The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Mark Rothko

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond

This morning I read through several sections of Richmond's book and made the decision to cherry-pick what would be most interesting and relevant to the discussions on this blog. I found a sentence at the end of section 1 of Chapter 6 that triggered my imagination: Mark Rothko once said that the reason he didn't give titles to his mature paintings was because he was afraid that words would paralyze the viewer's imagination. This challenged my approach, since I was taught that a well-constructed title is important. I was also taught never to use the label Untitled. Now I'm thinking, isn't that silly? Maybe Rothko was correct. I can see both sides of the coin. On the one side, a title gives the viewer a sense of the artist's intention. On the other side, the viewer's interpretation could be more important than the artist's. So, I thought I'd look at a few titled paintings to evaluate this.

This is a painting by Picasso. Looking at it, I would have assigned a title that had something to do with sadness or despair (over having lost her clothes and not knowing where to find them ??). Picasso's title is "Blue Nude." It's a good title because "blue" could mean her mood as well as the dominant hue in the painting. But, if I read the title as meaning the hue it would make me feel less emotionally connected to the painting because I'd think that Picasso was just experimenting with the color blue (or a new tube of paint).

This painting by Richard Diebenkorn looks architectural to me, but mostly like a study in color design. His title is Ocean Park 67. I never would have thought that, so his title definitely influences how I think about this painting and limits my imagination.

This painting by Andrew Wyeth speaks to me about island life and the beauty of the wind blowing through carefully hung fishing nets. There's an ephemeral beauty to the work that also reminds me of life itself - aging and dying. Wyeth's title for the work is "Pentecost." Wow, that title really expands my imagination! Here's a title that enhances the viewer's imagination rather than limits it.

And then, there's the obvious title. I look at this painting by Edward Hopper and think "rotary phone." Guess what? His title is Rotary Phone.

So, let's come full circle back to Rothko. Below is a picture of two people standing before one of Rothko's "untitled" paintings. I wonder what they're thinking. What would you be thinking, and what title springs from your imagination?

Also, do you assign titles to your paintings?


M said...

I've given the issue of titles quite a bit of thought and my beliefs parallel what you were taught. I've reached these conclusions myself after much viewing and reading.

I absolutely hate Untitled and I take it as not having the energy or consideration to come up with something. Untitled leaves me no avenue for getting inside the artist's head and I want to know a little of her intentions. That doesn't preclude me from assigning my own meaning. As the Wyeth painting indicates, the title brings so much more to the viewer's mind. It teases and expands your original thoughts. To me a good title enhances a painting. I can still look at and get my own meaning from a work but it truly becomes a two way communication when I have a good title.

Sometimes paintings need simple titles because they are all about the object as the phone. It becomes a kind of labelling to confirm the artist's intention, e.g.rotary phone. Right away my mind begins to question, why is the artist highlighting/ cataloging this object in this way. The meaning resides in our labels for things.

I look forward to hearing what others feel about this.

Elizabeth Seaver said...

I do assign titles to my paintings, occasionally under duress. Untitled can seem the best to me. I also admit that I have changed titles because one didn't fit the painting very well. In my experience, the best titles come right away. Sometimes a viewer tosses a remark out about a work in progress that names a piece for me.

You're right that titling is a tricky business and can turn out to be a fence rather than the gateway into a work. I think that's why "rotary phone" or some such descriptive title is used so often! The viewer may then be freer to assign memories or responses that are not first interpreted by the artist.

Very interesting post, Katharine.

I have been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and it is an, individual, mystical, meditative experience. It doesn't surprise me that Rothko feels that way about titles.

Anonymous said...

After reading Margaret's response- I'm now tempted to create an image called "The Title is Untitled"- sorry- it's the rebel in me.
I think the title is yet another artistic choice. I like titles.
Sometimes I'll run my title choice by another to get a sense of their reaction- but mostly I just trust my own sense of it.
I've never titled something "Untitled" but I wouldn't have a problem with it.

