Jannis Kounellis

Untitled (Sack with Z)


Not on display

Jannis Kounellis 1936–2017
Metal, glass, burlaq sack and coal
Displayed: 650 × 450 × 140 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 (Sack with Z) 2001 is a mesh-fronted, shallow metal box containing a jute sack filled with coal. On the front of the sack a large letter ‘Z’ is printed in black paint. The sack takes up three-quarters of the space within the box, and the top of the sack is slightly rolled back so that some of the coal is visible. From 1989 to 2005 Kounellis made a series of works produced in editions, described as multiples, in which he incorporated elements drawn from the vocabulary of his earlier practice. Untitled (Sack with Z) is one of these multiples, produced in an edition of twenty-five.

The stencilled letter ‘Z’ on the sack resembles the stencilled letters, numbers and symbols found in the artist’s early alphabet paintings, such as Untitled 1960 (Tate AR00614). In these works Kounellis used cryptic combinations of symbols to create patterns across the picture plane. In Untitled (Sack with Z) the ‘Z’ might also refer to the last letter of the alphabet or offer a symbol for finality or closure. As with Kounellis’s alphabet paintings, however, the meaning of the letter remains ambiguous.

Kounellis has used sacks of coal throughout his career, one of the earliest examples being Untitled 1969 (Tate AR00069). 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 Codognato and d’Argenzio 2002, p.317.) The sack of coal in this work might allude to trade and commerce as Kounellis suggests, recalling the artist’s place of birth, Piraeus, the busy port town of Athens.

For Kounellis the physical reality of the materials in his work is important. When, for example, he uses coal it is important that it is real, as he states: ‘A hundredweight of coal, not plastic painted like coal, not an abstract weight. A weight is what hides, its history, its morality. For the artist a hundredweight of coal is the moral history of an aesthetic.’ (Quoted in Moure 2001, p.313.) It is important to Kounellis to use materials that are what they appear to be. He sees them as authentic and honest, and, for him, their presence thus contains moral authority. The coal here, then, alludes to this sense of integrity.

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

Ruth Burgon
University of Edinburgh
January 2015

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

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