Untitled 1993 consists of two parts: a dandelion yellow square painted directly onto the gallery wall, and a brushed steel rectangular bed frame with tight, twisted springs. The yellow painting is over two metres square and sits thirty centimetres above the floor. The bedframe hangs by its top right-hand corner from a swivel hook placed a little above the painted square. As such it sits at an angle to the perpendicular lines of the yellow surface. The volume and weight of the bedframe contrast with the flatness of the painted surface.
The square is a repeated quotation in Kounellis’s work and the yellow square in particular can be seen in his earlier Manifesto for a Utopian Theatre 1973 (reproduced Moure 1990, p.115). That installation consisted of three elements: a canvas painted yellow, a sewing machine with a drawing of a female outline under the needle and a sheet of paper on which twenty-five black and white photographs are mounted. The utopianism referenced in the title of Manifesto for a Utopian Theatre has been seen by some critics as an important aspect of Kounellis’s practice. For example, art historian Thomas McEvilley has suggested that Kounellis’s frequent use of the square refers to one of the founding works of geometric abstraction, Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1915 (McEvilley 1999, p.119). This seems an apt comparison, since Malevich’s Black Square has often been understood as poised between spiritual, transcendental and more materialist, literal meaning, and similarly, as we see in Untitled 1993, Kounellis’s utopianism seems tempered by an emphasis on the material properties of everyday things.
In her writing on Manifesto for a Utopian Theatre the curator Mary Jane Jacobs has sought to expand the list of referents in the work to evoke a broader range of natural and cultural associations: ‘More than its possible references to the square-formatted paintings of Malevich; the yellow of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, cornfields, and suns; the gold of the Byzantine world – yellow is the colour of disease, plague, and suffering.’ (Quoted in Moure 1990, p.171.) Such varied interpretations of the colour yellow are also possible in Untitled, as it becomes both the colour of transcendence and of the earthbound, with the stark bed frame standing both for the transcendental escape of dreaming and for institutional functionality.
Jannis Kounellis has been using bed frames, among other everyday materials, in his work since the 1960s. After moving to Rome in 1956, he became associated with a loose group of artists working with humble materials in response to the economic downturn in Italy in the post-war period. The art critic Germano Celant coined the term arte povera to describe this work in 1967. In works from this period, Kounellis experimented with arrangements of wool and fuel on bedframes, but they have since reappeared numerous times in the artist’s practice. Sometimes they are used like a conventional picture frame, to highlight a particular element in a larger installation, or as a supportive framework for another material. The bedframes also function as a cipher for the human body, allowing the viewer to project him- or herself into the space of the work. This interest in the anthropomorphic is also evident in the artist’s use of doors and tables.
Untitled 1993 also seems to visualise Kounellis’s own artistic progression. With its combination of painted surface and bedframe, the work gestures to the artist’s shift from two dimensional painting in works such as Untitled 1960 (Tate AR00614), to later sculptural and installation work, referencing techniques that have become central to his career.
Gloria Moure, Kounellis, New York 1990.
Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, New York 1999, pp.117–45.
Mario Codognato and Mirta d’Argenzio (eds.), Echoes in the Darkness: Jannis Kounellis, Writings and Interviews 1966–2002, London 2002.
Georgina Bolton and Ruth Burgon
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.