White Cube Mason’s Yard presents a major exhibition by Jannis Kounellis, focusing on the artist’s early works, “the Alfabeto” series of paintings and works on paper, created in the late 1950s. This is the most in depth presentations of this historical body of work to date, offering a review of Kounellis’ artistic development through a reconsideration of these early masterpieces.
“The Alfabeto” series on paper and canvas were produced at the start of Kounellis’ career, while he was still a student in Rome, from around 1958 onwards. Using black tempera, ink, enamel or acrylic paint on a white ground such as paper, cardboard, canvas – either singly or combined together – they feature black stencilled numbers, letters, arithmetical symbols and arrows.
The first exhibition of the Alfabeto series was titled “L’alfabeto di Kounellis” and held at Galleria La Tartaruga the first contemporary art gallery in Rome, and described later by Kounellis as ‘a hermetic rhythmic writing in space’ (from: A conversation with Jannis Kounellis, Ocula). This was followed in 1964 and 1966 at Galleria Arco D’Alibert, Rome.
Creating a new visual language across their surfaces, the letters, signs and numbers in these paintings are repeated, overlaid, fragmented or inverted. Always impersonal and regularized due to their stencilled application they are painted in a textural and imperfect manner, reflecting both a sense of the hand-made and the smooth industrial production of the signs and advertising of the street.
With these works, Kounellis moved his painting away from abstract formalism towards a more conceptual discourse. Like other works from the period, they register a transformation occurring in Italy during the time, with the influence of American culture and a culture of consumption, what Italian art historian Giuliano Briganti has defined as ‘a break with the past, a provocative action’, a move away from formalism into the real world. Following this series, Kounellis began to introduce found sculptural objects into his works, including actual street signs, as well as other elements, creating a convergence of painting, sculpture and performance.
Also on show at White Cube Masons Yard will be several other works on paper and a selection of early wall-based sculptures by the artist, which date from the late 1980s and 1990s, featuring Kounellis’ signature combination of contrasting elements – wax, lead, burlap, steel, coal and fabric.