Would Edvard Munch's The Scream be as terrifying if it were called Man Witnessing A Cockroach?
When it comes to art, the name of a piece serves as an introduction to the ideas and themes that the artist is trying to communicate, as well as an opportunity to explain any ambiguities regarding subject or meaning. Despite the benefits that a good, descriptive name can bring, many artists throughout history have opted out, choosing instead to title their artwork Untitled.
Why would they do such a thing? While the reasons are as varied as the works themselves, many artists enjoy the idea of offering something to the world on their own terms without any additional context or placement within time or space.
But try as they might to limit preconceptions, Untitled is still a title. Plus, an untitled piece is automatically shrouded in mystery, forcing viewers to wonder why the work doesn’t have a more illustrative name.
Below is a list of some of the most fascinating (and confounding) pieces of art titled Untitled.
1. Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Stills (1977 – 1980)
Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills is a series of individual photographs, each given the name Untitled, followed by its number in the sequence. The photographs are staged to resemble not specific movies, but rather movie genres—including film noir and European art house films—by portraying the same subject (Sherman herself) in various costumes and settings.
Sherman’s choice to withhold descriptive titles encourages the viewer to question the connection between everyday life and its portrayal in pictures, both moving and stationary.
2. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered (2016)
The name of Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered says a lot about the story behind its production and release. Lamar dropped this album, comprised of unused songs from his To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, unexpectedly and without notice, and the title gives the work a due sense of urgency and intimacy. And the lack of individual track names invites listeners to simply enjoy the music, without too much thought about the details.
But more than anything else, the absence of titles seems to be Lamar's declaration of humility in the wake of To Pimp a Butterfly's massive critical success — a sentiment expressed on his 2017 follow-up, DAMN.
3. Richard Prince – Untitled (Cowboy) (1992)
The iconic Untitled (Cowboy) is a reproduction of an advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes he saw in Time magazine. Photographer Richard Prince's decision to not give his famous work a “proper” title seems to be rooted in an attempt to remove himself entirely from the art.
Since the piece is essentially an experiment in re-appropriating popular imagery rather than an exploration of original subject matter, the name Untitled reminds viewers that the work would exist with or without Prince.
4. R.E.M. – Green, “Untitled” (Track 11) (1988)
The last track on R.E.M.'s Green is regarded by many listeners as one of the best songs on the album, yet it's not even acknowledged in the liner notes. To compensate, fans have given it the makeshift names “Untitled” or “Track 11.”
Some people speculate that the song wasn't included in the official track listing due to its emotional rawness and self-referential lyrics. “Untitled” introduces itself as a song that the band's relatives can listen to for comfort ("This song is here / To keep you strong").
Others speculate that the band left the track untitled so that it would be impossible to request at live shows — a way of mocking their own recent success at the time of the album's release.
5. Joan Mitchell – Various untitled works
The American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell rarely talked about her paintings — most of which were untitled — because, she claimed, the paintings are themselves the meaning, and therefore don't need to be discussed. Mitchell viewed her abstract expressionist paintings as an attempt to define universal feelings, not to represent objects or landscapes.
Mitchell’s famous detachment from her work indicates her wish for the art to speak for itself and to the viewer directly. And her refusal to specifically name her paintings reflects her desire to leave the images uncontaminated by words.
6. The Cure – Untitled (1989)
Sometimes feelings are so painful and profound that there are no words to represent them. The untitled song on The Cure’s seminal album Disintegration wallows in a rare type of sublime sadness ("I'll never lose this pain / Never dream of you again"), never expressing a sense of clarity or relief after an emotional crisis.
Without a label to house all these feelings, the listener has no preconceptions, allowing the emotions of the song to present themselves honestly.
7. Mark Rothko – Various untitled works
Like Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko created his paintings with the intention of capturing raw feelings. Similarly, Rothko left his paintings untitled so as not to interfere with the viewer's experience with the work.
Rothko believed that viewers must rid themselves of the desire to interpret his paintings, instead, simply allowing themselves to be affected emotionally by the compositions.
Ultimately, the absence of a title places more responsibility in the hands of the audience. Without words to guide their thoughts and impressions, observers are forced to create interpretations of their own. Such a relationship might be described as symbiotic...but we'll let you decide what to call it.