What’s in a Title? Or, When Is a Title More than a Title?

Here are three of my pieces just installed at 100 Market Street, Portsmouth. On the left the viewer must feel the surface of the pad hanging below to experience the title. In the middle, the viewer must spritz the cologne sampler to smell the title of the artwork. And on the right the viewer must sound the gong to hear the title of the artwork.

I have begun a new and unorthodox body of work that involves using artwork titles that are as out-of-the-ordinary as possible. The three pieces above, now hanging at 100 Market Street in Portsmouth, are examples. Their titles are not expressed in language, but in sensory experience.

My purpose with this new direction is to push the envelope of what can be considered a title, to question the relationship between an artwork’s title and the artwork, and to thereby investigate the nature of What Is Art? Sounds wacky, yes, but read on.

Typically, a work of art is a object, and its title is a word or phrase. And, typically, we would say that the title is a way of labeling the art, a convenient way to refer to it. A title, typically, is information that has no specific physical form, but is usually represented by text.

But some artworks, of course, don’t have titles, or are purposely entitled “Untitled.” And there are other, less common, artworks that consist of a title without a specific physical object to which they refer. Consider, for instance, Sol LeWitt’s Buried Cube…, which consisted of an unknown item buried in an unknown place. Or maybe Robert Ryman’s Varese Wall, which is (to my mind, anyway) an empty place that is waiting for a painting. Or perhaps represents the possibility of a painting.

So what can a title be, and not be? What physical form can a title take? Can a title be a symbol? A sound? A drawing? How long can a title be?

Suppose I paint a painting of, say, the sky, and then I stipulate:  “This is my artwork entitled The Sky, and the title must be reproduced in blue letters.” And suppose a gallery or museum then actually hangs the painting The Sky on the wall, and labels it with the words “The Sky” printed in blue ink. Is the title now part of the artwork? Or is it still a title, but a blue-colored one?

Some may say that this is simply a trivial thought exercise, and only peripherally related to actual artwork. My reply is that once you accept that a title can be specified as something other than plain text, a whole new world of possibilities is opened up. This direction of work offers new and valuable insights into the essence of whatever art is, how we think of it, and how we represent it.

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