Paintings are Entiteled

Mike Sperlinger
apr. 2018|Article

The British poet J.H. Prynne once gave an extraordinary lecture, as part of a symposium at the Tate in London, on Willem de Kooning’s 1963 painting Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point. Subsequently transcribed and published, the talk is a kind of verbal performance, a feat of rhetorical virtuosity, in which the poet tests language’s capacity to do justice to painterly abstraction – a development treated by Prynne, a fellow modernist, with almost metaphysical dignity.

Early in the lecture, Prynne executes a series of manoeuvres to establish his bona fides: a show of almost forensic pedantry about the direction of some drip marks (“I should really like to know something about the staples that were put into the side of the stretchers to these paintings…”);1 some flourishes of donnish connoisseurship (“the whole economy of its brush stroke production is of exceptional interest”); a quibble with a fellow critic of the painting about the phrase “form-obliterating radiance.” The overall effect is peculiarly ambiguous, simultaneously convincing and slightly self-parodic. (The effect is heightened in the printed version by the voluminous footnotes, which are longer than the lecture itself.) The overall impression is of a poet determined to allow himself only as much poetic licence as his art historical labours can underwrite.

In fact, Prynne’s conspicuous interest in painterly technique and provenance are perhaps a kind of subterfuge which allow him to sidle up to a detail on which his lecture will pivot: the picture’s title. The lecture’s great flourish is in drawing an elaborate skein of connections – via The Odyssey (“rosy-fingered dawn” is a characteristic Homeric epithet) and the topography of Louse Point (a beach on Long Island) – leading finally to a 1957 Frank O’Hara poem dedicated to de Kooning, Second Avenue, which Prynne believes prefigured, or maybe even inspired, the painting’s “title and theme”.4 The title becomes a conceit which allows Prynne to translate the painting’s formal accomplishments into a different kind of content – ultimately, an immensely subtle account of the relationships between pathos and ethos, expression and construction, freedom and historical self-awareness – for which O’Hara’s poem provides a new, ironic/Homeric vocabulary.

Prynne is more than aware of the dangers of giving a title too much legislative power over a painting, and acknowledges the risk explicitly, referring to “the content-tokens of such reference [to Homer and Louse Point]… wittily appended to a canvas materially innocent of them”. But he clearly believes that ‘material innocence’ – the absence of literal or figurative motifs in the painting, of explicit representational reference – is not an obstacle to such tokens being traded nonetheless. His whole reading of this painting, for all its extraordinary fidelity to brushwork and pigment, requires the decidedly non-abstract qualities of its title.

* * *

Titles have historically been a source of embarrassment for paintings. In earlier times, paintings were mostly ‘innocent’ of titles altogether – as E.H. Gombrich put it, titling “is a by-product of the mobility of images”, a function of the evolution of a market for easel paintings and, later, of prints. Paintings acquired titles slowly, inconsistently and initially at the hands of middlemen – particularly dealers and critics. Such titles were somewhere between catalogue descriptions and cattle brands. As J.A.M. Whistler – an innovator in titling, as in all the verbal aspects of the ‘visual’ arts – once put it: “without baptism, there is no ... market!” A little later, Duchamp called titles the “invisible colours” of artworks – but what kind of paradoxical invisibility was he implying? An essential but overlooked power of naming, the subtle priming of our vision by words, to which we should really give more credit? Or rather the coercive and deceptive power of language to declare by fiat what we should see – the invisibility of the emperor’s new clothes?

Mari Slaattelid’s paintings are definitively not innocent of titles – even when they are ‘untitled’. Her work explores a certain fate of modernist painting, perhaps related to the one to which Prynne implicitly subscribes to in his account of de Kooning, but with less investment in heroic overtones (however ironic). Prynne, in fact, already voices an “anxiety” for even the most ecstatic viewer of de Kooning’s image: “are we going to be allowed to enjoy an intensely lyricized satisfaction in this manner, at this already late stage in the viewing of paint, without being made to pay for it in some hidden way that is actually extremely costly?” In Slaattelid’s work, materiality and language/conceptuality have been separated even more definitively: the ecstatic, radiant possibilities of painting (what Prynne calls its pathos) are more clearly hostage to forces outside the frame, and can only be maintained by explicit acknowledgment of such pressures. One such form of acknowledgment lies in Slaattelid’s titles.

