Hands Down

Denise Riley

  • Invisible Colours: A Visual History of Titles by John Welchman
    Yale, 416 pp, £35.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 300 06530 2

The literary strength of this country rests in the safe keeping of its advertising copywriters, a species properly deserving respect. In recent years a gin manufacturer ran a series of cinema commercials. The screen, shaded bottle-green to evoke the green-bottled gin, would be captioned something like ‘frogs leaping on a baize table on a grassy field’. These ads might have been produced by Alphonse Allais, the humorist of the late 19th-century burlesque salons of the Incohérents in Paris.

Allais was, among other things, an early Gary Larson, a cartoonist of the elongated art title. He’d elaborate on the schoolboy humour which inked in a solid black square and flourished it around the classroom as Negroes in a Cellar at Midnight. John Welch-man is fatally drawn to Allais’s parodies. He knows that he shouldn’t claim that his exhibited coloured rectangles were miraculous precursors of high abstraction, but he can’t entirely resist it. Of Allais’s 1897 sequence of single-colour slabs, including the plain scarlet one labelled Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shores of the Red Sea, he writes:

This sequence represents an especially important moment in the development of the parodic title as well as a remarkable anticipation of the non-iconic abstract art that emerged as a signature style of High Modernism on the eve of World War One. It clearly suggests that the crisis of reference engendered by the opaque constitution of the non-iconic sign had already been exposed and debunked – albeit with one-dimensional irreverence – some thirty years before the serious claims made on its behalf by the pioneer abstractionist of the 1910s.

To which a tetchy reader might object that parody doesn’t have that sort of social history; that since (say) Malevich didn’t have the same agenda as Allais, the latter’s anticipatory powers are altogether less remarkable.

The title is the shortest form of art writing you get. Its analyst has produced the longest. Invisible Colours is tireless, obsessive, crammed to bursting with letters, anecdotes, catalogue lists, quirky connections, skirmishes, reported jokes – a delirium of information which should, by rights, have been terrific. But it sags under its own weight. The author carries his burden of learning heavily, driven by a remorseless will to establish a ‘dialogue’ between the title and the work, to unearth a rationale below any surface arbitrariness of titling, and certainly never to allow that arbitrariness to go all the way down – especially when it should. He is a man who cannot let an allusion saunter past him without stopping it and making it turn out its pockets. Concentrating on the 1870s to the 1920s, he isolates three kinds of title: those which nudge the viewer towards interpretation, like Whistler’s Symphonies and Nocturnes; the numbered or the ‘Untitled’ titles (‘a retreat from names’); and the elaborate metaphoric variety. Thereafter he analyses all the quiddities you might dream up: the painted title itself; or the self-cancelling title which depends on a willingness to be arch; or titled titles, like Joseph Kosuth’s, where the art work is a text of some description, often a dictionary definition; or the literary satires of Situationism, handled here with deadpan solemnity.

Welchman insists that his titles speak up seriously in their own right and that they signify; he wants even a florid or a flirtatious title to have something to say in what he calls ‘the space between title and work’. He aims to ‘reread’ Modernism by focusing on ‘the preliminary relation between words and images staged in the provision of titles’. Nothing less than ‘the full interdependence of visual and textual discourses in the late 19th and 20th century’ is what he plans to work up to. Nevertheless, in Invisible Colours, words win hands down.

Their triumph seems to stem from a fierce and prior quarrel. Welchman cross-examines Morris Louis and Frank Stella and Anthony Caro as namers, and catches too much noise in them, as if he’d cracked the secret of Modernism’s purity – that it was really contaminated by a literariness it sought to disavow. He tells us that ‘the titling practices of the Sixties abstractionists are, with few exceptions, as connotatively driven as the psychological mood charts of Kandinsky in the Twenties and Thirties, or the offbeat poetic allusions of the Surrealists’, but that depends on what you think of as connotation. What about, say, Rothko’s flat colour labels, like his Orange, Red, and Red in 1962? Or Gillian Ayres’s titles, which run in epochs. As her work falls into her floating-on-white early Sixties mode, there’s a move to monosyllables; Lure, Scud, Blimps. In the Eighties come the quotation-like titles, as if lifted from Elizabethan madrigals: Ah Mine Heart, Flow Not So Fast Ye Fountains, Zephyrus eke with his Sweet Breath. Some, like the 1990 Doves of Siam, Lima Mice, and Legless Birds of Paradise are pure brio. There are simpler orderings, which Welchman perhaps overlooks; the sheer reiterability of titling styles or, indeed, their un-repeatability. Such changes in titling practice run throughout a painter’s career and are impossible to periodise.

The titlers of paintings are usually their producers, who are worldly enough creatures. If I call my son Faith-in-the-Lord, or Elton, I’m titling that child in full knowledge of the genres of naming. If I call my painting The Triumph of Good, or Untitled, No. 23, then – depending on exactly when I do this – I know the conventions of the game. Knowingness can readily reduce itself to blandness. So while some artists object to titles which describe, since that’s too directing for viewers, others will object to no titles at all, because that’s equally imperious. Richard Artschwager remarks: ‘The word “Untitled” is already a loaded apparatus. I consider a title as another kind of paint. Or an art material. The title is a trimming. It can’t be ignored. If you do, you’re making rules for viewers of what to ignore.’ Giving some neutral or modestly inert title, he concludes, allows the looker either to pause or to drift on by. It doesn’t arrest and harass them.

