Why Are So Many Artworks Untitled?
What do an image of a coffee cup, a canvas spilled with vivid reds, and a photograph of a woman in Manhattan have in common? They’re all artworks without a title. Or rather, they all have the same title: “Untitled.”
Though it has become the norm, the convention of giving titles to artworks has long been challenged by artists. Pablo Picasso, for example, insisted he had nothing to do with the titles of his works. While many acquired titles from gallerists and dealers over the years, Picasso preferred the work to speak for itself. “What good does it do, after all, to impart explanations?” he once said. “A painter has only one language.” And for Picasso and many other artists, that language is visual.
Philosophical reasons aside, it’s not practical to leave an artwork untitled. Keeping track of untitled works can be a logistical nightmare for gallerists and cataloguers, and psychology studies have suggested that viewers both pay less attention to and have a lower understanding of artworks that are untitled. Still, “Untitled” has become so pervasive, it functions as a title in and of itself—and a charged one. The word can subtly jab at the institutional framework of museums and galleries, emphasize an abstractionist’s evasion of representation, or offer a blank space for the viewer to come up with their own interpretation of a work.
Sometimes, “Untitled” is simply a relic of a bygone past—before titling became common practice. In her book Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names (2015), Ruth Yeazell, a professor of English at Yale University, explains that in pre-18th-century Europe, artists did not need to title their work because most art stayed in one place. The traveling exhibitions and art market that necessitate the extensive labeling and cataloguing we have today did not yet exist. An artwork displayed in a private home would have been self-explanatory to the viewer—either because it depicted a familiar theme or because it came from commissions, produced after discussions between patron and artist.
Works that were publicly displayed depicted familiar stories—biblical scenes like the Annunciation or classical narratives like Theseus slaying the minotaur—that had been recirculated numerous times. A title would be considered redundant and useless for many viewers. Before our age of mass literacy, an image would have been more widely accessible than written language.
Titling conventions began as art museums proliferated across Europe in the 18th century, starting with the Museo Capitolino in 1734 and the Louvre in 1793. Around the same time, the art market grew with the founding of auction houses, namely Sotheby’s in 1744 and Christie’s in 1766. As more works circulated, titles became necessary not only to keep track of objects as they changed settings, but also to provide context to viewers in disparate locales. The work could no longer rely on information passed orally through families or directly from artist to viewer. For artists who were participating in group shows and salons, titles became necessary to organize submissions.
Many artworks that were left untitled prior to the 18th century have since acquired colloquial nicknames or formal titles from middlemen like gallerists, art historians, and curators. The title of the Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–19) can be traced to Giorgio Vasari’s canonical work The Lives of the Artists (1550–68), wherein he described it as a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife Mona Lisa, or “Madam Lisa.” For one of Rembrandt’s most famous works, the Rijksmuseum settled on the title Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (1642)—but today, it is more commonly known by the misnomer “Night Watch,” after multiple layers of varnish darkened what was originally a daylight scene. Yeazell notes that even as titling became necessary, it was “apt to be a messy affair.”
The pragmatism of labeling can rub up against artists’ intentions, especially those who want to keep the meaning of their work open-ended. When artists began to move away from representation, the omission of titles became intentional. If artworks were supposed to transcend visual reference points, artists were determined they’d function outside of linguistic ones, too. Clyfford Still, who painted large, saturated abstract canvases, was among the more opinionated in his views of titling. “I want no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator,” he once explained, describing his paintings like something of a Rorscach test—up for interpretation. “Before them I want him to be on his own, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.”
Artists of other modern art movements veered away from labels for similar reasons. Minimalists took abstract painting’s break from representation a step further, focusing on pure form and emphasizing materiality. In reducing objects and aesthetics to their essential components, language became extraneous, too. Donald Judd, for instance, left many of his works untitled. Still, Yeazell notes in her book that our inclination to title has left even the most minimal Judd works with descriptive nicknames like “The Lifeboat” and “Letter Box.” “The need to make sense of our visual experience is a powerful one, and locating a familiar form in a work that appears to resist that effort can be oddly comforting,” Yeazell writes.
Such an inclination has also led works to accumulate parenthetical titles alongside their “Untitled” designation. These parentheticals are, at times, developed colloquially or assigned by gallerists.
But in Conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s case, the parentheses are intentional. Gonzalez-Torres created his own titling scheme that used parentheses to give viewers a window into his thoughts behind a work. Emotionally charged titles, like Untitled (Last Light) from 1993 and Untitled (Death by Gun) from 1990, guide what we see and feel, while leaving room for the viewer to have their own impression. This aligned with the artist’s broader practice: “Without the public these works are nothing,” he said in a 1993 interview with Tim Rollins. “I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.”
Contemporary artist Hannah Levy is of a similar mindset. “I have an idea of what’s happening in a work or what kind of feelings it might generate, but if someone else has a different reaction, that’s cool,” she said. “I don’t want to guide anyone’s experience too much.”
Levy, who makes biomorphic sculptural forms, looks to the titling habits of Minimalists and Conceptual artists for inspiration. While in school, she gave titles to works that referenced their materials, but ultimately, that felt too descriptive, she explained. Later, emboldened by Robert Gober’s lack of titles, she decided to stop titling her works. Her website has no titles at all—though, of course, in the museum setting, that is not possible.
“I’m pretty ambivalent about the term ‘untitled,’” Levy said.“It feels pretentious. It’s really easy to make fun of it as an ‘art-world word.’” And the word’s presence in art-world spaces only underscores its ubiquity. The Whitney Museum has its restaurant, Untitled; there is a gallery called Untitled Space, and an Untitled Art Fair. In this way, “Untitled” functions as a title.
As a title, “Untitled” has also been strategically employed by artists of the Pictures Generation, who comment on mass circulation of images. Most notably, with Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” (1977–80), the word emphasizes the generic nature of the images, in which Sherman performs tropes of womanhood in the media. Richard Prince titled his works made from found imagery in a similar way, such as the 1989 Untitled (cowboy). In his case, the word also emphasizes his remove from the image’s production: Untitled (cowboy) is a photograph of an advertisement that relies on the machismo, Wild-West archetype of a cowboy.
In an art world shaped by institutions and driven by language, Yeazell notes that even works that have been left untitled manage to be accompanied with sprawling wall text, as well as pages and pages of academic criticism and writing. Language, it seems, is truly inescapable.
Marcel Duchamp famously said that a “title is an invisible color”—and it’s a color that, for better or worse, wiggles its way into even the most resistant artworks.