Sunday, January 16, 2011
In a talk last week with 18 bright and down-to-earth Senior visual arts majors from Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, in NYC for a month (!) of twice-daily talks with arts professionals (organized by artist Peter Eide), there was, of course—why else do we do these things?—a question that spurred a bit of self-examination: Do I think titles are necessary?
The appellation “Untitled,” as far as I’ve always been concerned, is a cop-out that makes whatever’s not being named seem flat, no more than a piece of decoration, as if the artist didn’t care enough about his/her work to put any more effort into it (I have a friend who always threatened to name his child, “Untitled”)—whereas a title can add, hopefully, another layer of poetry and mystery, or at the very least, help identify the artwork. So the question was easy to answer but personally annoying because it made me realize that I was going to have to title my spate of recent drawings—so many of them!—something I had conveniently avoided thinking about. As if just making them isn't challenging enough.
How do artists title their work? Hardly anyone talks about it. I remember that Walter Robinson once found names for his paintings by randomly stabbing a finger into Stendahl’s novel, The Red and the Black, always coming up with the perfect pithy and enigmatic phrase. At the time I copied his method using my giant antique Webster’s dictionary, and the words I retrieved that way were always surprisingly apt. I just now finished writing a review of Keltie Ferris’s thoroughly abstract paintings, and her titles—from oooOOO()()() to Rain Dogs Unplugged which, of course, has no rain or dogs in it—add extra zing. My all-time favorite, however, is Frank Stella’s title for at least two of his early black stripe paintings: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor.
If he’d left them “Untitled,” he might still be painting houses.
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II
Frank Stella (American, born 1936)
1959. Enamel on canvas, 7' 6 3/4" x 11' 3/4" (230.5 x 337.2 cm). Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund. © 2010 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York