Untitled (On Titles)
What's in an artwork's name?
Lawrence Weiner, Called by Another Name, installation, 2016
This past December 2, the artist Lawrence Weiner sadly passed away at 79. To many of us Weiner was akin to the dean of conceptual art, a revered international art figure and a familiar presence in the art scene in New York. His most significant contribution, in my view, was conceiving a way to reclaim language from the realm of poetry and turn it into material for sculpture. His work did not engage with emotional communication nor with the highbrow intellectual discourse of literary modernism, something that he made clear from the onset of his career. As he said in one of his last interviews, “I liked poetry, but I was mostly interested in Abstract Expressionism because that was a sign of freedom for working-class people.”
Weiner was not a poet, but one of the reasons why his work is so important is precisely because it straddled right on the verge of what some understand as poetry, dialoguing with Neo-Concretism and influencing conceptual poets.
Weiner’s vast legacy also comes to mind because of my recent reflections on another topic that also touches the border between the literary and the visual: the titling of art works.
A lot has been written on this seemingly small yet significant topic, a literature that includes the book Picture Titles by Ruth Bernard Yeazell and Margery B. Franklin et al. ‘s 1993 essay The Influence of Titles on How Paintings are Seen. The art history of artwork titles is, in a way, one that those who have in fact studied art history will already know indirectly by virtue of simply paying attention to the conventions of titling during the period where the work was made. As we know, historically art work titles were essentially descriptive of the scene they were presenting, and, as writer Beth Daley points out, “titles, ultimately, are a function of the democratization of viewing; the more heterogeneous the viewing public, the greater the need for titles.”
When we approach the 20th century and enter the avant-garde the theory and practice of titling gets increasingly interesting: it is a moment where the awareness of the role that the title plays is heightened. As I have pointed out in past columns, artist and writer Alphonse Allais, member of the late 19th century Parisian group of troublemaker artists and provocateurs known as Les Incohérents, was part of several exhibitions that featured his monochrome paintings starting in 1883, all of which contained elaborate and absurd titles. In 1884, for instance, an all-red painting was titled Récolte de la tomate par des cardinaux apoplectiques au bord de la mer Rouge (Effet d'aurore boréale) [“Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes on the shore of the Red Sea (effect of the Aurora Borealis)”].
This proto-conceptual work, which prefigures the irreverence that the surrealists, Pop artists, Fluxus and more would have against high-art, used the conventions of titling to show the absurdity of how textual narratives are mostly unnecessary or didactic add-ons to the work.
When the avant-garde arrives, the relationship with titles becomes multi-fold: titles become no longer a simple verbal description of what is being depicted, but instead they need to be acknowledged as the expected vehicles for communicating what the work might mean. For this reason, the title in some instances becomes a short-hand statement of purpose, like with Kandinsky’s use of the term “composition”. Or like with the surrealists, titles become an opportunity to increase the disconnect between image and logic, sometimes being altogether nonsensical (e.g. “Un Chien Andalou”). In both cases the artist’s position toward the title becomes either as embracing it as an extension of the work or instead giving it a strictly utilitarian or neutral role. The natural outcome of the anti-interpretive position is the development of the ubiquitous and deliberate use of the term “Untitled”, an approach that was introduced, if I am not mistaken, by Kandinsky himself in 1910.
From the standpoint of the present moment in contemporary practice it is helpful to think about the ways artists have dealt with titling. At times artists have taken the oblique, “keep your cake and eat it” approach such as Felix González-Torres, which means claiming that the piece has no title and then immediately adding something which in fact is the title (e.g. "Untitled" (Last Light), 1993). Some, like Maurizio Cattelan, go for one-word titles (“Him” “Everything”, “Comedian”, etc.) and others like Martin Creed take the rather uncomplicated numerical approach (“Work 1”, “Work 2”, etc).
Reviewing the past and present of this naming practice shows that the need to assign titles to artworks appears impossible to escape. Even amongst the most radical artists, the artwork has to be identified somehow, and the noncommittal use of “Untitled”, while denoting either that the artwork should not or cannot have a title, there are always coordinates needed (which then are provided in parenthesis as in González-Torres’ case or are accompanied by other information such as date, medium and other relevant data, in order to differentiate the piece from other untitled works by the author and the works of others. The task is perhaps akin to naming a baby: there might not be a single case in the world of a person who has never received a name: even Tarzan had a name despite having grown up amidst wild animals.
