This post is a repost from my former blog. It first appeared March 13, 2014
Curse of the colon!
Consider these exhibition titles:
Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (both of these are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
William Kentridge: the Refusal of Time
Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” (These from the ICA Boston)
Titling an exhibition can be a tricky thing. A balance must be struck between information and catchiness. A single-work exhibition can be doubly complex, as the title of the work can sometimes be willfully obscure. Something poetic yet unrevealing, as in the Kentridge exhibit, plays to the knowledgeable, who know Kentridge and are curious to see a new work. della Francesca is a much older artist and better known, so the subtitle of the exhibit can shed light on the theme of the show. The Ink Art show also speaks of the theme, in more direct, yet still evocative, terms. Alliteration is a curator’s friend.
Each show has a right way to be titled, and multiple wrong ways. Some, like the Impressionists, are so universally appealing that explication is unnecessary. A simple title – Impressionists in Paris, for example – can sum everything up. For more obscure artists, at least a tease is needed, without jargon. Not that jargon is without its place; something like Primary Structures, Primary Needs: the private lives of Minimalists (I made that one up, and also the Impressionist title) builds off the art lingo of the time and mixes it with language from psychology.
The more I think about it, the more I wish that Minimalists show was real.
As a general rule: if you can do without the colon or semicolon, and have your exhibition title as simple as possible, do so. Obscurity works well with more obscure artists, a hint of something magical lurking underneath. There’s nothing wrong with art for a chosen few, so long as a museum does what it can to provide the opportunity for learning. Populism, pedantry, and poetry – those are the three cardinal points of the museum compass. Navigating the best route between them is what is tricky.