At Large  November 17, 2022  Megan D Robinson

How Abstract Art Gets Titled

Tom Burckhardt

Tom Burckhardt, Semi Circa, 2018, oil on linen, 48” x 56"

The title creation process for abstract art can be fascinating. Sometimes titles are chosen by a family member, agent, or gallery. But most artists title their works themselves, deliberately crafting titles that give a visual context to artworks, labeling their inspiration, or grabbing viewers' attention. 

Titles help frame the work; they create a language-based reference to introduce a viewing perspective and add layers to the story the work is visually creating—giving the art added resonance. Some artists work in themes, so titles are based on their current theme—for instance, Blue Period #4.

Consuelo J. Underwood

Consuelo J. Underwood, Broken: 13 Undocumented Birds, 2021, Woven and stitched wire, fabric, threads, 72" x 47”

Titles often reflect an artist’s inspiration, whether it be arcane experiments with light and color, or a more immediate inspiration from the outer world, such as a stunning sunset rendered into geometric grids.

A title could reflect the artist’s quest to distill the human form into its most crucial shapes, the condensed essence of favorite landscapes, social, historical and/or political commentary.

Or perhaps its title is about generational trauma, the impact of colonialism and arbitrary borders on indigenous populations and the natural world, or the emotional impact of war and fascism. After all, Picasso’s reaction to a Nazi bombing during WWII, Guernica, is arguably the most famous anti-war painting of the 20th century.

Wikimedia Commons

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm.

Contemporary New York-based abstract painter and installation artist Tom Burckhardt, whose recent work has explored abstract figuration, likes to play with language to create humorously intriguing titles, always with an element of absurdity. “I tend to try and use language that has a bit of a twist of common use, such as Semi Circa or Screen Cher, with its double meanings,” Burckhardt says.

Burckhardt also swaps the lead letters in a phrase—this is called spoonerism—to create titles such as Beat The Meatles. Burckhardt uses titles to “call in the absurd qualities of language to mirror the unfamiliar terrain of abstract painting. Titles are one way to introduce some humor, as abstraction often has a blind spot for this. There is rarely a sense of the language ‘illustrating’ the visual of the painting, just as abstraction rarely ‘illustrates’ an objective situation. It’s its own representation.

Lia Cook

Lia Cook, Through the Curtain and Up From the Sea, 1985, 61 x 42 inches


Seasoned fabric artist Consuelo J. Underwood creates tapestries and woven installations that draw attention to the negative impact of draconian border policies while celebrating Latinx and Indigenous cultures. On titling her work, she says, “If I were to make a work that recorded each viewer’s first or lasting impression of the work….the complete list would be the best title. But we are stuck in this system where an artist must ‘label’ their work.”

The way Underwood refers to her work evolves over time. “Maybe I referred to a work (at its beginning) by its Form (material, process), soon after, obvious key words that referred to its Content/Context takes over.” Underwood explains that because the “weaving process demands a nearly complete design before threading, I ponder the idea/approach for 2-3 seasons before committing to ‘IT’, then 2-3 seasons more to complete.” Her relationship with the work changes and evolves during this process, and she tends to choose the latest words she’s associated with the work for her title.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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