The title of the work is thus intrinsic to the acknowledgment of its existence, or at least, for its integration into the art discourse. In a certain way, one could think of titles as the ultimate frame, without which we could not speak about it as an entity. This is likely why, in the case of certain anonymous artworks of the past (say, religious paintings), both the name of the artist and the titles emerge as the the result of the traditional references to them, and in fact the name given to the piece becomes the historical identifier of the artist (i.e. The “Master of the Annunciation of the Shepherds” from c. 1630, or the “Master of the Beighem Altarpiece” from the 16th century). In contemporary art, when an artwork does not even receive an “untitled” designation we might even suspect that the work is not really a work. But that kind of ontological limbo is a topic that I will explore in another column.
I seem to always go back to titles because of my interest in writing, and because it is the one place where an artist simply cannot escape the requirement to engage with verbal or written language to describe their work. Here I should also acknowledge that my better half, the artist Dannielle Tegeder, is famous for her titles, which sometimes can be a few paragraphs long. Here is an example:
Lahm (high-density solids pump): Improvements such as passively safe usually converted into a stable and compact form which is then enriched using various techniques rods of the proper composition and geometry for the particular reactor that is present in trace concentrations due to increased exploration to successfully isolate it from the biosphere. Referred to as a self-sustaining chain reaction, this process may release or absorb energy or fusion is difficult to achieve in a controlled fashion; induce criticality for detonation, an isotope that is sufficiently unstable for this process to be usable for containers of liquids or of grainy substances useful for continuous production. To increase nighttime firing accuracy the other is open to ambient air and radiation is used to induce mutations. An advantage is that the object may be sealed and improvement of re-hydration of deliberate exposure of materials. 2016 — Gouache, ink, colored pencil, graphite, water-based spray paint, pastel on Fabriano Murillo paper - 79 x 55 in.
My larger point is that the title of the work is that place where the artistic process of the visual and language interconnect, whether it is in a mere symbolic and subtle acknowledgement of the need for language or if it is a fully embrace of the literary. And as Duchamp taught us, when we reduce art to its ultimate consequences all that is left is the titling of something (i.e., the verbal designation of an object as an artwork, i.e. a readymade).
The subject of titling is in fact so rich that would lend itself to an interesting exhibition specifically about the role that titles play as more than the conventional descriptor of a piece, including as subject matter and medium.
Marcel Broodthaers, Literary Paintings English Series, 1972
Artwork titles also offer an opportunity to combine the indexical practice of art history with performance. Such was the case of a project where I had a very small supporting role to play in, involving the collective Office of Creative Research a.k.a. OCR ( a group founded in 2013 by Mark Hansen, Ben Rubin, and Jer Thorp, and active until 2017, who primarily focused their work on the analysis and visualization of big data ). In about 2015 we in the Education department of MoMA invited OCR to collaborate with us in developing a series of education programs. Soon after they started working with us it was clear that the big data set they could work with was the entire collection of the museum, which was at the time still a vast collection of different lists of thousands of artworks in collections from different departments that had not been fully integrated in a unified whole. From our conversations they became interested in doing a project including all the artwork information (title, author, medium etc.) of MoMA’s collection, one that resulted in a performance titled A Sort of Joy (Thousands of Exhausted Things). By creating a remarkable algorithm to draw from the entirety of MoMA’s titles and artist names, they produced a series of short scripts that were later performed in the galleries by the theater troupe Elevator Repair Service. The piece was a combination of conceptual poetry, theater of the absurd, Kurt Schwitter-esque verbal experiments and musical delight such as the reimagined lyrics of The Sound of Music’s My Favorite Things (“Brown paper packages tied up with strings / These are a few of my favorite things”) employing collection artist names instead (“John Baldessari and Bruno Latour / Andreas Gursky and Anish Kapoor”)
Vin Knight from Elevator Repair Service performing A sort of Joy (A Thousand of Exhausted Things) at MoMA, 2015
Such approach of taking titles as readymades can be of great assistance when one is pressed with coming up with naming an artwork. But when in creative doubt one can also rely on a wide range of free artwork generating engines, all available online. And for those who are concerned with finding the right title for a potential exhibition, the art historian and curator Rebecca Uchill developed the very helpful and dependable Exhibition Title Generator.
Which brings us to a wonderful and rare practice, of which I am very fond, of making titles of nonexistent artworks—which in a sense could be considered as pieces where the title itself is the work, following the liberating (and dare I say, nearly poetic) precept created by Lawrence Weiner himself: the work need not be built.