Like her paintings themselves, Slaattelid’s titles follow no formula. Sometimes they actually offer single-word prompts, in a more conventional or abstract-expressionist mode, hooks for the viewer’s associations: Outside – Sleepless – Bravery. These unqualified prepositions, adjectives and nouns might be received as reassuring: abstract concepts recruited as metaphors, tentatively but unprescriptively delimiting painterly abstraction. However, a close look at the recent painting Bravery should already give us some pause: the four nails which protrude, stigmata-like, from the corners of the plexiglass play off the trompe l’oeil painted slit in the centre of the image, so that these literal and metaphorical piercings of the picture plane strobe and alternate without resolution. (What kind of bravery is so tied to illusion?) More than merely a riff on the Christian mystery of incarnation, this is a painting which makes our desire to comprehend its double-life as object and image into its very meaning. More than that, it suggests that, for Slaattelid, painting itself is inherently ambivalent to metaphor, or at least to metaphorical purity. Her painting resists weightless transfer, the too-comfortable passage from material to meaning, or the mere trading in “content-tokens”. It is the painting itself here, its formal dynamics and contradictions, which suggests the possible irony of its title, rather than the other way around.

Slaattelid’s titles are also subject to serial contamination – they qualify one another, sometimes explicitly. The group of paint-assisted C-prints of a light switch entitled Purity of the Heart One to One sat in her 2016 exhibition at Galleri K next to a larger-format series around the same motif called The Soul’s Bravery Enlarged. Both titles contain implicit puns on the question of scale – suggesting at once a kind of technical/descriptive literalism about content (the light switch, life size or enlarged) and also its opposite, an unabashed metaphorical inflation (speaking heart-to-heart, the soul becoming braver) – which only become fully apparent when they are read across one another. Bravery, purity and the soul are not simply abandoned or kept in ironic suspension here; but nor are they allowed to safely, connotatively determine the meaning of the image – their entanglement with the register of scale and proportion secularises them, materialises them even, into our rooted experience of the physical pictures in front of us. This goes beyond a Greenbergian reflexivity about the picture plane – as the title of other recent works På alle vegger har jeg malt vegger or Corner Figure Yellow make clear, we are being asked to acknowledge the walls, light switches, corners and floor of the exhibition space itself, in a way which carries us beyond what Prynne could still call de Kooning’s “autonomous free painterly image”. Slaattelid’s titles are part of their demand that we look beyond their edges in order to see them.

As ever, Slaattelid refuses to settle on a ‘strategy’ or to allow her self-reflexive gestures to congeal into a Buren-like formalism. She is as interested in everything which frames our experience of images, her own and others, including language as much as architecture, but the stress falls differently in each work. Slaattelid’s images often seems to want to display their “invisible colours”, or rather to make the particular modes of their invisibility apparent. In the series Døme 1-4(Samples 1-4, 2002), the (English) words – devitalised, tired, normal, dry – which appear singly in neat sans-serif font in the middle of the four aluminium boards, each painted in the same colour, suggest the ‘linguistic priming’ tactics of make-up manufacturers. (Without baptism, no market.) This is another way in which Slaattelid’s paintings, quietly and without a trace of defeatism, suggest the limits of the autonomy of images.

Sometimes her images are not even ‘materially innocent’ of their titles, which are injected, word for word, into the image. In Subject Matter from 2002, for example, the words of the title are stencilled onto two pairs of Plexiglass panels which have been used to sandwich irregular blobs of paint (one light pink and one warm black). Because the panels are displayed in butterfly-fashion, like the opened halves of a microscope slide, the word ‘Subject’ appears reversed in each pair (we only see it from the ‘back’ of the transparent plexiglass). Language becomes material; subject (content) becomes matter – or vice versa.

