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On Titles

Titling a work of art is a dangerous business.  And yet, we are so accustomed to seeing, if not a full paragraph, at least a four- or five-line block of text next to each work of art we encounter in galleries and museums, the first or second of which contains, often in italics, something called a "title".  Very often, these titles seem to have no relation to the object to which they are applied.

A title can greatly influence a viewer's reading of a work of art.  So, how does one handle titling?

Some Approaches
1. Untitled, or numbering systems
Sometimes, it seems as though no title would be appropriate.  And labeling a work Untitled is, I maintain, often a good choice.

But I have met artists who feel that Untitled sounds a bit too "non-committal".  Untitled is the default setting.  Some may find it feels too much like so-called "art-speak"; apart from being very common, it sounds vaguely institutional.  Furthermore, because Untitled provides no particular insight to a work, many debate whether not titling a piece does it any more justice than appropriating the title of whatever song the artist was listening to at the time of completion.

And I have spoken also to viewers who object to the use of Untitled.  Many consider the creation of a title to be part of the work, and seem agitated if it appears that the artist would not put in the effort to come up with some words to describe what he has created.  I do not necessarily understand such a position, and encourage those who think this way to consider the symphonies of many composers, which tend to be numbered rather than titled.  Would it be better for the artist to invent a numbering system?  This is another viable option, and one many have taken.

I'm not bashing Untitled; it's a valid option, and one I often use.

In fact, there are many reasons not to title a work.  A succinct title can turn years of thought and labor into a one-liner.  A lengthy title can seem unrelated to the work, or distract viewers so that they are no longer paying attention to what they are looking at.

Furthermore, if the artist's concern in creating a title is to spell the work out for his viewers, or s/he finds himself at a loss for what to call his painting because it is so "abstract", I would advise against using a title at all.  This approach may be called "Title as Marketing Tool", as the chief concern here is usually to build an image around the work which is not necessarily intrinsic to the work itself.  Artists who find themselves tempted to use this tactic should stick to Untitled or using numbering systems until they are truly compelled to apply words to their paintings.  I assure them that their work speaks adequately to those who would be interested in looking at it.

Generally I am in favor of giving the viewing public more credit than most.  While I may have devoted more time than others to making and thinking about art, and though I may likewise have a more suitable disposition for doing so, I do not assume a superior intelligence.  And, perhaps more importantly, I do not assume a superior ability to empathize.  My intellect and emotions are laid bare in my work; a sensitive viewer has the guidance s/he needs without a title.

And yet, I believe also that a sensitive viewer will not be turned off should I choose, as I often do, to title a work.  Sometimes I find that a title is necessary, if only to give myself a sense of finality.  A good viewer is also a good reader, and a good reader can read between the lines.

Perhaps it is telling of my skepticism of any artwork's potential to express a determinate truth that I say a title should be taken with a grain of salt.  To elaborate, a title should not be taken as an attempt to impose a fixed "meaning" on the work, or to trick the viewer into thinking the artist is expressing a particular idea when no particular idea is evident in the work alone.  If a title can help one to see a work in a new light: great.  However, if a work of visual art relies on a title to be understood, one must question the value of the work itself.

2. Descriptive titles
So if Untitled seems truly inadequate to a particular work, how does one title a work of art?  One approach is to choose a descriptive title.  I often choose to do so, and I maintain that this is usually the best course.  Take Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring.  That title seems like a no-brainer.  It is the subject of the painting, plainly stated.  The same goes for Picasso's Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon.  Both paintings resonate due to the artist's handling of his subject.  But these artists did not need to tell us how they were handling their subjects.  They trusted we would see that for ourselves.  Even more to their credit, they did not dare try to tell us how we should feel about the way their pictures are painted.  They understood that if a painter is painting honestly, how others feel about the work is not his or her concern.

It is in this tradition that I choose to title many of my pieces.  For example, I may title a work Large Black Horizontal with Red Vertical, Work on Canvas (with green), or Assemblage (silver).  Because I do not depict a subject in my work, I trust that the interest lies in the object itself.  In a sense, the art-object is its own subject, and I try to provide an accurate description of what I see.

Yet it is not as though I sought from the beginning to create a "silver assemblage" or a "black monochrome".   The purpose of my work is not decoration, nor is my concern pure formalism.  In creating each work, I engage in an intense and extended internal dialogue through which I negotiate my sense of order with my perception of the object I am creating.

3. Poetic or non-objective titles
Thus there are times when I find the descriptive approach to titling inadequate.  What if, for instance, I am preoccupied with certain phrases or ideas while making a piece?  Even though I say that the art-object is ultimately its own subject, there is a lot that goes into the creation of this art object.  Sometimes I take the advice I have outlined above, and trust that a viewer will hear my voice even when I am silent.  But the motivation behind all of my work is abstract thought, and there are times when I feel the need to put to words some of the subtleties of said thought.  I do not choose to paint dogs or girls wearing pearl earrings.  Not that there is anything wrong with using the image of a dog or a girl with a pearl earring as a catalyst for self-expression; I am simply a different type of image-maker, and arguably my focus is not image-making at all.

So how does a title such as Sense of Self / Theater of the Mind or Crash Course / Alternative Dialogues relate to a assemblage of wood, fabric and cardboard to which paint has been applied?  In both cases I rely on the interplay of two phrases to incite the same type of thinking in which I engage when creating.  A critic who is used to my more matter-of-fact titling method might remark that these titles are pretentious.  S/he might answer my above question with "it does not".  I maintain such a critic would be wrong.

Yet I see the concern in our theoretical ctitic's opinion.  What I have called the "Poetic" or "Non-Objective" approach to titling can border on what I have called "Title as Marketing Tool".  The difference lies in the thinking behind the titling of the work, which is not always easy to discern.  But as I have said, and will say again, we must assume a good viewer is privy to such things.  And while it has been said that painting is a form of deception, a serious artist need not try to deceive the viewer into thinking his work is more interesting than it is, if for no other reason than that he will ultimately fail due to under-estimating the public intelligence.

This is, of course, not to be dogmatic.  Though I am drawn more to certain fields of inquiry than others, I regard almost any subject as worthy of analysis, so long as it is done honestly.  For, even if deception is to be understood as part of painting, it is all for the sake of self-awareness through self-expression.


Unlike Vermeer and Picasso, whose subjects were concrete and visible (let's assume Picasso's remark about having to "look at something" while painting is true), my subjects are internal and invisible.  Though I feel the urge to create, I do not see this urge until I begin working.  Or perhaps I do not really see it until I am finished with a piece.  Because it is not a visible thing.  My subject has no image, at least until a piece is complete.  My subject is a distant vision, a sense of order, and a compulsion to accomplish something I have not yet accomplished.

That is to say, I do not take on a subject by looking at a person, scene, or object.  There is evidence to suggest that Vermeer did detailed drawings of his images on his canvases before he began painting.  He had a subject (strictly speaking; one could say his real subject is also invisible, and that it lies in the way he paints rather than what he paints) with an image, and he planned this image out before he began painting.  This method does not work in my case.  I find it more useful to rely wholly on intuition, and allow the process of making to serve as its own catalyst.

In short, painting is a form of non-verbal communication.  The true subject of all painting is extralinguistic.  And while language shapes our thought, the thinking behind a particular piece will ideally find its true form in the art-object itself.