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Titles for abstract works

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

An intrinsic problem with abstract art is how to title it. There is something dissatisfying with ‘Composition 23’ or ‘Untitled (64)’, but there is something equally dissatisfying with ‘Broadway Boogie-Woogie’ or ‘The Dance of Time’. We want our enquiries for some hint as to the artist’s idea of the meaning of the work neither to be dismissed with the former, nor answered with the latter. We want to know what was going on in the artist’s head, but do not want to be told exactly what to think. Shakespeare got it about right with Twelfth Night, Or What You Will – which is to say, what matters is what is in it, not the wrapper. But some form of identification is necessary, unless you produce only one work – even Homer’s output, being two works, needed two titles.

Several years ago I made a linocut print of the front of the house I was living in, and rather than give it rather pointless identification – ‘The house I am living in’ or ‘Hackney exterior’ or ‘Suburban residential property façade’ – I called it ‘75 E8 1AG’, that being an identifiable address, if anybody should need to check up on it. As a distinguishing sign, not that it was likely to be confused with ‘Bowl of Tulips’, it was as good as any other. I rather liked ‘I Should Like To Live For Ever’ as the title of a filmed performance work about hopelessly trying to get things accepted into a museum collection; it gave a clear indication of the thinking behind the work. Most people did not like it though; perhaps it was uncomfortable in that such a desire reminds us of the unavoidability of death. Perhaps ‘75 E8 1AG’ looked too much like a return address in case the putative purchaser wanted a refund at some stage.

Last year, or it may have been the year before, I bought a couple of water-colours by the 1960s artist William Black, lovely pieces that were surprisingly within my budget. When another piece came up, I hesitated, and lost it. The sense of frustration being stronger than the sense of want when I looked again at the image, I resolved to challenge fate by making work about the loss, and to appropriate the title. ‘Dark Harbour’ became a title base for a number of abstract works using the same visual motifs, and this spread outwards to embrace other nautical terms, picked up from the long range shipping forecast or derived from imagined scenarios – ‘Calm Sea’, ‘Light to Variable’, and ‘The Harbour-Master’s House’. Abstract drawing over nineteenth-century cartes de visite are now titled ‘Morning Thoughts of a Harbour Master’, ‘Coastal Waters’, and, reaching out into the language of the exotic other, for no apparent reason, ‘La Sirène du Secteur Neuf du Port’.

I listen to music while working, often the same piece repeatedly for weeks at a stretch, and often wonder what was in an artist’s head when a particular work was being made. Was Mondrian actually thinking about the movement on Broadway being like a boogie-woogie? Which particular tune? Did he go over to wind up the gramophone repeatedly while painting? While finishing a print today I was listening to a disc of Janacek’s piano music, so the print is called 'Malostranksy’, after the piece that most caught my attention, enough at least for me to go and look at its title. It is little-known enough for me to borrow it; I could not use ‘Song from an Overgrown Path’, much as I would like to – Janacek rather owns that one.

Are non-numerical titles for abstract works doomed to go wrong, or to sound irrelevant, or funny to the detriment of the work? I feel it is rather a cop-out to repeat the main motif of the work – ‘HTPPPL35’ for an abstract letterpress-based work containing those elements. As a practice it worked for pretty well all figurative artists from the early Renaissance onwards, at least for those painting actual views, bunches of flowers or the faces of rich folks. Various Venuses, the Willendorf, Rokeby, de Milo, and so forth, have attachments of ownership or site within their titles, rather than ‘Female body, unclothed, aged about 28’, so we are clearly being directed to cast our minds into a particular framework. ‘A Huge Painting Of More Or Less One Colour Field Which I Hope Will Ultimately Make You Think About God’ would have been unadvisable, even though that would be as reasonable an assessment of Rothko’s idea of what he was doing as Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’.

For now I am sticking with titles that say something, even though this may be a conversation I am having with myself alone. It works for the two-dimensional works, but not for the wood and stone sculptures, which should reasonably be called ‘This one is about finding out what happens if I do this’.

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