poetically untitled

Few topics in contemporary art get as little consideration as the titles of artworks. Especially since titling your piece untitled, seems to have become the norm. Which is not due to laziness. Because, how do you title a self-portrait when you are appropriating the looks of mid-20th-century B movies? Or a conceptual piece in which a slowly disappearing endlessly renewable candy pile represents your boyfriend painful demise from AIDS-related complications?

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #11, 1978  © Cindy Sherman


1991  © Estate of

There is a history of artists insisting that titles have nothing to do with their practice, as it should be visual, not linguistic. As nuestro Picasso has said, “What good does it do, after all, to impart explanations?” he once said. “A painter has only one language.”

In other cases, the title just plainly says what is represented in the artwork. If a work of art is strong as Nan Goldin’s, it does not need a title, everything is just there already. Tension, love, desperation. There’s enough to unpack already. Especially if the series it is part of, is called, The Balled of Sexual Dependency. *Mic drop.*



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Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983  © Nan Goldin




In conceptual practices, especially when artworks are more open-ended and intended in to be in dialogue with the audience, some artists don’t want to force one specific meaning upon the visitor. If a work of art is an eerie think piece, such as with Robert Gober’s wax torso meets paper bag, the artist seems not to want to give it away. Neither do I, as I still don’t fully get abject art, but here’s a link.

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Robert Gober, Untitled, 1991  © Robert Gober Collection SFMOMA

And in a time where the author/artist is still believed to be dead, as Roland Barthes argued over 50 years ago, and we shouldn’t focus too much on the intention of the author/artist, as that would impose a limit on that text/artwork. As Felix Gonzalez-Torres used to say “you are responsible for the final meaning of this piece.” Being untitled helps. It gives the viewer less direction in how to perceive the artwork. It can force them to think for themselves and relate to the artwork.


I guess in general, it’s hard to use a title that does not feel too descriptive. And it shouldn’t be too random, or should it? Well, in some cases, it can work to use a title that seems to have nothing to do with the piece. And that case it also makes you think, and relate, and think.


And in this context, as it is going to be one of the very few times, I’m going to address Damien Hirst. I do find it interesting how he uses his titles to at least give his mere sensationalism a little more edge. For example, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), is a shark in formaldehyde; Mother and Child Divided (1993) is a four-part sculpture of a bisected cow and calf; and For the Love of God (2007), is a human skull studded with 8,601 diamonds. It forces to rethink the piece in relation to the title.

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Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991  © Damien Hirst

So here you have it, some examples from a limitless range of how artists use titles.

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