‘The work of a painter is to free something without imposing it’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in C. Lonzi, ‘Interview with Jannis Kounellis,’ Marcartré, December 1966, p. 134).
Untitled dates from Jannis Kounellis’s explosive arrival into the art world. Incorporating a seemingly arbitrary and autonomous assemblage of letters, words, numbers and signs, similar ‘alphabet paintings’ were made for his frst one-man show, held at the Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome in 1960. Although it was sculpture that would come to define his practice, to this day Kounellis still describes himself as a painter and his works as paintings; it is fittingly prophetic that he should have announced the beginning of his artistic journey with such primary semiotic elements. Using the most basic components of language (letters, numbers, and simple signs) broken down into their constituent parts and then re-composed according to a striking, complex and seemingly unintelligible order, Kounellis was both deconstructing the conventions of language and announcing a powerful new poetry.
As Adachiara Zevi has written of these works, ‘Fragmentary, displaced, turned upside down, they escape from the support to arrive in space like the stuttering of a new language yet to become a whole. Their random character, however, is only apparent. The letters are all the same size and impersonally painted. Both abstract and spatially undefined, they translate the introverted space of Pollock’s dripping into the public space of urban signage’ (A. Zevi, ‘An Engaged Modern Painter,’ Jannis Kounellis, exh. cat. Modern Art Oxford, 2004, p. 16). Allied in social spirit to Arte Povera, Kounellis was reacting against the prevailing tendencies of Abstract Expressionism and art informel where the action, emotion, touch and will of the artist are inextricably interwoven with medium and form. ‘The history of art,’ he affirmed, ‘cannot be separated from the history of society’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in R. White, ‘Interview at Crown Point Press,’ View, vol. 1, no. 10, March 1979). Kounellis’s arrows and letters, while seeming to encompass the brokenness of post-War Europe, point to the thrilling new directions that one of the most varied and important artistic careers of the century would take.