‘The work of a painter is to free something without imposing it’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in interview with C. Lonzi, in Marcartré, 1966, p. 134).
Painted in Rome in 1961, Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled was created during the period of his celebrated alphabet paintings in which he sought to free the canvas from what he regarded as the dominance of the gesture and infuse it with a purer form of artistic expression. Taking his cue from the formal qualities of the traffic signs and advertisements that he saw around him, Kounellis dissected the iconography of this language and reduced it to its most essential form, thus moving away from the emotion, action and energy of Abstract Expressionism. Born in Greece, Kounellis moved to Italy in 1956 and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he was particularly influenced by the non-figurative paintings of Alberto Burri. By seeking to integrate real objects and real life into his alphabet paintings, he sought to continue the trajectory set in motion by Burri, Piero Manzoni and the Arte Povera movement in a bid to go beyond painting itself.
In Untitled, Kounellis arranges a series of seemingly arbitrary and incongruous letters and signs. Within this configuration, the Z, X, arrows and lines appear to form a code that invites further study in order to decipher it. But Kounellis’ work is not about the artifice of traditional painting; rather, its strict formality is railing against the prevailing gestures, drip and daub tendencies of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel where the action, emotion, material, touch and will of the artist is inextricably interwoven within both the medium and the form.
Just as the nascent Arte Povera movement incorporated the physical remnants of its surroundings into its works, Kounellis used the visual signifiers that he saw in his own urban environment to develop a new, more poetic discourse. To stress his removal of the artist’s hand, Kounellis rendered his forms using simple, utilitarian stencils similar to the industrial method of production used to produce the signage and advertising images that had inspired him. Kounellis also sought for his canvases to replicate not the traditional support of fine art paintings, but more utilitarian surfaces. ‘They were not pictures as such’, the artist recalled, ‘all the canvases derived from the measurements of a house in which I lived. They referred to the wall. In fact I used to stretch the canvas, or 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’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in S. Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, p. 71).
Kounellis is one of the most widely exhibited Italian artists of the post-war period and his work has been included in exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Tate Modern in London and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. He has taken part in seven editions of the Venice Biennale since 1972, in addition to being featured at Documenta in Kassel in 1972 and 1982. Throughout his long and influential career he developed a language that embraced the archaic, the classic and the contemporary. Widely regarded as some of his most important works, the alphabet paintings stand out in their transcendence of traditional artistic vocabularies and their divorcing of painting from the shackles of the artist’s intention, thus allowing the medium to explore its full aesthetic potential.