Marketing Mondays: What's In A Name?

Janet Filomeno, The Sea Has Veins: The Delaware Series, No. 22, 2009, graphite, aluminum paint, mica powder, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 60 inches

I don't subscribe to the idea that the art must speak entirely for itself. While I don't expect the artist to spoonfeed me her meaning and intent, I do like it when she provides me with a path to her work. Then I'll depend on my own eyes and perceptions to find a way in.

As you might guess, then, I'm not a fan of Untitled as a title (though I have "untitled" plenty of work in the past). Since I work in series, I typically have one title that is repeated numerically. I think a lot about what to call a series, because once the first work is named, there's no turning back. It's going to continue for the duration.

Sometimes the title is clearly suggestive of the work, as with my series, Silk Road. I was painting small color fields, engaging grainy bits of pigment to energize the surface. Then I switched from

Joanne Mattera, Silk Road 117, 2009, encaustic on panel, 12 x 12 inches

a soft brush to one with a harder bristle to create a subtle vertical and horizontal grid. By the time I'd completed four of five paintings, each with a slight sheen and an almost textile-like grain, I had my title: Silk Road. I added "Road" because I wanted to convey that the series should take you on a visual journey from one small color field to the next.

Other times, as with Vicolo, I want you to ask, "What does the title mean?" That gives me a way to engage you. I also provide a statement, so that if I'm not available, you still have a path to the work. But enough about me.

By far the most poetic and mysterious title I have come across lately is The Sea Has Veins, a series by the Pennsylvania-based painter Janet Filomeno, who works in an abstract expressionist idiom (images top and below). Janet's process is physical; she wrests every rivulet and drip out of the paint in service to an almost biological composition. She happens to be my friend, so I asked her to talk to me a bit about where this particular title came from and, in general, how she names her work.

"The titles evolve from metaphorical thinking. Water, fluidity, the organic essence of life, its physicality, all of its many associations are so rich," says Janet. "The Sea Has Veins: The Delaware Series came quite naturally to me as I was influenced by the river that I see daily. I jotted it down about a year before the series came into full fruition, knowing that it would become the title for the series."

I love that the work flowing inside her studio and the river flowing outside it ran together in a single current of image and reality. Typically, though, the title is less physically present. "Usually it pops into my mind as I work on the pieces, or when I am in deep thought about the work. It is my response to the work," she says.

"If one [work] gets edited out for whatever reason (usually edification on my part), I do not re-configure the numerical order. It had its purpose and brought me to the next one."

Janet Filomeno, The Sea Has Veins: The Delaware Series, No. 5, 2007-08, graphite, aluminum paint, mica powder, acrylic on canvas; 80 x 68 inches.

How do you deal with titles? Are you a fan of the "untitled" or is naming important? Do you feel it's your responsiblity to provide the viewer with a path to your work, or do you feel your work can speak for itself? And, because this post is part of the Marketing Mondays series, do you think the title is an important aspect to presenting your work to the world?



prism said...

For me, personally, the title is important, especially when working more abstractly. I feel it lends some insight and deeper meaning while still allowing the viewer to connect in their own way.

However, I do feel that sometimes, "untitled" is appropriate - sometimes nothing else fits quite right or the piece might not need it.

Elise said...

I recently set up a profile on a site called in order for my work to receive more online exposure, and possibly some sales. I like that I can see a record of where the visitors to my site are from and what date/time they look at the work. I’ve discovered that the paintings with the “catchiest” titles are getting the most hits. One that is entitled “Mermaid on Mars” has received the most attention. Also, city names in a title may be helpful because the one entitled “Glasgow” is getting the second most hits (including two from Glasgow). Funny about that, because I named it after our street, not the city in Scotland! I very rarely call a piece “Untitled”; it feels too much like I’m taking the easy way out or that I’m not making enough of a commitment to the piece. But I have heard artists explain that they don’t want to try to influence the viewer’s interpretation of the work by giving it a specific title. I’ve personally found that most viewers are appreciative of having a bit of direction, and it also is a good way of opening up a dialogue about a particular piece.

Anonymous said...

The title is most certainly part of the work, so the real question is do you only want to speak through the image?

Personally, I cannot stand untitled work... the work may be great, but I always feel cheated that the artist didn't provide some context for the work.
Even a pure numbering system indicating progression would be way better than untitled. By defaulting to the untitled title, the artist is effectively lumpiing their work with every untitled work before them; and there are some awful untitled paintings floating around out there.

I think about it like a book or a song, I don't want the title to convey everything, but I want it to help build associations and at least hint at the creators own thoughts about meaning. A good painting will never say the same thing to every viewer, so I don't think you risk spoon-feeding anyone, because the image and the text still have to be processed through another person's perception.


