Back to Titles

Before responding any further to David Court or Scott Lyall, I want to assess the progress of the discussion so far. This section of the blog started off with some questions about titles, and titles expanded into captions, and then took a turn toward backstories. These are three kinds of textual supplements to abstract works. The title of an abstract work of art can have a very strong effect on how we see it, much more so than the descriptive title of a figurative piece. We could say “that picture by Rogier van der Weyden of Christ being taken off the cross,” or we could say “van der Weyden’s Deposition“—really it’s the same thing, and a descriptive title like that leaves little space for literariness of any kind, in fact probably precludes it. On the other hand, if collaged tissue papers made in Russia before the revolution are entitled Cosmic Energy, or Victory over the Sun, or some such thing, it means a lot, and adds a lot. It’s a very heavy interference in the business of the work.

Olga Rozanova, from the series Universal War 1916











And as I discussed earlier, with reference to Rothko, there doesn’t actually have to be a poetic or otherwise evocative title attached to the work for the implicit caption to operate the same way, providing a lot of content that otherwise might not occur to even the most sensitive viewer. So in this sense, a figurative work could be more autonomous, meaning more productive of its own meanings, than an abstraction, a counter-intuitive thought but a correct one.

Titles are then an important resource for abstraction; they can help to bring works without images or depictions into closer relations with life, politics, history, what you will, but in the process the object itself seems to be diminished, to have less reason to exist for itself. If backstories today tend to make explicit what formerly was implicit, do they then accelerate the demystification of art, its reduction to factuality and objecthood, and does the “presence” or aura of a work depend to some degree on the unstated backstory or caption? If so, this is to take the opposite tack than I did earlier, where I suggested that backstories are a way to restore meanings lost with the historical evaporation of presence.

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2 Responses to Back to Titles

  1. Chris Gergley says:

    I think the recent posts and feed back are dealing with a problem that you have touched on (picked at) for some time. I believe that what you have been picking at is a major wound that will not easily heal over. I have several comments on the recent posts and on the general problems of texts and managing meanings in contemporary art, but I first want to mention a recent experience I had.
    About a month ago, I returned to the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Tate Modern. I discovered a room separated from the main exhibition. It contained a group of six 9’x9′ paintings and the word “Cage” printed on the wall as I entered. I know nothing of this particular work of Richter’s, or it’s title. I assumed that it had something to do with “John Cage” (a frequent source of inspiration for artists), but kept open the evocation of the English word, cage.
    While the paintings are visually stimulating (ie: there is a lot to look at if you have the time), I don’t know if I was “moved” by the work, but I may have been moved by the painting/title (visual/textual) pairing. I wanted to know more. As I scanned the room I saw several paragraphs of text printed on the wall almost as large as one of the paintings. I resisted. Titles are the minimum textual component that accompanies all all artworks (even “untitled”), and that is often too much. The title “Cage” was so evocative, the word stayed with me as I viewed the paintings, the paintings needed time. Was I going to waste that time reading a text that is most likely available after the show is over. I still wanted to “know” more. I had to turn to the paintings. The paintings were mute. As paintings are. But… The desire to know more, coupled with the painting/title began to move me.
    I looked closer and spent longer with the work than expected. My desire to know more became satisfied by the visual. Of course the paintings made no great revelations for my extra effort. In the end I did not “know” more but I did “see” more!

  2. Ricki Oltean says:

    It started with this, a conversation with my neighbour Guy, at the kitchen table over coffee on an unusually warm winter day. He asked me how I go about giving a title to one of my paintings. This started a long discussion. The paintings used to be given numerical titles because of a discomfort with language. Numbers are finite in their meaning, five is five, a number is an idea out there in space but we know what five is and that five plus five is ten. With numbers there are infinite possibilities, combinations.
    During the last couple of years the paintings have become title-less. To name something is to take ownership of it but we do not possess anything, not even the bodies which we seem so attached to and reliant on. Even our bodies will disown us. One of the first tasks given to Adam by God was to name everything around him. What was the purpose of this? Did this give Adam a sense of ownership over the earth, connection, meaning, purpose, possession? Possession is an illusion. When something is given a name it hinders further investigation into the reality of its substance, it stops the process of thinking. A cat is a cat. There it ends. But what is a cat? What is a cat made up of, what does it smell like, why the name cat, how is its skin held together, how big are its lungs, how long has it been on earth..?
    What is colour, what is shape, what is line, how much space is between the edges of that line, what holds together this substance, how will the characteristics of this paint change over time, how will it be affected by its environment, how is my eye perceiving this particular shade of Prussian blue? A title is a classification of the final image, not the substance of the physical painting. To observe a painting/art we perceive the entire thing: colour, shape, line, space, contours, edges. To use language to describe this collection of moments that have physical qualities is to give the painting a finite identity. When broken down into its reality it is merely a collection of atoms. Title creates illusion. Our knowledge of a painting comes through our senses. Language is separate from this visual, internal experience. To give a painting a title is to make it stagnant and final. It hinders the viewers process of investigation into the substance of the object, image. A painting with a title signifies an end. Closed to the opportunity to be anything other than that image.
    How can you title an abstraction? A cat is a cat. An abstraction is an abstraction. The artist wants to give Title to an image of abstraction. Title to the image, to the mirage. Image is not the real thing, it is a likeness of something greater unseen. It is merely a reflection of abstraction. The image is the reflection of the abstraction? To give Title to the image, which is just a reflection is to say that this is the reality which it is not. This is the lie. The image is an illusion.
    I am still unsure of how or if to title the paintings. For now they will remain title-less.

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