Lately, while in the studio, I have been thinking a lot about painting titles. I used to just copy headlines out of the newspaper and keep them in a book. When I needed a title, I would just skim them and find one that worked well for that particular painting. I loosely got the idea from hearing Robert Motherwell in Painters Painting describe how the surrealists would randomly open a favorite book and then put their finger on the page. Whatever words they touched would be the title they were looking for. I tried that method a bunch of times but I rarely liked the results so I shifted the approach. One of the cool things about the way I did it was that I would date the headline. So for example, on April 24, 2002, the headlines read as follow:
Charting a Course of Negligence and Splendor
Its own Sense of Doom
Looking to Solve a Mystery
When Silence Can Seem Like Consent
Behind That Cool Professional Gaze
Definitive Data Can be Elusive
Style Then Substance
The Southward Journey of Detritus
It’s kind of like a pithy diary entry, specific and yet random enough. That is what I always wanted out of a title. As it turns out, from that list I only used When Silence Can Seem Like Consent.
I like a title that suggests something beyond the piece it names and yet in some way is tethered to the very image it attempts to describe. This gets the juices going.
The idea of using the headlines also has something to do with tone. Headlines can be clever and a bit tricky but they almost always are assertive. I like this idea. I like asserting something vague or non-definitive. I guess that is a bit of a contradiction but along these lines, so is painting. Finding a title for a painting can be so obvious. The Bather, Bowl of Apples, Red Room. These are fine, and they are descriptive but they are effectively perfunctory and obvious. I like a title that suggests something beyond the piece it names and yet in some way is tethered to the very image it attempts to describe. This gets the juices going. If done well it creates just the right amount of ambiguity. There are some titles I’ve used in the past that I frankly can’t remember if I invented or got them from a newspaper. Some good examples would be Consensus of the Forgotten, Tender of the Flock or Anonymous is Prominent. If I remember correctly, the last one came from an article about Alcoholics Anonymous. What that has to do with a painting depicting a group of tents at the foot of a mountain pass is anyone’s guess and yet it manages to assist the painting to just the right amount of intrigue. At least that’s what I think. And I do think about titles quite a bit.
The thing is, titles need to come from the heart even if they are random. You have to have some skin in the game.
These days I try to come up with titles strictly on my own. Every once in a while I will read something in a book and use that. For the most part though, while I am painting I think of phrases, sort of like newspaper headlines about my work and write them down. The writing can happen in a frenzy like a laundry list of things to do or they can come in a trickle. In 2011 I was on a small island in Greece for three months and I managed to write pages of titles. They span a lot of moods and almost become poems when read together. Here is an example from one page:
Project for Eternity
Unbalanced by Time
We Rescue the Restive
Impulses and Similitude
In Plain Sight
As the Cause Unfolds
Assume the Distance
Leveled by the Soul
It’s funny but when I read them together I remember quite well the feelings and what was happening in my life at the time. Because I was painting while I thought them up I figure they apply perfectly to my work. Yet they have really very little to do with any one particular piece. From that list I managed to use five.
Stream of consciousness is also important. It is my basic approach to making art. I work from a large compendium of sketches, photographic images, notes and memories. They are all loosely compiled with little editing and yet they almost always stay on topic. I think the same is true for titles. If you think of it, scribble it down and keep it in a book or folder. Remember them when you need a title or don’t. Maybe list them in varying order to get yourself started on an essay or statement.
Things I have learned that don’t work for me are those refrigerator magnets. The words they chose are dumb and seem to always form salacious sentence fragments. The randomness though seems like a good idea. Recently, in trying to come up with a title for a show, I wrote a bunch of words down and cut them up and tried to put them back together in interesting ways. That didn’t work well at all. It took a long time and I got glue all over my desk. The thing is, titles need to come from the heart even if they are random. You have to have some skin in the game. Getting titles from music can work but they need to be from thoughtful references and ones that are obscure. The worst is when you are in a slick white cube gallery looking at a stoner doodle and the title is from a Neil Young song. That can ruin it. Not that I am against stoner doodles or Neil Young, I love them both but when you put them together, it is just too obvious. Unless it is tied directly to the work, I would steer entirely away from pop references in general. But I’m a hypocrite, one of my favorite paintings is titled I’m OK With My Decay and that came from a Grandaddy song.