Stan Kurth said...

I'm OK with "untitled" but I do title my work. I try to keep them to one word and usually suggestive not too unlike Wyeth. I recently titled a painting Perilous Allure (it's posted on my blog) and I think it leaves some imagination to the viewer without a dissertation. But I did write about that title in the comments on that post.

hw (hallie) farber said...

At last, an easy question. If it's "Untitled," I move to the next painting.

Stan Kurth said...

Just in case anyone is interested here is a link to that comment: Perilous Allure

tess stieben said...

Titles have always been a struggle for me. As you mentioned titles can influence a viewers thoughts. I find when I am looking at art in a gallery or museum that I forget to look at the title, I am more a visual brained person who allows the impact of sight to carry me away. In books though I do notice titles. On that said the exception being was a micro-print exhibition I attended years ago. The images all being under 3 inches had humorous titles that were one to three sentences long. I could tell who was reading titles as those people all were grinning or chuckling. I have to admit it was wonderfully creative. Sad to say I could not afford to buy one as I was a student at the time and alas I no longer remember the artists name, but the experience has stayed with me.

Poetry was used to title work in an exhibition I attended last year. I wondered about copyright as they were not the artists own poems and she did not request permission to use them in such a manner. To top it off she gave no credit to the poet. I only garnered this information cause I queried her.

In my own work a title either pops into my head while I am working on the piece, or else I struggle to find one. As a fair amount of my paintings have been birds the title may only identify the bird. There are a few "untitled" in my repertoire of images, though for keeping record of pieces it is easier to have a title to identify them.

-Don said...

I must concur with Hallie on this one, because I'm the same way - "Untitled" keeps me moving along. The word untitled makes me feel that the piece is unfinished. It makes me think that the artist must not have had any idea where he/she was going with it and just left it there. Obviously, this is just my opinion... and who am I to judge? I wasn't taught one way or the other - it's just who I am as an artist and a viewer.

In answer to your question. The Rothko image you showed us makes me me think, "great color scheme and interesting composition". It has an ethereal, even spiritual, feel to it. But, I get the same satisfaction out of looking at it with the word "untitled" beside it as I did as an adolescent looking at girlie magazines with the discreetly placed black bars with the word "censored" written across them.


Stan Kurth said...

Cute analogy Don. I don't remember any black bars!

Anyway here's why I don't mind untitled: It's "Visual" Art. If you were to discover an untitled Rembrandt in a time capsule would you pass it by?

-Don said...

Good question, Stan. In my mind we're back to that word "context". To study a lost master with the title lost or forgotten would be a different experience to me than walking up to a piece in a museum or gallery that has the word "untitled" next to it. I refer to my above argument.

Also, how would we know for sure it was a Rembrandt found in this time capsule? He didn't sign very many pieces and he had apprentices who could create works which have been confused with this master. (sorry, couldn't resist... ) :-}


Unknown said...

Another great post to get those brain synapses sparking Kathy! As in the definition with art, I think there is a place for all sorts of titles including "Untitled". I used to think that not giving a title was a cop-out for the very abstract images. Do you know of any paintings that have identifiable images that don't have a title?

Sometimes the cynic in me imagines a less than well intentioned person wanting to make a quick buck by laying a floor full of canvases and throwing paint randomly so they could have a whole show ready in a day with titles of Untitled I, II, III etc for each piece.

With very evolved artwork like Rothko's whose intention is to have the viewer think and take away his/her own meaning from the image is totally appropriate. As for the last Rothko you posted, I can go to each side of the spectrum with this image. I can view it as a warm sunset of a scene from Armageddon. *yikes*

Unknown said...

Hi Everybody! Looks like there are a lot of opinions and great insights from everyone so I won't address each of you individually. I like the dialogue that's going on between you. Very cool! Thanks so much.

Stan Kurth said...

