Selection by María Emilia Fernández
A Title is an Invisible Color

“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 border between language and a work is always being negotiated […] words and images are constantly being transported, imported and exported.” 3
– Boris Groys
Formerly, many works of art drew from well-known narratives–either biblical scenes or popular themes that would have been self-explanatory, making the need for naming the work redundant. Similarly, portraits, landscapes or other private commissions, could be left without a formal title. This began to shift in the late 1700s, as art changed hands, traveled more, and artists submitted their paintings to the Salons in Europe; titling in order to differentiate them in the accompanying catalogues. Titles underwent a pivotal transformation at the beginning of the 20th century as artists began to move away from representation, and later on, in the 1960s, with the emergence of conceptual art. Now images circulate more and more through language-based mediums such as the internet, where we encounter art, photographic documentation and memes on a leveled field, positioning language as an increasingly significant part of culture in general.
The act of naming can radically transform an image, an action or an object, revealing something that lay hidden in plain sight.
Just by virtue of being named as such, Gabriel Orozco’s rusty Pulpo [Octopus] reaches out from under an outdoor sink, and Carsten Höller’s adaptation of an electrical vacuum cleaner turns into a modern-day Witchbroom. That which could be called the readymade effect is further complicated in the work of Sherrie Levine, who reproduces a bronze cast version of Duchamp’s iconic urinal, a piece that positioned him as the pioneer of art appropriation. The material transformation in Fountain (Buddha) references the consecrated status of this work in the history of art, as does its sarcastic allusion to Duchamp’s enlightenment.
Some titles are deeply coded in a particular language, to the point that they defy the very logic of translation. For example, Gonzalo Lebrija’s Aspirando a ser cristiano engages in the Spanish wordplay between the verbs to vacuum, to inhale and to aspire to be Christian, while Gabriel Kuri’s Untitled (doy fe) attests to the miracle of a pork crackling being elevated to the status of a relic. In these cases, the task of the translator, as Walter Benjamin puts it, “consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which one is translating and that produces in it the echo of the original.” 4 The religious connotations of both of the works speak directly to Damien Hirst’s use of the exclamation Jesus Christ to baptize the flayed bull’s head that sits in a glass case with formaldehyde solution.
Untitled remains one of the most recurrent titles, or rather non-titles in contemporary art, a space for spectators to come up with their own meanings. Some artists find a midpoint by using the subsequent parentheses to give additional information.

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.

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.

The importance of language and titles as a linguistic tool in contemporary art has extended well beyond Duchamp’s inscription of consumer goods and other objects as readymade works of art. Titles have become ever more passionate, psychological and political, but in many instances also increasingly convoluted and hermetic. This issue has become so contentious that it has sparked satirical response, ranging from an angst-ridden Wikipedia manual on “How to Title Your Work of Art” in 19 easy steps, to online generators that mock the over-scripted and complex metaphors deployed by some artists (and curators).

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.

Text by María Emilia Fernández, Curatorial Assistant, Museo Jumex.

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