“The title of a painting is another color on the artist’s palette,” said Marcel Duchamp in an interview a couple of months before his death in 1968. 1 He consistently gave titles an important role, treating each “like an invisible color,” a pigment that bypassed the eyes to appeal to the mind. 2 For some artists, titling is an essential part of their art, a crucial component that adds another dimension to the piece. Others, however, believe that titles interfere with the viewer’s experience and would rather have the work speak for itself without the mediation provided by language. Either way, the only thing that is certain is that every artist must decide on how and what to name their work. The present selection of pieces from la Colección Jumex takes a look at this key issue in contemporary art: what role does a title play in a work of art? What relation exists between word and image in artistic practices?
Choice as a form of artistic labor–crucial for Duchamp’s readymades–is also embedded in the act of titling. Faced with infinite options, selecting one name means discarding all others. Naming allows one to see, to make sense of visual experience and create a sense of order and control over the world around us. This trade of words and images has been one of the main engines of art’s development in the past decades.
The parenthetical title helps you connect the half-open window shutters of Luisa Lambri’s Untitled (Barragan House, #31) with the residence of the Mexican architect, or in the case of Dan Flavin’s fluorescent lights and fixtures, the subtitle evokes Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin and his colossal project for the 1920 Monument to the Third International. In the work by Félix González-Torres, the standard-looking portrait of mom, dad and two kids turns sour in the parenthesis, revealing this to be a Gestapo functionary during the Nazi era in Untitled (Klaus Barbie as a Family Man).
The voice of the artist can be heard clearly in the confessional tone of Bas Jan Ader’s I Am Too Sad to Tell You, or the humorous proposal of Louise Lawler’s I Don’t Have a Title For it, Maybe We Should Have a Contest? The direct address of the artist in the first-person draws one closer to the work but also to the intention behind it.
Other times though, the meaning is only implied, like in Urs Fischer’s compulsion to break and glue back together furniture, or Elmgreen and Dragset’s double bunk bed, which brings back memories of childhood sleepovers and nascent sexual fantasies.
A title can project a Estanque [Pond] on Wilfredo Prieto’s installation of oil barrels and water, frog included, and it can direct the spectator’s gaze off the carousel and toward Anri Sala’s misplaced live horse. Titles can also imply and document actions, suggesting a temporal and ephemeral side to the work in question, as in Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ Equilibres / Quiet Afternoon series. These careful balancing acts often lasted just long enough to document the acrobatics of shoes, vegetables, cutlery and other household items, which were then assigned a unique title that rendered them into whole narratives, family tableaus and enigmatic scenarios. Tania Pérez Córdova’s Persona recargada de la cabeza, un extra [Person learning on Head, an Extra], conjures up a body resting against the side of the artist’s studio, while another photograph by Gabriel Orozco, Extensión de un reflejo [Extension of a Reflection], suggests that to connect two puddles while cycling is equivalent to drawing in the sky, or traveling between two mirrors.
In this regard, the practice of Eva Rothschild seems especially pertinent. She says titles should read as another element of the work: “they should be about creating further space around it”; they should “misdirect you […] and add a layer of confusion.” 5 Working in reverse, Rothschild is always compiling a list of possible titles from which she then chooses once she is close to finishing a piece. Faithful to her method, Twins subverts the spectator’s need for direction when interpreting a piece, presenting us with a wire sculpture that is not even vaguely reminiscent of a pair, a duo or a copy.
Perhaps a more useful way of conceiving a title is to think of it as a letter to the viewer. Letters don’t always reach their destination, or if they do, they can be hard to decipher; they might arrive too late, once you’ve made up your mind about something, or too early, defining from then onwards all future correspondence. Even if you send a blank piece of paper in the mail, open-ended and ambiguous, you can be sure that the recipient will find a way of reading their own message onto it, of painting with an invisible pigment.
1 Marcel Duchamp, interviewed on video on January 21st, 1968.
2 Marcel Duchamp, “Apropos of Myself,” notes for the conference he gave at the City Art Museum in St. Louis, Misouri, on November 24, 1964.
3 Boris Groys, “The Border between Word and Image,” included in Theory, Culture & Society, SAGE Journals, vol. 28 (2011): 94-108.
4 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” [first printed as introduction to a Baudelaire translation, 1923], in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn; ed. & intro. Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968), 69-82.
5 Eva Rothschild interviewed by Tom McGlynn for The Brooklyn Rail, September 2017. https://brooklynrail.org/2017/09/art/Eva-Rothschild-with-Tom-McGlynn
Text by María Emilia Fernández, Curatorial Assistant, Museo Jumex.
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