title retrospective

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When I was an undergrad, I thought it was cool and professional-sounding to name a painting Untitled.  In fact, my BFA final show had several Untitled’s in it.  After a few more shows though, I realized it’s very difficult to identify an artwork that shares the same name as five (or more) other pieces.  You never know which piece someone is talking about.  Since that time, I’ve titled all my artwork, primarily so that a piece can always be identified and recorded accurately.  Here’s a rundown of different titling methods I’ve used over the years, helpful if you need some title ideas yourself or if you want some insight into what an artist might be thinking!

One strategy I started out with was using one word titles.  I try to pick words that strike me as profound and somewhat descriptive of what I was thinking about when I created the artwork.  Clarity, Resilience, Depth, and Remembrance are some titles I’ve used.  It’s a lot of pressure for one word to carry, so I will sometimes branch out into two or three words instead.


Patterned, 24″ x 18″, oil on panel, 2000, private collection.


A variation on this strategy is to work in a numbered series.  I come up with one “good” word and then repeat it for the whole series.  Richard Diebenkorn, one of my all-time favorite artists, used this method.  His Ocean Park series has something like 135 paintings in it, all titled Ocean Park #1, Ocean Park #2, Ocean Park #3, and so on.  I find this is a good method when I am making a lot of work at once; it emphasizes the body of work as a whole and not each individual piece, plus you don’t have to slow down to think of new titles all the time.  I’ve done a Swing-a-way Series ( in 2000), Interior Series (2011),  Figure Series (2013), and three printmaking series (2014-16).


Interior #3, 17″ x 17″, mixed media on paper, 2011, private collection.


Another method I’ve used in naming my work is simply choosing text from within the image.  In the past, much of the paper used in my collage work had text on it, so after finishing the piece, I would look to see what was legible.  Map-collaged pieces yielded titles like: How to Determine Distance, Singleton Street, and 15th Street, while working with sewing patterns produced names like: Seam Allowance Included, Sleeve Stiffening, and Cut Along Dotted Lines.


Cut Along Dotted Lines, 44″ x 32″, mixed media on panel, 2012, available.


In graduate school, I felt like I was constantly having to explain or defend what I was doing, and I shifted the way I titled my work in response to this.  I would start with my one good word and then look up a definition of it.  Then I would use that definition (or a large portion of it) as my title.  This led to some unwieldy names like The Formal Act of Acquiring Something by Conquest or Occupation and To Seek Out and Determine the Location of.  I liked these long, awkward titles, though, because they were simultaneously poetic and very specific (literally defining what I was saying/exploring in my art).


To Seek Out and Determine the Location of, 24″ x 24″, mixed media on panel, 2016, private collection.


Currently, I title my work in modified black-out poetry style.  I find a sheet of text; I leave words I like and use a sharpie to black out the rest.  I write down the remaining words in groups, rearranging and playing with them, until I find a phrase or sentence that seems significant.  I keep a running list of those phrases.  When a piece is finished, I match it up with a title from the list that seems to fit.  (Or start the process over if nothing seems to fit.)  The titles still read like obscure definitions–for example, Self-protecting Corridors, Mistakenly Choose the Same Sequence, and How to Keep Uncertainty— but I like that this naming process mirrors the intuitive/always-editing nature of how I make my art.

How to Keep Uncertainty, 36″ x 36″, mixed media on panel, 2017, available.