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To name a few

I'm one of those people who always reads the labels in art museums. And some art has become memorable , first for the experience of seeing the work of course, but also in learning how the artist described and named it. Wasn’t Magritte sly, painting a pipe and below it the words, “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)? But that’s not how he titled it. He spelled out his message, naming it The Treachery of Images! Some titles just raised questions: Thomas Cole painted an idyllic pastoral

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles / Number 11

landscape, but he called it Course of Empire. And did Jackson Pollock care so little about names when he just counted his paintings?

In a number of ways a title can shed a lot of light beyond just subject matter; it helps you understand something about the nature of the art and the artist—not just in what it says but how it says it, and what it doesn’t say. (And yes, I’m narrowly focused here on the western tradition because I’m most familiar with it.)

Many artists find naming hard, believing art comes from the heart and soul while naming comes from the head—thus the disconnect. Perhaps because I also write, I find the opposite to be true. For me the words grow naturally from my intent and I continue to mull them as a piece develops. So I think I’m naturally sensitive to how artists title their work. When artists mostly worked for the church or rich patrons, artworks didn’t need names; they were viewed by an elite few and the subject was usually dictated. But when art started circulating and appearing in public spaces, identifiers became necessary to designate and distinguish works. Early on, art was often named by critics or publishers, not the artists themselves.

But with Modernism, titles began to come into their own. They became a way for an artist to add meaning to a work, not just information but a point of view. Artists started to use titles to influence what viewers see when viewing the work. But it took a while for connoisseurs to warm up to this. When James McNeill Whistler submitted a piece he called Arrangement in Grey and Black for an academy exhibition in 1871, it was almost rejected until he appended Portrait of the Artist’s Mother to the title.

Many artists still name a piece for its content of course—it’s the path of least resistance—but a non-literal label inevitably denotes the modern era. Like Damien Hirst said: “If you're gonna title it, you might as well try and say something.” Titles can be thought provoking instead of simply descriptive; they can invoke feeling. An enigmatic name for a non-objective piece like Anselm Kiefer’s mixed media Schweres Wasser (Heavy Water) becomes ominous if you know much about atomic bombs.

When Abstraction came into it’s own, artists often intentionally refrained from naming their work. There’s been a long period of simply assigning neutral identifiers, like naming formal values: shapes or colors—Piet Mondrian's Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow for example—or the location where

they were created. Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series comes to mind: about 135 paintings simply numbered chronologically as he painted them over his 18 years in that small Santa Monica community.

A work titled “Untitled” usually suggests that the artist wants the art to speak for itself, letting viewers interpret the work on their own instead of looking for how the artist intended it, thus giving more control over the experience to the viewer. Joan Mitchell’s abstract expressionist works are mostly untitled, and she doesn’t talk about them; to her the paintings express feelings that words would detract from. In a similar vein, it irritates some when people like me look at labels before really looking at the art.

But I think you can infer a lot about a time, place or style from the title, rounding out your understanding of a piece. Many works of the Dada or Surrealist movements have long or obscure names—or both. Some have titles that are as ironic or cerebral as the art, like Salvador Dalí’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening. Symbolist painter Odilon Redon said (a century earlier), “A title is justified only when it is vague and even aims confusedly at the elliptical.” Or, artists slyly give an objective name to a non-objective piece. Was Henri Matisse poking fun at us when he named a composition of colorful squares The Snail?

Actually, for some artists like Diebenkorn, you could trace their progression from their earlier, more objective works to abstraction without even seeing the paintings. Wassily Kandinsky progressed from his 1910 Landscape with Factory Chimney, through his numbered compositions and titles of pure description: In Grey (1919), Soft/Hard (1927), and Brown with Supplement (1935).

Surely the Dadaists had the most fun; naming their “anti-art” was often integral to the work itself. Hannah Höch’s 1919 collage Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. Or Francis Picabia’s diagram of a bellows camera titled Ici, C'est Stieglitz (Here, This is Stieglitz), which he meant as a slam on his former collaborator. In 1937, the Surrealist Max Ernst painted a frightening gargoyle with a strangely scriptural name: L'Ange_du_Foyeur (The Angel of the Foyer).

Marcel Duchamp once said, “In New York in 1915 I bought at a hardware store a snow shovel on which I wrote In Advance of the Broken Arm”; by then he was playing with his so-called readymades. His most famous, a porcelain urinal flipped on its back, he signed with his pseudonym “R. Mutt” and titled Fountain. Duchamp was crashing boundaries: he wasn’t interested in purely visual art, what he called "retinal art." By choosing manufactured items instead of making something by hand, and giving them ironic titles or short sentences, he changed our perception of the object’s meaning and broadened art’s definition.

For me, words and writing are undeniably linked to making art, so titles feel essential. If you’re attracted to my work 3.5 Gy and you read the title, I’d like you to be curious about what that phrase means. If I tell you that “Gy” is the symbol for a “Gray” unit of radiation energy, and 3.5 Gy is the dose at which half of an irradiated population will die within 60 days—that’s probably new information for you. It tells you something about me as an artist. It may change the way you perceive the work; it may put you off, even repel you. Either way, I intend that it helps shape your thinking.

While I personally aim for titles to add critical meaning, I dislike hearing that artists “should” name their work to increase the monetary value; like the headline I just read, “How to title your work so it sells” (which actually prompted this essay). Why do I reject this? Artists need to make a living too. I can see that, depending on one's circumstances, my point of view is a luxury. But I’d like to think that the artist’s intent and how they choose to communicate their artistic vision is more true than attaching some popular keywords to a label. We don’t, at least I hope we don’t, create art specifically to appeal to a public’s taste, so why should we title the work that way? Of course artists need to find their audience, but I think it’s soulless if it doesn’t speak in an authentic way.

Which makes Pollock’s choice to refrain from titling his paintings credible; he cared deeply about how people experienced them. “Look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what to be looking for,” he said. It was a museum curator who labeled a Jackson Pollock work Pasiphaë. The artist said, “Who the hell is Pasiphaë?” According to his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, Pollock “used to give his pictures conventional titles… but now he simply numbers them. Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is—pure painting.” For him, the image was complete in itself, the title just got in the way.

Image credits:

  • René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928-29, image from University of Alabama, "Approaches to Modernism", fair use,

  • Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles / Number 11, 1952, fair use,

  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, 1871,

Musée d'Orsay, public domain,

  • Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, public domain,

  • Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 67, 1973, fair use,

  • Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1960, source (WP:NFCC#4), fair use,

  • Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, fair use,

  • Wassily Kandinski, In Grey, 1919, source:, public domain,

  • Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919,, PD-US,öch#/media/File:Hoch-Cut_With_the_Kitchen_Knife.jpg

  • Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, public domain, Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz; the backdrop is The Warriors by Marsden Hartley.

  • Su Cummings, 3.5 Gy, 2017

© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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