Greater pragmatism of the commercial kind might have helped; what and who are titles for? For owners, cataloguers, curators, collectors, dealers, museologists? As Whistler observed, ‘without baptism, there is no – market!’ Perhaps some titles are for convenience; it takes energy to rise up against a long history of titling: a painter’s wish not to fuss, not to distract the viewer, may be strong and benign. Some say they’ll call their works something, anything, just to oblige gallery owners; or to remove the vexation for curators of having more than one Untitled a year; or for those collectors who like a proper title.

The overbearing phenomenology of titling is only one aspect of presentation as a whole. Titles of works in public galleries almost always appear with a large rectangle of text; the slim title has been easily cannibalised by the caption. Its plea for attention is so commanding that an effort is required to look first at the work. No doubt there are museological field studies on the number of minutes that viewers’ eyes spend swivelled to these bossy chunks of text, as distinct from the art they flank. The provision of dates, artist’s details, and a note of materials used – all useful bits of knowledge – makes it impossible to contemplate the title in isolation.

Frames have their own literature as carved or gilded things, but there’s little written about the frame as part of the whole work, as more than a peephole to peer through. You could work up (as Welchman has done elsewhere) an elaborately troubled philosophy of die frame which theatrically wipes itself out. For a time Mondrian, not wanting a surround to what then had to be ‘the view’, dispensed with frames, made his picture edges the canvas’s edges, in the hope that viewers would see not illustration but autonomous form. Once anything with a border around it or a title pinned under it is understood to stake its claim, however sardonically, as art, then inevitably empty frames alone get shown; Jasper Johns, or Richard Artschwager’s frames as relief paintings. Just as decorative motifs in Islamic art can make an inner painted frame, so a whole taxonomy can be drawn from Howard Hodg-kin’s frames, preserved and melted within the same picture space, perhaps partly obliterated to the point of melodrama; painted doors, curtains, sheets, veils, screens, Matisse-like frames within frames, dizzy planes, triumphant depths – opera sets. Frame and title may get inseparably entwined. Spilled across frames, like the great green and red Lovers whose curves of embracing flesh arch over both the painted-in and the actual frame, have a tremendous unsteadiness or blurring, but also evince a humorous interest in the supposedly stable boundary on the move (either it drags paint out across the real frame or draws it inwards across the territory of the canvas, exaggerating it). Titles, too, can wander. The Hodgkin show at the Hayward last year placed them unusually low down, almost at floor level, and printed on grey labels against the elephant-grey walls, perhaps to minimise them. Still, people stooped like herons. These demoted titles included the wry or the tenderly joky, overloaded with pathos, cod-18th-century hints at literally ‘titled persons’ surveying dieir country seats and flirtatious art-historical names like After Corot. Many of them, reassuringly, won’t ever talk.

By the end of Invisible Colours the broadly sympathetic reader may long for the visible kind – and long to return, silently, to the visual. Welchman is darkly cross with Clement Greenberg’s lack of systematic attention to the topic of titles: ‘such relegation is not fortuitous but may instead be the product of a vision-driven repression.’ So, repress me! The bells of Saint Clement start to ring loudly in this reader’s ear, accompanied by a wild longing for oranges and lemons to be treated as sheer citrus paint, bare of lengthy titular exegeses. As Frank Stella luminously remarked, ‘What you see is what you see.’

The book ends with a fine incantation:

We should remember the thousand faces of the modern title: a description, a label, an i.d., a name, a sound or a music, an invocation, a person, a moralism, an anecdote, a number, a metaphor, a poem, a letter, a topography, a composition, a zero, a repetition, a philosophical question, a conundrum, an impression, an equation, a maxim, a quotation, a paradox, a pun, a textual cadavre exquis, a gift-of-words, an admonition, an expletive, a tautology, an inscription, a negation (of painting, but also of the title itself, ‘untitled’), a supplement, a varnish ... an invisible colour.

Such lists naturally entice a reader to add further scrawls, so: the title as raspberry of derision, as halo, as aura, as bossy forefinger, as nail varnish, as knowing didacticism, as unwanted gift tagged on by others, as throwaway, as rubber stamp, as disengaged shrug, or as hazard, like the children’s party game of the donkey’s tail which you must, blindfolded, pin onto the picture in roughly the right place.

But Welchman’s is a work devoid of concessions. He expounds even Gauguin’s long title of Polynesian yearning – Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going to? – with a remorseless seriousness, so that the cheapskate reader is incited to render it as ‘What The Hell Are We Doing Here? Who Are You, Anyway? Why Hasn’t She Brought My Glass Of Fresh Papaya Juice Yet?’ He does, however, relent enough to tell us that Gauguin said of his celebrated 1897 painting: ‘I hastened to sign it, and then took a formidable dose of arsenic.’ This bran-tub of a book is generously stuffed with such gifts, even if much wrapping has to be removed and much sawdust blown off. But it strikes me as an especially literary art history, which longs to be securely harnessed in some supposedly authoritative diction – as if it could be confident of grasping what it is seeing only by means of a conventionally-regulated categorical writing. It would be a wretched outcome if what the author (sympathetically) characterises as contemporary art’s own ‘attack on the visual’ were to culminate in substituting, for the visual, the merely literary.