What’s in a Name?
by Lewis Kachur
John Welchman asks, “What is in a name” when it comes to the titles of modern artworks? His answer is that they’re short “texts,” the artwork’s first utterance. This focus on titles leads to an ambitious reconsideration of mainstream modernism that ranges from Monet’s Impressionism to Robert Smithson’s earthworks. Welchman dubs his own opus after a “mot” by Marcel Duchamp, who once noted that a work’s title is an “invisible color.”
Welchman discerns three primary modes of titles: denotative, connotative and untitling (or numbering). “First, the continuation of broadly denotative titles, where the words are presumed to stand in direct and untroubled relation to that which is represented. Second, the set of titles that can be said to provoke connotative, allusive, or even, in Dada and Surrealism, absurd and non-consequential references to an image. And third, the conclusively modernist practice of advertising the absence of a title through the description ‘Untitled’ or through numbering or other systematic, non-referential designations.”
Apart from spinning out his own general theory on the topic, Welchman also surveys the previous art historical literature that focuses on titles and their meaning. The fairly scant selection includes discussions by British art historians Ernst Gombrich and Stephen Bann, as well as specific studies like Brenda Richardson’s essay on the titles of Frank Stella’s black paintings.
He also sifts through a myriad of artist’s writings and statements regarding titles. This project, which originated as part of a doctoral dissertation in the 1980s, is founded on a basically deconstructive maneuver: to bring the seemingly marginal (the title) to the center, to see what can be overturned.
Approached this way, the lineup of modernist painting is shuffled. Paul Gauguin’s classic painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? — the book’s cover image — becomes more significant than any Still Life by Cézanne. Symbolism in general plays an expanded role, with Gauguin joined by Redon and Signac in a general elevation of the literary.
One focus, Signac’s polyphonic Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Colors, Portrait of M. Felix Feneon in 1890, Opus 217, makes for an overstuffed image but a marvelous title. “The titling strategies developed in and around the Symbolist milieu established paradigms that would be carried forward as predicates for many of the naming strategies operative in the 20th century,” writes Welchman. Symbolism rarely is accorded such stature in accounts of modernism. Similarly, an artist often marginalized, such as James Whistler, takes on magnified importance with his elaborately crafted musical titles like Arrangement in Grey and Black for the famous portrait of his mother.
Welchman pays considerable attention to titles artists gave their abstract paintings during the early 20th century. The term “composition” is explored in its vagaries, from Whistler-like musical associations to the “representation of revision” for Kandinsky and for Mondrian, “a sort of philosophical envelope for the social high seriousness of his whole pictorial enterprise.”
Yet the same term represents an overly estheticized anathema for Malevich, who with his Soviet cohorts much preferred “construction” for their Productivist works.
Welchman gives intermittent attention to related developments, such as the rise of varied exhibition spaces, which is the subject of a brief epilogue. The use of titles for marketing is also mentioned. Whistler is quoted: “Without baptism [of the picture with a title], there is no … market.” Yet the role of the dealer in titling is not always engaged, and in practical terms may be impossible to pin down.
From the outset Welchman admits that his study is “introductory to a larger project of accounting in some measure for the full interdependence of visual and textual discourses in the late 19th and 20th centuries.” Welchman thus joins the already overcrowded ranks of those who tilt against the Greenbergian nirvana of purity and self-definition of the arts, and reasonably so.
As a former Artforum critic, now writing for the Australian journal Art & Text, Welchman has produced some astonishing titles himself, such as After the Wagnerian Bouillabaisse and Parametrology: From the White Cube to the Rainbow Net. By the time he reaches a sketch of Postmodernism, he is ready to abandon his theme altogether, contending “it no longer makes sense to isolate the title as a singular textual strategy.”
Nonetheless he traces the three primary modes of titling in their post-modern “returns.” In brief, Conceptualists and Smithson open up the denotative title, while neo-Expressionists are found wanting in their reduction of the connotative title. Finally, women artists from the late 1970s who deploy “nominal withdrawal” (Sherman, Kruger, et al.) are praised for “shattering” the modernist mode of untitling.
The study does privilege European modernism. Still, I was hoping for discussion of Stuart Davis, who coined some of the great titles of American modernism, from Report from Rockport (1940) to Owh! in San Pao (1951) and Colonial Cubism (1954). His titles are inventive, musical or literary or sometimes both, intended to specifically oppose the prevalent untitling practice of his era.
Readers of Invisible Colors are likely to put forward their own favorite titles, which only goes to indicate the richness of the little-considered topic that Welchman is the first to study systematically at book length.