Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's in a name?


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

14 comments:

tackad said...

Depending on the artist, sometimes "untitled" is an adjective and sometimes it's a noun. And I've come to respect that.
But I'm with you on the title thing. Titles steer the mind and are very important.
Some of my paintings are born because of the title(train of thought). Most of my titles come to me in the very first stages of the work and help carry me through; a few are titled at the end.
I'm always grieved when someone views one of my paintings and either doesn't ask for the title of pays no mind to the title, next to the painting.
For me it's all about the title and it's effect on your perception of the work.
An artist friend of mine refuses to title(including "untitled") or date his work, which makes for boring and frustrating conversations about any painting not in the room . . .

Lady Xoc said...

When I title work I often end up regretting it later. I've been doing it more & more lately, though, because I feel a bit cowed by responses such as yours to "untitled". Recently, I discovered random word generators.

My husband does work which centers around his titles, so there is none of the squeamishness I feel about titling mine. His title is integral to the work. In my case it is not. Hence, the discomfort.

Carol Diehl said...

Just tried it! The random word generator is the 21st century version of me stabbing my finger into the dictionary. I opted for the most obscure words and came up with "Uropgi," which has something to do with spiders. I know it will be perfect for something.

Lady Xoc said...

I like to try a moderately-well-known adjective paired with a moderately-obscure noun. Endless intriguing possibilities, but I'm still squeamish because they are fake.

Tom said...

Titles are important to me and my art. Granted most of my titles are vague and obscure but they come from somewhere inside me as they relate to the work. Often times the title is the result of quite a bit of pondering. At other times, they seem to jump out at me. I think the titles add a bit of poetry to the visual.
http://tomhlas.com/blog/

Carol Diehl said...

RE: Lady Xoc and the use of random word generators to come up with a title for an artwork...This is only "fake" if you think it is. "Random," "Chance," and "Found," are integral to the artistic process. If you choose a word, then that action makes it yours.

deb said...

I have three new and as yet untitled works... thanks to all of you I am off to randomly generate something! Hope that works out better than anything I have rejected so far.

tackad said...

I'm honestly disheartened by the random title talk. Don't your paintings mean anything to you? Don't they conjure feelings or thoughts that might become the name of the painting ?
I've always tended to hate obvious and vacuous titles (the sunset, the table and chairs . . .) but this random thing - I don't know. I'd much rather the title was something personal and special or thought provoking by the artist.

Lady Xoc said...

Well, tackad—I understand your dismay, but Carol makes a good point about chance. It's a tool which opens possibilites. People get stuck. I'm not terribly verbal, especially about my art. My art is everything to me and naming it often seems like a betrayal. A randomly-generated name helps take the onus off choosing.

Carol Diehl said...

Yes, my paintings are meaningful to me and therefore need to have exactly the right title, one that is personal, special, and thought-provoking, as you say--although all I really expect of a title is that it contribute positively to the experience of the artwork. And as long as it does, the method I use to arrive at it should be irrelevant.

I was once part of a poets' chorus where we all wrote poems on the same subjects, randomly chosen. They turned out to be some of the best poems I ever wrote, and I refuse to entertain the notion that because I didn't choose the subjects myself, the poems are somehow less worthy.

There are many ways to arrive at art.

deb said...

well in response I don't paint (anymore) and yes my work means a great deal to me, but comes from such a tangled thread of interwoven thoughts that the iconography is a bit, well, strangled, so I am trying for titles that shut all that out and let viewers in... I am glad you can find titles that fir your work and are meaningful to you.

Rob said...

Thanks for this post. It has me thinking more about the issue. I have recently been leaning toward descriptive titles (e.g., Three Blue Stripes), with the idea that literary or emotional titles impose too much on the viewer's perspective. But the more I think about it, I think it really is better to impose your own connection with the piece and not worry about the viewer. Your Stella example is a good one, image if he called it "White Lines on Black Background".

Likewise, I only have one good thing to say about Damien Hirst's work, and that is, he is a good title-er. "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" make the work. Had he called it "Shark in Tank of Formaldehyde" he would be driving a taxi around London right now.

tackad said...

My sentiments, exactly !
The title for his one show/sale - Beautiful Inside My Head Forever- rolls around in your mind and off your tongue so easily and just plain feels good.
The only problem with titles is that they're beside or behind the painting. I've often thought of putting the title right up front in the painting so that you read it while looking at and into the work.

Natasha Sazonova said...

I just imagined how hard it'd be to google a work of art if most of the artists called their works "Untitled"...