I'm not as articulate as everyone else here, so let me rephrase: Very simply put, I don't judge a piece of art by its title or lack thereof. If it doesn't connect with me visually, then I'll pass it by. But if it's knock-your-socks-off visually exciting I'm going to take a gander! I do believe that's what "visual art" is all about.

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever:" John Keats

Mary Paquet said...

I like titles and I enjoy giving titles to my work. I tend to think that "Untitled" is a copout; I can see that I am a bit unfair after reading everyone's comments.

As in the case of the Wyeth painting, I often find that a title gives even more meaning to the work I am viewing. Love those titles!

I also am intrigued by the play on words that some artists have a knack for using. They interject some fun, or moodiness, or intellectual stimulation with their titles.

A good title causes me to spend more time studying the work. For example, Don's recent work, "Petroleum By-product," makes me want to spend more time looking for nuances in this piece.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy and All Above,
I love the contradictions in the art world; they're mind expanding and enlightening. I could go with either; it helps to know why something was left untitled. It makes me look at the piece with a fresh eye. I'd love to see the Rothko in person and meditate on it awhile. I'd probably leave it untitled too.

Casey Klahn said...

Margaret makes a good point when she says the avenue for her own imagination is still open in spite of a title. Perhaps a bad title, though, might trip one up. I wonder.

It is very interesting to compare AW and MR - they were contemporaries whose worlds diverged dramatically (not that they knew one another - on that I think I read that they met once). Anyway - the battle of two dominating styles - all abstract vs. Magical Realism. Awesome to ponder the effects of both artists, and I never thought of the titles as a "ring" for this fight.

I guess I agree with Rothko in his naming paintings Untitled - because he was searching for a very new and extremely abstract picture. In a school of thought where abstracts shouldn't remind one of anything visually, the non-name seems appropriate.

BTW, I am reading on Wyeth now, and his work is more on my mind than Rothko's. How's that for paradox?

Casey Klahn said...

Peggy, I did stand in front of that Rothko (looks like MoMA) and I did love it tremendously. I don't get that experience often, so it is a good memory.

However, if I were the guy in the picture, I would be thinking, "why are my ankles so cold?"

Dan Kent said...

I am a fan of Diebenkorn. Ocean Park 67 is more a cataloging than a title. Ocean Park is the California community he lived in. He has numbered paintings in his Ocean Park series over decades and I have read that he did not intend to refer to landscapes, cityscapes, ocean or sky. In this way, the series title was a bit misleading. Your first impression was closer to the artist's intent.

I could not really care less whether a painting is titled. Often, to me, the title is either meaningless or distracting - sometimes downright annoying. I'd rather just enjoy the art. Every now and then there is a perfect title, but not often. That said, I expect when I stop my self-study and start painting in earnest, I will title my paintings.

It has nothing to do with an "ocean" or a "park", so the fact of the title actually misled you in your interpretation.

Dan Kent said...

Whoops - in my editing I forgot to erase that last hanging sentence. Sorry. Please disregard.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

I like titles but I would not pass a painting by because it was untitled. There is so much misinterpretation of intention in the world. I am so amazed that we can communicate at all. My personal preference is to have a title. Especially a humorous one. I love a little humor in art.

-Don said...

Stan, I disagree. You are quite articulate. And you make a great argument. I understood exactly what you were saying. I agree that what we take part in is "visual art", and it's mostly about what we see or present for others to see. My personal choice, though, is I prefer titles. Does the lack of a title make Rothko's work any less powerful as a work of visual art? No. I've been in front of it and was bowled over by it visually. However, I left wanting for a title... that little something that finishes it for me... that little something that gives me an extra insight into the artist's intent.

What a great discussion this has been today. I have enjoyed everyone's input. I like the way Peggy put it, these contradictions are indeed mind expanding and enlightening. Thanks to Kathy for giving us this forum.


Unknown said...

