A selection of works whose creators regard laconic titles as artificial, imposed restrictions, and choose instead to leave interpretation of their works to viewers.
The group exhibition A Brief History of Absence showcases works of art that lack the very thing which, conventionally, ought to allow people to consider them works of art. It could be said that it was in such a gesture of excision that what we now term modern art had its beginnings. The project focuses on various examples of productive absence and elimination. How does a work of art work when it loses its title? What happens to art when it leaves the confines of the exhibition halls? How does the abandonment of the traditional separation between a work of art and its contemplative public open up new horizons of aesthetic experience? Is it possible to add by removing?
Works of art usually have titles, and many of these titles are familiar even to people not particularly interested in art. But has this always been the case?
In Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names, Yale University professor Ruth Yeazell notes that until the eighteenth century, artists felt no need to name their works—they were created for private clients or specific spaces. This situation would change dramatically with the emergence of open art markets, public museums, and, most importantly, a public that titles helped to better understand the ideas behind paintings and sculptures.
From the early twentieth century, artists began to turn away from the long tradition of realistic depiction of the world, and, along with it, from the canonical repertoire of ancient and Biblical subjects. They invented new forms of art and new conditions for them to exist in—in particular, they moved away from accompanying explicatory titles, inviting the viewer to interpret what they saw independently. The title “Untitled” became increasingly common in museums and galleries—it accompanied abstract canvases, genre photographs, sculptures, and installations. Artists intentionally avoided comment, yielding to the audience’s perception. As Pablo Picasso put it: “What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”
Later, in the 1960s, artists would once again re-examine relations between art and the universe. Minimalists concentrated on pure form and its existence in space. Conceptualists approached text as an equal part of the work: the label “Untitled” was often accompanied by a description of the ideas that had informed the work, the purpose of which was not to explain but rather to allow the viewer to become a participant in the creative process, almost a co-author. The rejection of titles also freed artistic gestures from attachment to a precise historical moment, lending them a universal, timeless dimension.
At the turn of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, experiments continued, responding to a swiftly changing world: artists became increasingly interested in the influence of social and political processes on art and life. They sought to understand how relentless streams of information and total digitalisation altered perception and rethought traditional hierarchies in cultural production. Works became increasingly multidimensional and multifaceted, and their meaning increasingly difficult to fit into the Procrustean bed of a title.
The “Untitled” section of this exhibition comprises works that belong to different eras and movements and make use of different artistic strategies. The source of dramatic tension in this seemingly motley selection is the collision of two main directions: abstract painting and sculpture, which eliminate everything but naked essence and form, and intricate subjects, in which the most varied, often dissimilar languages and narrative techniques are used. These polyphonic works cannot be reduced to a single descriptive title.
“Untitled” opens with an abstraction by Pavel Filonov (1883–1941), a classic of the Russian avant-garde who termed his method “analytical art.” Filonov compared the process of creating a painting—a rational organisation of elements on the surface of a canvas—with the development of a living organism, the parts of which grow organically out of one another.
The ideas of one of the most important abstractionists of the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, John Armleder (b. 1948), were derived from Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists, who had begun in the 1950s to arbitrarily splash paint onto canvases, completely rejecting all traditional painting techniques. Armleder was a member of the Écart performance group, and his chaotic layers of paint are expressions of extreme emotional tension.
Like the pioneers of minimalism, Julia Mangold (b. 1966) and Mark Hagen (b. 1972) are interested in the nature of their materials themselves: their objects place emphasis on material and form. Alexander Konstantinov (1953–2019), a professional mathematician, was interested in the relationship between exact sciences and visual language, and his abstract works are rationally organised structures resembling formulas or tables.
These formal investigations contrast with the works of Ivan Chuikov (1935-2020) and Viktor Pivovarov (b. 1937), artists of the Moscow Conceptual school. For Chuikov, who spent his life analysing classical paintings, the window was a metaphor for painting as such. He inserted all kinds of images into real frames, reminding viewers that a painting is a window onto the world. In the late 1960s, Pivovarov painted canvases in which the shapes of figures and items—the artist calls them “actors”—formed surrealistic plot collisions, akin to works of literature.
Mikhail Roginsky (1931–2004) described his art as consisting in “portraying the prosaic”—doors and utensils, their names often inscribed into the space of the painting. The artist focused the viewer’s attention on the naming of what is depicted through non-pictorial means—through the use of text. Roginsky’s works have much in common with the canvases of the American artist Josh Smith (b. 1976)— in the early 2000s, Smith created a series in which he painted his own name into the middle of his canvases, alluding to the traditional genre of self-portrait.
Alexandra Domanovich (b. 1981) describes her installation Untitled (2019 AD) as a time capsule resembling a hybrid of a sarcophagus and a shipping container. The inspiration for the work came from the tomb of the ancient Egyptian queen Kavit, which is decorated with scenes from rural life. On one side of the installation, we see a man milking a weeping cow, while on the other, diagrams stylised as hieroglyphs show genetic experiments in agriculture: Domanovich reflects on the ethical boundaries between modern science and the exploitation of nature in general, as well as what might happen if bioengineering allowed people to resurrect their ancestors. The installation, she declares, is a “genetic time machine.”
Noted art provocateur Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997) soldered household rubbish into egg-shaped epoxy objects and placed them in what looked like a display case: his Untitled (1996) posits that any rubbish can produce artistic value deserving of interpretation.
The Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda (b. 1980) assembles installations from found objects—sculptures of polymer resin and ceramics incorporate posters and guidebooks. These spatial palimpsests are intricate narratives that imitate the logic of museum exhibitions and elaborate theatrical decorations. Like many of her contemporaries, Epaminonda probes the ways in which images control us and oftentcreate false impressions of social and national identity. Sculptures of modern materials reference clichéd images of the ancient world alongside advertising posters that promote stereotypes of Cyprus as an Edenic island of carefree leisure. This glossy façade is shown to be a lie by the facts of the modern history of Cyprus, where interethnic conflict continues to seethe.
The work by Günther Förg (1952–2013) might appear just another abstraction, yet its composition and colouring point to Förg’s artistic appropriation: this work is in fact a simplified copy of a famous painting by Mark Rothko that replaces canvas with metal plate and oil with acrylic and rejects the proportions of the originals. This is not a simple copy nor even an alternative version: the act of appropriation becomes a creative act in itself, and Förg’s blatant borrowings from Rothko draw our attention to this fact.
On one of the walls of the section displays works by a number of outstanding Soviet and Russian photographers on a single wall, among them Alexander Slyusarev (1944–2010), Igor Mukhin (b. 1961), Yury Rybchinsky (b. 1935), and Alexandra Demenkova (b. 1980). The invention of photography in the first half of the nineteenth century led to revolutionary changes in art. Artists lost their monopoly on producing images and gradually abandoned realistic depiction of the world around them. Photography became the basis of a new artistic language, the vocabulary of which included such terms as “interchangeable optics, ” “multiple exposure, ” and “photo editing.” Initially, photographers did not give names to their works. Portraits commissioned at a studio or landscapes and genre scenes used for postcards were not seen as requiring the titles that accompanied conventional “high” art. Even once photography had become an independent art form in its own right, this tradition persisted. A popular photographic format was the series—dozens, even hundreds of nameless images on the most varied of subjects, from portraits and still lifes to reportage sketches of urban life. The “Untitled” section of this exhibition showcases a diverse assemblage of themes, subjects, and expressive techniques.