At nearly two metres in length, this Untitled painting from 1960 is a large and important example from the rare group of Jannis Kounellis' first paintings that he made in Rome in the early 1960s. These paintings, which incorporate a seemingly arbitrary and autonomous assemblage of letters, words, numbers and signs are known as the artist's 'alphabet paintings' and were made by Kounellis for his first one-man show held at the Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome, in 1960, and continued to be produced in varying form until 1966. With hindsight it seems both fitting and somewhat prophetic that Kounellis should have announced both his arrival as an artist and the beginning of his artistic journey with such primary elements as those of his 'alphabet pictures'. Using the most basic components of language, (letters, numbers, and simple signs) broken down into their constituent parts and then seemingly reassembled on the canvas as autonomous elements composed according to a new, complex and seemingly unintelligible order, Kounellis was both deconstructing the conventions of language and announcing a new poetry.
In choosing to present such simple, universally recognisable, but also dry and emotionless elements as letters or numbers as the components of his painting, Kounellis was evidently reacting against the prevailing tendencies of Abstract Expressionism and the Informel where the action, emotion, material, touch and will of the artist is inextricably interwoven with medium and form. From the very beginning of this series of paintings, it appeared almost as if Kounellis was attempting to teach of a new way or an alternate direction to that offered at that time by either Pop Art or the Informel. Taking his cue from the language of signs and advertisements on the streets of Rome, words such as 'Olio', 'Paint' and 'Tabacchi', Kounellis had attempted in his very earliest paintings to reintegrate these graphic and literary elements of 'reality' and his own daily life into his work. In so doing he was echoing the attempt to integrate art and life taken by Americans like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg whose work he had come to know through his friendship with Pino Pascali, though he soon became disenchanted with the immersion of this direction into the 'style' and stasis of Pop. 'There is no style', Kounellis later asserted, 'What we must try to achieve... is the unity between art and life. The history of Pop art and many other forms of painting removes this unity. Like all industrial and technological things, they place you in a state of detachment from what you're doing.' (Kounellis, 'Interview with Marisa Volpi', Marcatr , Rome, May 1968).
The 'alphabet paintings' that Kounellis made after these first 'word' paintings, were pointers to a new direction. Following the examples of Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni whose embracing of the monochrome, rejection of representation and incorporation or real elements into their painting served as an important stimuli, Kounellis sought to integrate real objects and real life into his own work. His paintings of street signs and the early stenciled 'alphabet' paintings were attempts to go beyond painting itself. 'They were not pictures as such,' Kounellis remembered, 'all the canvases derived from the measurements of the house in which I lived. They referred to the wall. In fact I used to stretch the canvas or the sheet, right up to the limits of the corners of the wall, the painting ended there...It was like taking off a fresco, since the canvases or sheets had the form and breadth of the walls of the room...The letters or painted signs, they came however, from forms which I prepared out of hard cardboard. They were printed, not calligraphic but structural." (Jannis Kounellis quoted in Stephen Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London, 2003, p. 71).
Similarly, the simple recognisable symbols in these works are entirely self-referential and autonomous non-painterly elements that, belying perhaps a certain rhythm, exist independently from the canvas or paper. With their forms rendered through the impersonal and regularised order of a stencil, they betray nothing of the painterly touch or feeling of the artist's hand, nor are they appropriated images from the language of advertising. They are the fragmented building blocks of an undisclosed language, one that, they suggest, exists elsewhere. They are also, they seem to suggest, seeds of a new poetry, and indeed, it is in this respect that they anticipate much of the future direction of Kounellis' art.
As if to emphasize the inherent artifice of language, both pictorial and literal, Kounellis inaugurated these 'alphabet' paintings with a memorable performance in his studio in 1960. Anticipating his later integration of works on canvas with living elements of 'reality' such as birds in cages, parrots on perches, candles or naked flames as well as with the performances of dance and music, Kounellis' performance with these paintings attempted to illustrate a similar integration of the elements of the painting with the space and arena of the real world. Dressing himself in an elaborate costume like that of a priest's and emulating that worn by another great disassembler of language, the Dada poet Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Kounellis wrapped himself in a painted sheet also adorned with letters, numbers and signs and, as he later recalled, 'sang his pictures'. The adoption of Ball's also quasi-religious costume suggests that Kounellis was not only aware of Ball's work and his attempts to break-up language and reveal 'the inner alchemy of the word', but also that he shared his aims. Certainly Ball's deconstructive approach to language is echoed in Kounellis's 'alphabet' pictures which, with their conscious disruption of recognizable language appear to destroy all sense of coherent meaning at the very same time that they assert a new visual poetics.
The apparent incoherence of the signs and letters on these works is not as without origin as it may at first seem however. The stenciled arrows, chevrons, numbers and dotted lines that appear in these works do form together to suggest some kind of progression, sequence or equation - one that hints perhaps at an 'inner alchemy', a secret mathematics or poetry. This 'hermetic and mysterious writing, as Kounellis himself has called it, creates 'rhythms' he insists, 'since the space is always rhythmic'. (Kounellis, quoted in Iibid, p. 71). It is in this way that the 'real' stencilled elements of the painting articulate and energize the blank space of the painting and infuse its empty white space with a pregnant sense of poetry and possibility. In the manner in which this is done, and even though Kounellis himself is always keen to deny any Greek influence in his work, often insisting after his move to Rome in 1956 that he is 'a Greek person but an Italian artist', many of the forms of his 'alphabet paintings' may in fact recall his Greek roots. For, as has often been pointed out, the apparent arbitrariness with which the arrows, direction lines and sequence of letters and numbers are arranged in these works, actually echoes closely the same mysterious logic and strange sense of odyssey to be found on the stencilled stamp marks that shipping crates acquire as they pass from harbour to harbour and ship to shore. It is an accidental language of fragmentary signs and symbols that Kounellis, who grew up in the Greek port of Piraeus, would have witnessed as a child on a daily basis.
A mysterious, enigmatic language that speaks of an outer world penetrating the small world of his youth and speaking of a wider realm of existence. In Kounellis' similar evoking of this sense of a wider, hidden or perhaps unifying language of meaning lying within the illogic of the signs and symbols of his 'alphabet paintings, he here approaches the same strongly Mediterranean sense of metaphysics and of laic mystery of the other great Greek-born Italian artist of the Twentieth Century, Giorgio de Chirico. Whether such childhood experience really prompted the rhythmic structure of his 'alphabet' paintings is not known, but it is, nevertheless, exactly this same sense of a wider language of real things existing beyond the shores of the artificial realm of painting that these paintings poetically evoke and which Kounellis intended them to reveal.