In the recent diptych Hjärtats renhet / Det rena hjärtat, the title is also incorporated, but very differently: each of the two Swedish phrases appears scrawled in brushstrokes around the centre of one of the plexi panels. The strokes which form the letters have the same colour, weight and consistency of those which form the rest of the flower-like central motif. Something strange is happening here, which fundamentally unsettles our desire to regard these phrases as merely poetically suggestive in relation to the paintings, and it is reinforced by the strange semi-doubling. If we take the words as our cue, the rephrasing between the two panels might make us wonder whether the stress is on the heart, or on the quality of purity itself – and what in any case would be the (painterly) difference, in these otherwise abstract images? The work itself seems to ask: how does a painting fulfil, or betray, a concept or a name? The painted phrases, both obtrusive and yet fully integrated into the material life of the image, appear precisely as a source of linguistic impurity – non-innocence – at the heart of painting.

The fact that the title is in Swedish points to another aspect of Slaattelid’s linguistic sensitivity, and the way in which her titles, like her images, function as a web of connecting gestures, qualifying and sometimes contradicting one another. Her use of different languages – principally Norwegian (both bokmål and nynorsk) and English – is deliberate and varied: sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both (and not always in direct translation). Looking at her catalogues, one becomes acutely aware of the conventions of labelling images and particularly in relation to translation – when is a title translated, or provided as an alternative second title, and by whom?

This mobilisation of the micro-decisions of titling creates a dynamic in which nothing can remain neutral. Even when Slaattelid returns to the idiom of the ‘untitled’, the degree zero of titling, we find our reading inflected by her fascination with nuance. A pair of paintings from 2010 featuring exquisite lacquer jellyfish-like apparitions against red backgrounds are entitled To Be Titled 1 and 2. At the hands of another artist we might pass over the unusual formulation, as a more provisional promise of a title-to-come, but here we must wonder: is the question of what being titled means, actually the subject of these paintings (‘to be, or not to be?’)? And when we encounter an Utan tittel, as in the series of large joyful canvases from 2016 which share a motif of four scumbled trapezoid areas of colour framing a central rectangle, we are aware of the choice of language: a withdrawal not just from the possibilities of verbal priming which Slaattelid’s other titles so playfully explore, but implicitly from the lingua franca of English. To put it ambiguously (but only as ambiguously as the work itself): these images insist they are without a title in nynorsk.

People and paintings differ when it comes to titles. If we call a person ‘entitled’, she is either privileged, or has an overweening sense of her right to privilege (entitlement). Slaattelid’s paintings are, in that sense, never entitled – and this is partly what her use of titles points to. Her profound engagement with the history of painting, and her deep seriousness about its limits as well as its possibilities, does not lead her to either complacency or cynicism. Her work refuses to trade on self-evidence, assumed autonomy, “intensely lyricized satisfaction” etc., while at the same time refusing to give them up entirely. Slaattelid’s titles, in all of their complex relations to the works themselves and to each other, make clear that – “at this already late stage in the viewing of paint” – painting might still, yet, be what we say it is.


  1. J.H. Prynne, ‘A Discourse on Willem de Kooning's Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point’, act 2 (1996), 34–73, p.34.
  2. Ibid., p.36.
  3. Ibid., p.37.
  4. Ibid., p.48.
  5. Ibid., p.39.
  6. Quoted in Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2015, p.20.
  7. Ibid., p.209.
  8. Prynne, p.38.
  9. I think here of the vastly underrated British band of the 1980s Felt and their quixotic frontman Lawrence. After they broke up, his great diabolical stroke of genius was to call his next band Denim – thereby, at a stroke, literalising and trivialising his previous band, shrinking all its poetic connotations down to the register of a fabric catalogue.