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signed and dated ‘Kounellis 60’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
59 1⁄2 x 79 1⁄2in. (151 x 202cm.)
Painted in 1960
Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, Greece (acquired from the above in 1972).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
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Post lot text
This work is registered in the Archivio Kounellis, Rome, no. JK60T/C0090, and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.
Sale room notice
Please note that this lot which was not marked with a circle and diamond symbol in the printed catalogue is now subject to a minimum price guarantee and has financed by a third party. Please see the conditions of sale for further information.

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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Auction

Lot Essay

Painted in 1960, Untitled is a rich, large-scale example of the ground-breaking Alfabeti (Alphabet Paintings) that formed the subject of Jannis Kounellis’ first solo exhibition at Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome that year. Upon a vast blank ground spanning two metres in width, a cryptic array of letters and numbers unfolds: loosely organised in two horizontal rows, they read ‘S Z Z E / 4 X 4 S’. Appearing before the viewer like fragments from words or equations, the symbols are stripped of all context, recast as floating shapes that quiver with untold meaning. Begun in 1959, three years after he moved from his native Greece to study at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Rome, the Alfabeti were Kounellis’ first major works. Turning everyday signs into strange, abstract ciphers, they marked the start of a practice that would come to form an essential part of the Arte Povera movement during the late 1960s and 1970s. The present work takes its place alongside other major early Alfabeti, comparable in both scale and ambition to examples held in Tate, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Born in the Greek port of Piraeus, Kounellis had originally studied art in Athens before emigrating to Italy at the age of 20. As a student in Rome, he was deeply influenced by the Italian avant-garde at the time—notably the work of Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni, whose raw, elemental creations stood in stark contrast to the expressive painterly tendencies that were sweeping Europe and America. Inspired by the street signs and adverts he witnessed in Rome, as well as the lettering on shipping crates that had drifted in and out of the port during his childhood, Kounellis began to forge his own stripped-back visual language. By using everyday symbols, but severing their quotidian function, he drew attention to the arbitrary nature of our communication systems, revealing the alphabet as an abstract set of lines, rhythms and forms. In this, his practice invites comparison with that of artists such as Antoni Tàpies, Alighiero Boetti and Cy Twombly, all of whom would use numbers, letters and other symbols to explore the ways in which we attempt to impose order and meaning upon the chaos of human existence.   

It was in 1960—the year of the present work—that Kounellis unveiled his Alfabeti to the public. For the exhibition at Galleria La Tartaruga, the artist made a number of works by painting onto vast canvases stretched over the inside walls of his house, allowing its internal architecture to determine their dimensions. When the sheet was removed, he explained, ‘It was like taking off a fresco’ (J. Kounellis, quoted in S. Bann, Jannis Kounellis, London 2003, p. 71). The sense of ancient, sacred purpose was enhanced by the performative nature of Kounellis’ practice: the artist sang the letters as he worked, cloaking himself in a completed canvas in a manner that recalled the priestly outfit worn by the Dada artist Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. This ritual-like ceremony seemed to illuminate Kounellis’ artistic mission: his works were at once meaningless and yet full of poetic intrigue, posing as incantations laden with mysterious truths. As his practice evolved, Kounellis would elaborate this duality, injecting base objects and materials with a sense of alchemical wonder. In the present work, the commonplace becomes strange and alluring, as if the fragments of words and calculations might somehow point towards a new order.

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