Hi again, Folks:
It's great to read all of your viewpoints which are diverse and insightful. This has become a great forum for discussing art and that's due to your willingness to make it so! On this topic I'm somewhat torn. There are no "rules" about titles, so it really is up to the artist and part of me wants to trust the artist's preference and intentions. Another part of me wants the "Hollywood ending" where a satisfying title makes me happy. And then, there's another part of me that is disappointed with awful titles and wishes that the artist had left it "untitled." Maybe the lesson here is that there shouldn't be any rules about titles. (?)
This has been a GREAT discussion! Thank you.

Angela said...

I think, as usual, that it depends upon can have so many different intentions that I just never find any rules that I can agree with across the board.

When it comes to the bulk of my own work, I think titles are completely unnecessary and that's why I generally stick to the generic and obvious. My work is almost never about the subject itself, and it's not about thinking (beyond, "hey - did you ever look up close at this and notice how interesting it is?") - my work is mainly about the colors and style and the feelings they induce...while they usually do mean something personal to me while I'm creating it, that becomes unimportant once it's shown because what I'm really interested in what different color combos make other people feel and I don't want to influence that.

That said, my new project is all about highlighting a certain environment and culture and it will not only have titles, but each painting will have a load of information accompanying it...but that's because my intent with this work will be different - I absolutely want to influence what my viewers 'see' and feel when they look at it and I want every person to come away with knowledge that they didn't have before.

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Dear Katharine,

You have hit a home run with this post. I am a firm believer in titles. Giving ones work the title of 'Untitled' is doing a disservice to the viewer and an injustice to the artwork.

As artist, especially as abstract painters we owe the public a road map to understanding the work we are presenting and so an imaginative title i feel is necessary.

The title should be well thought off and reflect the spirit of the artwork and the intention of the artist.

Warmest regards,

Unknown said...

Hi Angela - "intent" is the word!! Thanks.

Hi Egmont - I like the fact that you, and other commentors on this blog, have very strong feelings about this topic. I'ts instructive and fascinating! Thank you.

Caterina Giglio said...

Hi, just got here thru Ian's blog,

joining the conversation late...
... as a self taught artist, I have no rules
about titles or art for that matter.

Untitled to me says that the artist wishes you to form an opinion about the piece and title it yourself. I realize this requires the viewer to participate in the creative nature of the work and some artists may find this unnatural.

I found myself in this position (titling a work untitled) when I created a painting inspired by the death of my brother. It was a highly personal piece. although I eventually gave it a title, I felt uncomfortable with a title for quite a while.

Untitled is quite like a movie preview that has two endings and the viewer gets to choose one.
labels, rules are all designed to keep us confined to a box.
an art box is a pretty box, but it is still a box.

layers said...

a very interesting topic-- titles-- existing in the realm of no real rules- I have seen lots of titles of paintings, and have seen lots of 'untitled' or No. 1..2..3 and so on.
I do title my paintings-- I usually get my titles by brainstorming words from my artist statement about my series-- WHY? am I painting this series. But I have also numbered my small collages-- I just did a series for a collage exchange--13 of them-- and I titled them JOURNEY 1-2-3 and so on...
but I have never used UNTITLED- as I usually have a series in mind when I complete a painting.

ArtPropelled said...

Food for thought. It all depends on the piece, whether the title comes easily or not. Rather untitled than something that is careless or forced or "clever".

Timaree said...

I've never painted a picture yet that was meant as a picture for the picture's sake. I am just learning to paint really but I do know what appeals to me. It is interesting to me to see if the title fits my own idea of the work. It helps to engage me to take a closer look. Even Untitled (which IS a title really) makes me wonder "why" it was given the title Untitled. Then I make my own opinion and perhaps choose my own title. It's just an added level of dialogue between the artist and the viewer. You are only stuck in the box (of a given title, or none) if you choose to stay there.

My choice of title for that last picture is "Endless Plain".