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.