Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Equinox

Knock, Knock, Equinox
Like my spring frocks?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Intellectuals need not apply

Every four years I’m woefully reminded that in American politics intellect is no asset; rather, it is an anathema, especially to presidency. In popular view, intellect smacks of elitism, and elitism is undemocratic. In fact, intellectuals are likely to be ridiculed. The president needs not think but must have an ability to sway the public in one direction or another. The real political power, therefore, resides elsewhere, probably in the Congress, whose members are also elected on their capacity to persuade. In America, the president does not rule; she or he only leads by hook or by crook.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Anonymous celebrity

Copyright prevents me from reproducing the image here, but if you can check out Roberta Smith's NYT review of the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MoMA (24 February: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/arts/design/cindy-sherman-at-museum-of-modern-art.html?pagewanted=all), you will see on the first page of Fine Arts Section, a photograph with Michael Dorsch, who teaches at Cooper and Hunter, strolling in the gallery, and down the text another photo of him from the back looking at a Sherman photo.  His shorter companion, also from the back, happens to be me.  I was just then commenting, in fact, that there is a man with a camera behind us taking a series of shots without waiting for us to clear the spot for a better view of the Sherman. So, I am now an anonymous celebrity.

Pictures titled "Untitled"

“Untitled” given as the title of a painting irks me so. For one it is a contradiction akin to the Cretan Liar paradox. We find on a page of certain official documents a warning, announcing prominently: “This page was intentionally left blank.” Oh, sure, not any longer, though. What? “Untitled”? Ain’t that a title?

Worse than “Untitled” is the title “Untitled” followed by a phrase in parentheses, such as “Untitled (Mother’s Garden in May)” or “Untitled (Flight/Fright).” This is a double contradiction, saying that the painting is untitled but not really. The painter is muttering to herself or himself: “Well, yeah, I don’t know, like, I don’t have a title but it’s kinda like something in my mind, you know, I’m not quite sure what, yeah, but heck here it is, um, make of it what you will.”

As a title “Untitled” could mean “still untitled,” that is, not yet titled. In that case. “Work in Progress” is more accurate as in a portion of a novel sent in to a journal for publication. No publisher, however, will accept a manuscript titled “Untitled,” nor a play so titled will ever be put on stage. Imagine a marquee “New York Premiere Albee’s latest play ‘Untitled’”. Musical compositions without a narrative theme came to be identified by the instrument/s and key signature: Violin Concerto in A-minor, String Quartet No. 4 in G-major., etc.

Historical paintings, that is, narrative paintings -- religious, mythological, or historical -- as those in the Renaissance, did not require titles since the subject depicted was obvious to the viewer: St. Catherine, St. Jerome in his Study, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Danae, Fall of Phaeton, Diana and Actaeon, etc. In the 17th century in Holland, when marketing of art came into being, titling became useful, especially with the proliferation of non-narrative subjects -- portrait, landscape, still life, and genre (scenes from everyday life). Thus, we find identifications like “River Landscape with a Ferry,” “A Gypsy Girl,” “Still Life with Eels,” “Ontbijt (Breakfast),” etc. Titling became a necessity in preparing inventories after the death of the artist. Subjects outside the established genres were unwieldy. Watteau’s reception entry he submitted in 1717 for admission to the Academy was called
“La fĂȘte galante,” as it didn;t fit any existing subject category; it was neither history nor mythology, nor genre. The exact subject is still debated: Embarkation for Cythera or Departure from Cythera. With the rising practice of artists inventing a new subject for each painting, together with the new tradition of public exhibition of art, titling paintings became a necessity and a norm.

The motivation for titling a painting “Untitled” is understandable and justifiable. Titling a painting implies that it has a subject -- literary, poetic, or thematic. It describes the work summarily, or, at least, provides a key to its meaning. The idea of titling a work “Untitled” is to eliminate narrative connotations and force the viewer to look at the work and read its theme and meaning in the painting itself. Pursuing abstraction, Kandinsky resorted to musical analogy in his titles: “Composition No. 5,” like the opus number in music. Some later non-figurative painters, just gave numbers, like, “Number 15” (Rothko), colors, like “Russet (Morris Louis), ” or the source of abstraction, like “Cathedral” (Hofmann), though others continued to give literary titles, like “Lucifer” (Pollock) and “Empress of India” (Stella). If the painter feels strongly that the work should not be titled, she or he should call the work “Painting” rather than “Untitled.”

One time I was made keenly aware of the perfect rightness of the title “Untitled” was at the exhibition of the works of Agnes Martin’s paintings, which she consistently and most deliberately titled “Untitled.” From one painting to the next, identical in size and subtle in difference, at a glance they look alike; it is only on intense inspection the strong presence of each, which gives each work its unmistakably identity, impresses the viewer and makes it unforgettable. Each painting identifies its visual reality that no lengthy description, not to speak of a title of any kind, can ever communicate profitably; it is revealed only in concentrated and prolonged and seeing. Not all non-figurative paintings share this concrete optical quality.

Then, more recently, at the exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s photographs, I was equally impressed by her “Untitled” titling of her series “Untitled Film Stills.” Her self-portraits as fictional but plausible film characters might be identified as types, like “tired housewife.” “young hitchhiker.” “sex kitten,” or whatever, but any title with a literary or cinematic reference only detracts from the specific identify of each feigned character, its immediacy (even though distanced as a screen image, simulation as it may be). This observations holds, too, for Sherman’s later photographs of “society women, “centerfolds,” and “historical characters.” Moreover, any specific title is not only redundant but falsifying since the reality of her photographed images is double-layered: one of her self-representation in different guises and the other of the character she is donning. Her photographs simultaneously draws our attention to the persona as a person and the persona as a mask In later works, in fact, she makes her prosthetic applications deliberately visible to distinguish the two layers of representation. Strictly figurative, unlike Agnes Martin’s paintings, Sherman’s photographs are strong by virtue of their unmitigated specificity.

Too often, I still contend, paintings of vague or blurred identity are lazily left “Untitled”, and they vex me.