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Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe is standardly used to designate a painting whose actual title is La trahison des images. The Large Glass refers to a work whose title is La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme. Titles denote their bearers, according to John Welchman's analysis in Invisible Colors, but what else does a title do that mere names cannot? One possibility, not mentioned in the book, is that having names as well as titles may acknowledge the duality traditionally accorded paintings as objects and as representations. My sense is also that titles have, in addition to their descriptive content - "The Flaying of Marsyas," "The Adoration of the Shepherds," "The Massacre of the Innocents," "The Resurrection" - the force of interjections, like Behold! or Lo!. "Behold the flaying of Marsyas!" There is an intimation of pictorial magic which mere naming lacks. In any case, throughout the long history in which paintings illustrated usually well-known texts by ideally transparent means, titling was a fairly straight forward matter: paintings were identified through what they showed. Welchman does not, for the most part, address this tradition. Instead, he begins and ends with Modernism.

Under Modernism, paintings referred as much to their own qualities as to what they showed. This duality is reflected in such compound titles as Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, which conveys a different kind of information than the painting's name - Whistler's Mother - does. It further underscores the fact that Modernism culminated in paintings whose own material being is their entire content, that "Untitled" - a category of title Welchman particularly recognizes - should have become a preferred title, since the painting was now the intended object of aesthetic perception: a presence rather than a making present of something else. "Untitled" may also declare what it denotes to be art rather than something that is untitled because, not being art, it does not merit a title. "Untitled" might still be interjective: "Behold Art!" And its being seen as art might be the kind of coloration Duchamp had in mind when he suggested that titles are like "invisible colors," a phrase that Welchman transforms into a title in its own right.

It would have been enlightening had Welchman brought the logician Gottlob Frege into the discussion. As one of the few analytical philosophers to discuss "color" in the sense Duchamp may have been contemplating, Frege distinguishes between the sense or meaning of an expression, and that to which it refers. Meaning has to do with the way the reference of an expression is presented. Thus (to use his example) "The Evening Star" refers to the planet Venus in terms of when it is seen, as does "The Morning Star," which has the same reference, but clearly a different meaning. Frege's identification of "color" (Farbung) as a property of poetic language can be applied to paintings easily. A title might be invisible coloration in that it evokes a response, without adding anything, to what is shown: we see nothing in Rossetti's painting The Lady of Shallot that we would not have seen had its title been Woman in a Boat. But the title infuses the experience with sentiments from the alluded poem, and vests the image with meanings it would lack under a different title.

Frege, of course, brings in color only to turn his back on it as having nothing to do with truth. Still, equating a title with an "invisible color" is utterly suited to the readymades, since what you see in Steiglitz's photograph of Fountain is exactly what you would have seen in a photograph of a urinal with graffiti on it. Coloration is an imperative to see the object as. To my knowledge, Duchamp never called a spade a spade, but always found a title that conferred the status of art on what it denoted, at the same time tincturing our experience of it through associations with, for example, fountains.

The art history of titles becomes interesting when the titles begin to split their reference, as in the case of Whistler, between the painting and what it depicts: before that point, the history of titles is simply the history of motifs. Since that split coincided with Modernism, the "visual history" of titles begins when certain features of painting as painting fall within the title's divided scope. Welchman properly begins his history in the nineteenth century with Monet's use of titles, which, he writes, has been "curiously neglected by art historians." He shows how the individual titles of Monet's "Wheatstacks" series divide their reference between what the paintings "denote" - Les Meules - and then when and trader what conditions they were painted, which vary from serial painting to serial painting. Wheatstacks, End of Summer, Effect of Morning, for example, situates the canvas in the same reality with the motifs, and calls attention to the painter's effort less a peindre la chose que l'effet qu'elle produit, to cite Mallarme's influential phrase. Monet is, precisely, painting an "impression."

Needless to say, it was as much the titles as the paintings themselves that maddened the critics of the time, in part, I suppose, because there was no received conception of what an impression should look like. At the very least, the impression apparently did not look like its object as depicted under the traditional conditions of painterly transparentness. This licensed critics, Welchman writes, to "contend at length against what they perceived as the technical shortcomings of the impressionistic manner." Throughout Modernism, titles gave critics opportunities to compose demeaning puns, as was boisterously true in the critical response to Nude Descending a Staircase: the title made the painting notorious. As Welchman strikingly observes, "These accusations of anarchy, barbarism, and the empty gestures of 'anarchic hordes' and 'paranoia' quite precisely anticipate the charges that would be leveled by the National Socialists in Germany against the 'degeneracy' of modern art two decades later." Immunization against the toxin of critical mockery might explain as much as anything the use of "Untitled" as title. However, the moment artists decided to shelter the works by refusing to give them specific titles, the great age of titles was over. They waned in importance as the art that had previously seemed to require them became increasingly accepted. It is difficult to imagine a great deal of indignation over titles today.

Invisible Colors contains a considerable amount of fascinating detail, and it puts the history of Modernism in a fresh perspective. It is, however, somewhat disfigured by a thick verbal impasto of generic poststructuralist terminology: I found myself writing "Oy vay!" in the margins. When Welchman lays out his material, he does so in a graspable way. But the language he has appropriated makes it almost impossible for him to deal with the theoretical questions about denotation and connotation against which he means to analyze the practice that concerns him. Still, the book is valuable for having brought an important dimension of Modernism to consciousness, and for registering, as a history, what decisions about titling once meant.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation.
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Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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