‘There is no style. 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’
Painted in 1960, Untitled is a succinct and elegant early work from Jannis Kounellis’ seminal series of Alfabeti, or ‘alphabet paintings’. Initiated in Rome in 1958, and pursued in various guises throughout the early 1960s, this ground-breaking group of works announced his arrival as an artist. With their seemingly arbitrary arrangements of letters, numbers and symbols, they offered a new form of deconstructive visual poetry, countering the prevailing painterly trends of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. Where these movements believed the canvas had the power to transmit raw human experience, Kounellis sought to establish the picture plane as a self-defining entity, following the examples set by artists such as Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein. Taking his cue from the language of signs and advertisements that he encountered on the streets of Rome, Kounellis began to stencil words, numbers and symbols onto canvas, eliminating both intelligible meaning and the presence of his own hand. ‘They were not pictures as such’, he recalls; ‘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’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in S. Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, p. 71). In the present work, the seemingly cryptic arrangement of symbols possesses a kind of concrete magic: a slice of banal reality infused with enigmatic, metaphysical logic.
Kounellis inaugurated his ‘alphabet’ paintings with a historic performance in his studio in 1960. Anticipating his later integration of works on canvas with living elements of ‘reality’ such as birds and naked flames, this live act sought to illustrate a similar unity between art and life. Dressed in an elaborate priest-like costume, emulating that worn by the Dada poet Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Kounellis wrapped himself in a painted sheet adorned with letters, numbers and signs and, as he put it, ‘sang his pictures’. The adoption of Ball’s quasi-religious costume suggests an affinity with the latter’s own attempts to disassemble language and reveal ‘the inner alchemy of the word’. Whilst Kounellis was at pains to present his works as autonomous, self-determined objects, they were not without origin. It has been suggested that the seemingly random arrangements of letters and symbols may be seen to echo the stencilled stamp marks that shipping crates acquire as they pass from harbour to harbour: a phenomenon that Kounellis would certainly have witnessed as a child growing up in the Greek port of Piraeus. Further connections may be drawn with the work of Giorgio de Chirico: another Greek-born Italian artist who similarly sought to invest his cryptic pictorial language with a sense of metaphysical potency. Kounellis’ incorporation of stenciled arrows, chevrons and dotted lines alongside his letters and numbers seem to suggest some kind of progression, sequence or equation: a ‘hermetic and mysterious writing’, claims the artist, that - much like de Chirico’s paintings - lends the works a powerful feeling of anticipation, expectation and suspense (J. Kounellis, quoted in S. Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, p. 71).