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), but, as Bann notes,

Kounellis seemed to have no intention of manipulating the graphic language of music in order to create a fluctuating field of ambiguous signs, as did Braque in his relatively small, almost monochrome, paintings. His notations on the canvas were demonstrably part of a score to be played, and his large painting asserted its visual presence not in spite of, but in view of the missed performance.
(Bann 2003, p.29.)

The work in its current form represents a missed encounter with the original performance. It could be read as the ‘trace’ or record of a past occurrence, ready to be activated by the imagination of the viewer. It is a part that speaks of a whole. Likewise, the fragment of Bach’s Passion According to St John stands in for the larger oratorio.

Within his whole body of work Kounellis has engaged more with sculpture and installation than with painting, but when he does produce painting it is frequently in conjunction with performance, or remembered performance. His Da inventare sul posto (To be made up on the spot) 1972 (reproduced Flood and Morris 2001, p.174) includes three elements: a large pink canvas with a fragment of musical score from Igor Stravinsky’s Tarentella; a violinist playing the music; and a ballerina dancing in front of the canvas. Like Untitled 1971, when viewed without its performers, this work remains a fragment, silently evoking music and movement.

Further reading
Mary Jane Jacob, Jannis Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1986, p.134, reproduced p.135.
Richard Flood and Frances Morris, Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2001, p.356, reproduced p.248.
Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, pp.26–9, reproduced p.28.

Ruth Burgon
The University of Edinburgh
October 2014

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

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Online caption

At the beginning of the twentieth century, cubist painters such as Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, introduced musical notes and motifs into their still-lives. In this canvas of 1971, Kounellis drew upon this avant-garde tradition, reproducing a score from Bach’s oratorio St John Passion. The work can be 'activated' with a cellist playing alongside it. The painting exists both as a work in its own right, and as a trace of the performative action. Kounellis was interested in creating a harmony between history and contemporary experience, and used the theme of music to reconcile memory with the immediacy of the present moment.

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