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Jannis Kounellis (1936 - 2017)



October 19, 2004
London, United Kingdom

More About this Item


signed and dated 60 on the reverse

oil and pencil on canvas


137 by 242cm.

54 by 95 1/4 in.


B. 1936


Galleria Trisorio, Naples
Libero Grande, Naples
Thence by descent to the present owners


As one of the most influential artists from the Arte Povera movement, Jannis Kounellis concentrated on extracting the beautiful and the extraordinary from within the context of the everyday and commonplace. Belonging to the first important series in Kounellis' oeuvre which was collectively known as the Sign or Alphabet paintings executed between 1959 and 1966, Untitled represents one of the most important examples of Kounellis' early work to appear at auction. The Alphabet paintings were a significant departure from the reigning generic form of artistic expression, Art Informel, and became the roots of a new artistic language: the Arte Povera movement. Hovering mysteriously over the surface of an imposing plain white canvas, a myriad of letters, arrows and arithmetical symbols drawn directly from the street life of Rome fuse together in monumental grandeur, shirking any subjective or autobiographical content. We are confronted by a profound culmination of natural and abstract elements that carry the seeds of Kounellis' mature artistic vocabulary, the two opposed realms co-existing here in simple harmony. As Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has pointed out, the importance of Untitled lies in the fact that it is "Neither abstract nor representational, [these works] signal the artist's awareness that the debate between abstract and figurative art was no longer relevant in a post-industrial landscape where signs are perceived as real and shape consciousness." (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera, London 1999, p. 32)

Kounellis is here questioning our understanding of the relationships between language, material and art. By presenting them juxtaposed and inseparable in a deliberately ambiguous context, we are unable to focus on any component aspect in isolation but must rather consider their mutual interdependence and coexistence as a whole, which ultimately forces us to consider the validity and meaning of the terms. As Thomas McEvilly notes, "His [Kounellis'] paintings show several strategies for breaking out of a hermetic chamber of pure form and establishing contact with the real world roundabout. The exclusion of images and natural forms in favour of letters, numbers and signs brought the work partly out of the range of the image, whether abstract or surrealistic, into an interface between plastic form and conceptual discourse." (Thomas McEvilly in Exhibition Catalogue, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jannis Kounellis, 1986, p. 25)

Kounellis' Alphabet series represents one of the earliest and most important explorations into the complex relationship between text and image, one that was to exert a strong influence over the work of Bruce Nauman and Joseph Kosuth. Kounellis arranged the bold black forms consciously, without meaning, on the plain white canvas, their stencilled forms a reference to the early Pop images of Jasper Johns. Despite actively eschewing coherence and meaning, we are nevertheless able to relate to the symbols with recognisable systems of language and cultural identity. Although no specific interpretation can be pinned down, certain associations are made and implied. In this way Kounellis seems to be suggesting that even the simplest vehicles for communication like numbers and letters are infused with their own inherent symbolism.

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Libero Grande, Naples

October 19, 2004, 12:00 AM EST

London, United Kingdom

For Sale from Sotheby's