Unknown said...

In grad school I often used "untitled", but as my career developed I began to pull away from the sterility or generic use of that term and I began to identify some element that was significant to the work without stifling the viewer into a holding pattern or a single direction and idea. The dictionary and thesaurus have always been a strong source for my development of titles and over the years I have kept lists of words, their meanings, and related words and terms. I usually go to those lists and begin making thoughtful decisions for title choices that are often influenced by properties of nature or the materials used to make the work. I’ve been learning Italian for several years and I often introduce Italian words into my titles. While I use titles that reveal information about the work, I also seek words and phrases that veil or obscure. I want titles that support work, but I also want words and terms that challenge or engage the viewer. I tend to be most satisfied when a title has a bit of mystique or tension. I find titles with these qualities do generate dialogue and discussion with viewers and I like that factor.

Donna Dodson said...

I think titles are an important part of the work and when they are right-on, they 'make' or complete the work for me. I like titles to be poetic, intuitive and meaningful as well as accessible, not too heady and not too leading to the viewer or giving too much away. I dont use 'Untitled' titles in my work. I think my work speaks for itself and the title merely adds to the presentation of the piece but it also provides a window into the piece for folks who want more.

Rico said...

Respectfully, I think your third question is sort of a false dichotomy; I don't feel 100% responsible for providing a path to it, because in the case of my work I believe what the viewer brings to it is equally as important as whatever intentions I may or may not have. To some degree, all work eventually speaks for itself because the artists die. Our intentions as artists are ultimately secondary to the life of the work, and that's a hard pill at times.

If someone sees a work from across a room, or in a gallery window and it engages them, -speaks to them, I don’t think they care so much what it is “about” or what it’s called. Sometimes, titles can be off putting, pretentious, befuddling or even force a read that someone may not have had before. It’s a tricky thing. If in doubt I think most artists would benefit from erring toward simplicity while avoiding literalness. It’s important to remember that we are not always the best judges of our own work and so our titles may limit rather than expand.

I think it’s more important to be honest with the titles (as hopefully one is with the work) than to be clever, engaging, provocative or whatever. Making all your titles in Latin may appeal to some elements of your collector base, but it may immediately distance others.

That being said, I’m increasingly interested in cultivating personal mythology and the last series I made has titles that are a combination of poetry, ballet terminology and related to the overall narrative. The whole series has a subtitle, “a ballet in seven paintings”, which creates (hopefully) a path to the work. But it isn’t important to me if people get that or not as long as the work engages them. So I think we provide different levels of experience; the initial reaction/response where some people will stay, the developed understanding where they begin to ask questions, and connoisseurship which is the place where things like our aesthetic or style begin to be discussed and is the place where those steeped in art terminology and history can enjoy a very different experience. Hopefully the work can hold up to all that. The titles, like poetry, can be re-visited again and again and mined for deeper meaning.

Marc said...

Titles are pretty much meaningless to me, both in my work and in viewing others(often times I do not look at wall tags/checklists, for titles at least). At best I see them as pretty much a way to differentiate each work from one another. However there is always a possibility in years to come this will change.
That said, I do not use titles. I have been using numbers as untitled lacks something to me (despite the fact that the painting i have hanging in nyc right now is titled untitled).
I do have a list of words I keep though, but I can't bring myself to attach any to any of my paintings. My reason for that is I do not want the viewer to be tied to the title and looking for that in the work. I, as I'm sure all of you have seen that happen too many times before, and I also want to avoid them looking for something that isn't there.
I personally and ideally just want the person to look at my work for what is it with out any baggage. Sadly this may be unattainable. So I fall in the category that the work should speak for itself.

diana green said...

Well, most of my work is in comics, where a title is de rigeur most of the time.
However, that does put me in the privileged position of overt awareness of the interaction of verbal and visual texts, something usually consigned to an afterthought by those working in realms of purely visual texts. I mean really, how many painters and sculptors start with the title? Happens in comics a lot. Often the title leads to the story, which leads to the art.
In any medium, as soon as verbal text is attached, that verbal text effects the reading of any visual text, provided the reader is in a position to perceive both.
During my undergrad, I once did a painting I called "titled (formerly untited)", just for fun.
I contend that if you want your viewer/reader/ audience to come away with a specific message, you're being a bit of a didact anyway, and you're already Hellbound for having the aesthetic vanity to hope that people care about your art, so adding a title is simply reinforcing your intent. The title, like the work itself, is in service to what it is trying to communicate.
Paradoxically, the story I'm currently running on my blog has no title!

Annie B said...

