Changing titles

July 7, 2009

Robert Genn

This morning, BJ Adams of Washington, DC, asked, "What are your thoughts on 
changing the names of artwork to fit a venue, exhibit, or buyer? For example, 
is it okay to modify my often generic titles to more specific places, 
particularly when sending things off to shows? Is this wrong or deceitful? 
And, if changed, should new titles stay that way?"

Thanks, BJ. Let me first commend your insight on the importance of titles. 
Very often a title is the bridge that carries the viewer into the work and helps 
provide a significant "Aha" moment to make the connection. While you have a 
wide range of styles and media, you generally opt for direct titles. Yours are 
often the "factual" type. Your title "Teapot triptych," for example, is pretty 
obviously three teapots. So people can get an idea of your work and titles, 
we've put up a selection at the top of the current clickback.

Artists need to select titles with the most punch--titles that give added 
value to the work. As discussed in my book "The Painter's Keys," there are five 
types of titles: Sentimental, Numerical, Factual, Abstract and Mysterious. 
Matters of locale can be added to factual titles to beneficial effect. I would 
not recommend renaming a mountain or a river to build appeal or garner 
localized sales. Truth in provenance and respect for your history are too 

On the other hand, if the subject matter is fairly obvious, a mysterious title 
can do no harm. Conversely, mysterious works of art often benefit from the 
simple disclosure of facts--what, when, where, why and how are all questions 
the artist may consider. Sentimental titles are the last bastion of scoundrels, 
and can add significant barf to an already barfy work.

And, yes, if further insight dictates what you think is a more evolved title, 
go for it. But let that title stick with the work for posterity.

Best regards,


PS: "When exhibiting in Washington, DC, I would like to change 'Contemplating 
Chaos,' where the Washington Post is shown, to 'Contemplating the Post.' 
Okay?" (BJ Adams)

Esoterica: Okay, but stick with it. In my experience, the world is made up of 
two main kinds of titlers--those who name their work before they start and 
those who try to figure out a title afterward. Further, even though a title 
may not be written on the back when the work is started, a title may already 
be chosen in the artist's mind. As you have suggested, the better titles give 
greater specificity, without letting the whole aardvark out of the sack.