19 April 2006

Narrative and Time

The peak of modernism (1950s) was characterized by abstraction and a general rejection of representation. Artist began naming their work accordingly, with titles that were equally representative of nothing. “Untitled” or “No. 34, 1942” are good examples. You have no idea what an Untitled might look like, and a numbered work isn’t giving away very much either. That, it seems was precisely the point. Lee Krasner described it this way, “Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is—pure painting.”

Krasner was speaking specifically about her husband, Jackson Pollock’s number/year approach to titles. Painting were numbered x from year z, rather than “Pretty Horses Along the Coast of Spain”, or whatever title he might have dreamed up instead. So that’s actually really interesting. Imagine how different our experience of a Pollock might be if he attached words in the form of a title to his images. Wouldn’t you be more likely to look for representations of those words in his web of interlaced drips?

The absence of a title gave Pollock and others in what we might call the “Untitled Crowd” a measure of freedom. If you call a painting even something so esoteric as “Contemplation of Consciousness” any viewer can decide if your image matches the images they might associate with those words.

So, artists had a good reason to chuck wordy titles out with the representational bathwater. It prevented the title from supplying a false or destructive narrative that would invariably dominate or influence the way the picture was viewed. “Untitled” ensured that this kind of narrative stayed out of the picture’s way, but slyly brought in another narrative in its place.

Numbers aren’t nearly as neutral as Krasner and Pollock though. Their paintings aren’t randomly numbered. They adhere to a universal, maybe even oppressive chronology, anchored in time and sequence. Why does this matter? Maybe it didn’t to Pollock. Time and its modifiers; first, last, new, old, before, after, etc. govern these images more than they possibly could have if the absence of a title had not necessarily left us only with time to place them. Time becomes narrative.

Not surprisingly, postmodernism is marked by a rejection of absolutes, time not excluded. I think the ways artists have challenged time’s dominance are fascinating, and each is worthy of its own post.


katperkins said...

Didn't you say at one point that you felt like if you were a number you would be something like 836?

Mary Ann said...

Well, I certainly wouldn't be #1. I do remember a phase of my life where a number (any number) seemed more unique than my own name. "Mary Ann". Sheesh, I've always thought it was just ├╝berboring.