Like Diana Green above, I'm also coming from a commercial art background, plus I was an English major. Thus as an artist I can't help myself with the titles. I almost always start with words in my work.

As a viewer I'm afraid I like a title as well. I understand the whole "it should speak for itself" thing but I appreciate a title. If when viewing art I make a negative snap judgment and then I look at the info posted beside the piece to find a title that gets me to think again, the artist has offered me a second chance to understand. I value that opportunity.

Sean said...

Language is useful for referring to things that aren't present, but that's exactly what I'm NOT trying to achieve through my art. I'm looking for presence in my work -- there is no external signification.

My work is very stripped down. I'm interested in the act of deliberately shaping matter. I feel that attaching metaphorical titles to my work complicates and distracts viewers from seeing the forms for what they simply are. However, titles are useful for identifying work, so I restrict myself to plain, descriptive titles.

I saw Martin Puryear's exhibit at SFMOMA late last year. I was blown away by the materials, forms, and techniques, but the symbolism brought on by the titles just cheapened the work to me. I simply don't need symbolic justifications to appreciate his work.

On the other hand, I think Kenjiro Okazaki is a masterful titler. His titles are strange, sprawling paragraphs of spattered, disjointed narratives which compliment his paintings beautifully.

Philip Koch said...

An apt title places just the right spices in your most appetizing stew. It is part of the magic you are weaving.

Unknown said...

No titles for me. I'd be happy if we could do without even "untitled." I find that the vast majority of viewers approach the title information before even looking at the work. And if so, if we're giving them a "path" to follow, my concern is that my path negates the path they might have taken on their own. Additionally, it's like the HR anecdote I've heard many times. That is, that an HR Rep as never seen an objective (on a resume) that makes them want to hire someone, but plenty that makes them not want to hire someone. Same for titles for me. I rarely think the title adds something and instead often diminishes.

I also think about if my work outlives the presence of a title or statement that it can succeed on its own. I hope my work is just as good without a title or statement. They can serve as crutches.

Pamela Farrell said...

First, I just love this new painting from Janet's The Sea Has Veins. What a wonderful body of work. I was glad to have been able to see the show last year at Simon Gallery and feel the power of the aptly titled paintings.

Lots of food for thought here. My own approach has become to use a short word or phrase that feels like a good "fit," one that may have numerous usages, and therefore will not be specific. Ofttimes I will use a bit of a song lyric or title that has contributed to the thought or emotional process involved in the making of the piece. I love words, so what I used to see as an onerous task has become a fun one, and an activity that I just consider part of the work.

In June, on the last night of my stay at The Third Annual Encaustic Painting Conference at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly Mass, I was fortunate enough to be part of a very rich discussion about titles. Artist Lisa Pressman picked up the thread and invited the artists who participated in that discussion to share the ideas on her blog. Thanks Joanne, for opening this discussion here!

anne mcgovern said...

Viewing the comments I noticed more men seem inclined to opt for "Untitled". I'm wondering if in a bigger sampling are men more apt to not title their work then women. . .

Eva said...

The only time I wanted to not title a work (or a show) - I think I was holding back because I shifted directions; there's was too much explaining to do - and the ego takes a bit of a beating. So the not giving a title was like a refrain or not committing.

Anne mentioned something above about gender and I think it's possible that it's related - that maybe not giving a title takes a certain amount of confidence - or just not caring! I also think that after years of working, you might be more free to not title your work. The lifetime of art making has settled that score.

Right now I am painting a lot and have no titles.... in this case it's like the language and conversation needs to evolve and out of all of that, I'll find the words.

Joanne Mattera said...

I'd be hesitant to drag gender into this issue. There's an entire art history of titled works--and we know who's been written into art history.

Claudia Ryan said...

I don't mind not being able to give titles to my work,and try not to beat myself up about it anymore,(or I say I don't),knowing the very tag "untitled" may carry its own unwanted baggage with it.I am still envious of others whose titles are like a gift I love to read.

Tom Hoadley said...

It's clear that titles help a great deal from a functional point of view. In keeping track of work, dealing with galleries, shows, clients, and the press, they come in handy. I used to be enamored with Robert Ryman's titles. He often uses single words which at times relate to his materials. More often than not the connection seems purely random, but again, serving the naming function. I have often used single words or short phrases, sometimes from song lyrics, that could have a very tangential connection to the work. Recently I have enjoyed Suzan Frecon's habit of sometimes awkward descriptive phrases that describe her colors and/or compositions. These titles, I think, may help the viewer to see her paintings as purely abstract - no associations to be made. Simply enjoy the colors and shapes and the pleasures they bring on a purely abstract level.

