Jannis Kounellis



Not on display

Jannis Kounellis 1936–2017
Polyvinyl acetate paint and tempera on canvas
Support: 1409 × 2305 × 30 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 is a landscape-format painting on canvas. A rough-edged, off-white rectangle sits at the centre of the image bordered by a raw canvas edge with several signs and numbers stencilled on the surface in black paint. The text dominates the top portion of the canvas. It could be read like a mathematical formula as: ‘X x + 44 4’, with the first two ‘X’ shapes underlined. However, the signs do not sit on even ground; the two X’s seem unbalanced on their linear platform, with the smaller of the two appearing to tip over. Likewise the numbers of the right-hand side are not evenly spaced, two brush up against one another, while the other is isolated. Two horizontal lines painted below this are stepped, and in the lower right-hand corner a small arrow points to another large ‘X’.

This painting is part of a cycle of canvases variously known as Figures and Letters or Alfabeti (alphabet paintings) that Jannis Kounellis painted in Rome between 1959 and 1962 or 1963, shortly after his arrival in Italy from Greece in 1956. Kounellis recalled that the painted signs came from ‘forms which I prepared out of hard cardboard. They were printed, not calligraphic but structural.’ (Quoted in Bann 2003, p.71.) Several other examples from this series are held in public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The artist made these paintings by stretching canvas, sheeting or burlap over the interior walls in his house. He then painted directly onto the canvas using household paints. Kounellis has observed that when the canvas was removed from the wall its size was determined by the measurements of the architecture: ‘It was like taking off a fresco, since the canvases or sheets had the form and breadth of the walls of the room.’ (Quoted in Bann 2003, p.71.) Inspired by the spontaneous painting techniques of Jackson Pollock, Kounellis aimed to make a performance out of the process of painting. As he painted, he sang rhythmically and wore a costume made out of another completed canvas from the series. The process was recorded in a photograph of the artist at work by Claudio Abate (reproduced in Germano Celant, Jannis Kounellis, exhibition catalogue, Musei di Rimini, Rimini 1983, p.35.) As has been observed by several critics, amongst them Stephen Bann, Kounellis’s performance resembled a Dadaist display, with the artist’s cone-like costume recalling that of Dada artist Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 (Bann 2003, p.77).

Kounellis recalls that when he was painting the series,

My sights were focussed on Informalism at that point, on [Jean] Fautrier in particular, as a protraction of traditional painting. I still saw the survival of an illusion, of a … centrality in those works: a centrality of the universe, of painting, even of the role of the artist, which doesn’t seem particularly relevant to our era. That’s what these paintings of mine with recognizable and significant characters and letters meant to the viewer, nothing beyond what they see. But not to me. They indicated the names of my favourites at the time.
(Quoted in Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.237.)

The seemingly cryptic symbols are suggestive of a language, code or mathematical formula but resist any particular meaning or representation. Signs that usually identify size, weight and direction are set free of their moorings, floating across the canvas. Art historian Gloria Moure has observed that these figures ‘were undoubtedly compositional signs, somewhere between image, language and arithmetic, intended to be recited in the midst of unconnected babblings.’ (Moure 2001, p.25.) For Kounellis the symbols ‘were also phonetic and, therefore, profoundly musical’ as well as having a linguistic basis, rooted in the artist’s interest in writers such as Giuseppe Ungaretti (quoted in Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.315). Stephen Bann notes too that the Figures and Letters paintings have a connection with seafaring and the movement of goods, writing that their arrows ‘appear to imply direction and circulation, while the letters mimic the bold marks of identification on transport vessels and their packaged cargo’ (Bann 2003, p.77).

Kounellis stopped making the Figures and Letters paintings in 1962 or 1963 since, as he said, they ‘began to be considered a style, I stopped making them and over the next three years did six Seascapes.’ (Quoted in Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.173.) Through the 1960s Kounellis expanded his painterly practice first by incorporating found elements (for example Untitled 1960–98, Tate AR00068) and later by developing more object-based (see Untitled 1969, Tate AR00069) and installation work (see Untitled 1979, Tate T03796).

Further reading
Gloria Moure, Jannis Kounellis: Works, Writings 1985–2000, Barcelona 2001, pp.25, 50–1.
Mario Codognato and Mirta d’Argenzio (eds.), Echoes in the Darkness: Jannis Kounellis, Writings and Interviews 1966–2002, London 2002, pp.173, 237, 315.
Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, pp.68–80.

Ruth Burgon
The University of Edinburgh
July 2014

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

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Online caption

Like many artists of his generation, Kounellis merged traditional art forms with new performative elements. This early composition comes from a series of ‘alphabet paintings’ known as 'Alfabeti'. Including overlapping letters and arrows that create dynamic and unpredictable compositions, it takes inspiration from the spontaneous technique of the action painter, Jackson Pollock. Stencilled thickly onto a white background, the arrangement of the letters invokes a rhythm which appears to make the black marks float freely in their surrounding space. As if denoting the emergence of some new primitive language, these signs were also enacted by Kounellis himself in ritualistic performances.

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