Jannis Kounellis created his Lettere or Alfabeti (Letters or Alphabets) series between 1959 and 1963 while he was a student at Rome’s Accademia di Belle Arti. By stamping or stenciling letters, numbers, and symbols onto paper or, less often, canvas, Kounellis developed a new pictorial syntax. In this work, however, Kounellis used one of his partner’s bedsheets from her trousseau, as canvas was prohibitively expensive for the then art student. Transposing the bold marks seen on transport vessels or street signs, Kounellis’s signs build a structure on the white- painted support as if they were architectural elements. Such works are reminiscent of poetry made of spare signs and letters. By using a form of public language rendered in a poetic style, Kounellis expressed the necessity for a new vocabulary of painting after the crisis of early postwar years. According to Kounellis, the series is “hermetic writing in space... The letters or painted signs came from hard cardboard which I prepared. They were printed, not calligraphic—but structural.” Though ambiguous, the letter “J,” the artist’s first initial, also reminds us of later experiments in Arte Povera around artistic signature.


  • Title: Untitled
  • Creator: Jannis Kounellis
  • Creator Lifespan: (1936 – 2017)
  • Creator Nationality: Greek-Italian
  • Date Created: 1960
  • Physical Dimensions: h 260, w 180 cm
  • Rights: Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art Foundation
  • Medium: Enamel on linen

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