Bradley Hankey said...

As an observational painter, I often give my paintings rather mundane titles, such as "Sunset #3". I do hope that the viewer will bring their own emotions and thoughts into the viewing experience, and I don't want to influence the viewer too much. However, I think that may be too much of an artist mentality - my works that have a more interesting title seem to resonate more with non-artist viewers. For example, I recently painted a stark tree against a bright blue sky. The painting was about life and death to me, so I titled it "Life and Death". It sold almost immediately. I would rather give an painting a mundane title, or even a number, than leave it "untitled".

Joanne Mattera said...

Hey, All--

Keep your comments coming.
Tom brings up an interesting point about titles: "In keeping track of work, dealing with galleries, shows, clients, and the press, they come in handy."

They sure do. And inventory maintenance is not just for dealers. Artists need to keep on top of our work, too.

Anonymous said...

Context can be everything. If titles contextualize it, use them. (All of your Marketing Monday's relate to the theme of context: What gallery, knowing your collectors/interested parties, how to reach out, how to curate.....the list is long.)

Joanne Mattera said...

Yes, Anon. That's why they're posted on Marketing Mondays. :-)

lisa said...

My feelings on titles, particularly for my own work is that they are crucial- not only for the viewer but also for myself. They are a suggestion, a signifier, an open door, a thread, the light: to a way to approach the image.

My titles usually come after the work is done and I am sitting with a series of paintings in the studio. For me, titling paintings is the time for reflection and observation of where my work is and where it it is going.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Lisa. I love that.

Anonymous said...

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet?"

I don't necessarily think this is true when it comes to art. A title is such a powerful layer of expression, that it can completely change the context of an artwork. I love poetry, so I'm probably more sensitive to this issue, but I know that I'm not the only one.

I also think that this practice of naming and titling creations dates back to love to name and invent titles, they are the ultimate title masters.

Oh yea... Mark Kostabi has an interesting show in which contestants compete to name his works.. often the titles are better than the works!


Tina Mammoser said...

I have the problem that I'm too literal, when viewers see more in my paintings. My work is, in my judgement, very objective in that it represents specific places. So my names tend to be those places. Couldn't be anything else in my head. :) But I realise that the slightly quirkier play on titles is appreciated by people. Not dishonest or 'wordy' but just something added to the place name like 'light' or 'morning' or some mood-setter.

Just finished a new piece and have been thinking the place name isn't enough. So you've got me thinking now. Like someone else said, I'm not into the words making the meaning. But I realise that sometimes being too literal then limits how some viewers see the work, instead of taking it into their own imagination. Since I want them to see whatever place they associate with the image, I need to give them that room in the title too I guess.

sharonA said...

These are all really great comments!

Like J. Nodine, the thesaurus and dictionary are my best friends. I have a fairly aged dictionary, as I like the descriptions better; and I use Wikipedia a lot for etymology (which the older dictionary sometimes gets into). I find that titling the work is a tremendous opportunity for wordplay, which itself is a reflection of the layered nature of art. People may find the title and the work sufficient, or find entry to go deeper.

I also research scientific or technical terminology a lot - there's so much opportunity for metaphor.

And sometimes, until I fully grasp what a piece is about, it has to be untitled (but it's rare). Maybe I don't want to break the illusion, maybe I don't want to be didactic, maybe it just is.

Unknown said...

Thinking of Lisa's comment about reflection reminded me that when I look back over my catalog database of work, titles and names can be informative and revealing. In many ways it is like a journal and I find it interesting to correlate the titles with that point in my life and the work I was making at that time. I will be thinking more about this issue and sharing it students.

Franklin said...

Seconding what Tom said - keeping track of a body of work in which most pieces are untitled is a logistical migraine. It makes phone conversations a particular hassle, as you try to glean from your dealer which Untitled 2007 just sold ("You know, the blue one!") or ascertain which Untitled among a series of Untitleds a collector is interested in. Even if it's a chore and has nothing to do with your art, title your works.

Ian MacLeod said...

My paintings are not titled as such, but are identified by their composition number (Composition #183) - I don't want the perceived meaning of a title to affect the viewer's connection to the work.

Tim McFarlane said...

I try to avoid 'untitled' as much as possible in my work because a title often 'finishes' a work for me. Also, my work is very abstract so titles are also great identifiers for me to keep track of what I've done and they offer viewers a path into the work. I like to keep titles short, usually one or two words or short phrases.

When a word or phrase interests me, I try to remember to write it down. Its very rare for me to do a painting with a title already in mind. Most of the time, my works won't be titled until after they are finished, because I often get more caught up in doing the work so often titles are the very last piece of the puzzle for me.