Exploring the Rites of Titles

What's in a Name?

by Rebecca S. Cohen

My Aaron Karp paint- ing, a recent wedding present, is named "Chameleon." It's a pretty straightforward title, except that there aren't any reptiles (hidden or obvious) on the whole jewel-toned abstract painting. Karp, otherwise known as my-cousin-Aaron-the-painter, layers a dozen acrylic paintings or more on each canvas. He masks certain areas with tape, paints, removes the tape, masks other sections, and so forth. Fragments of color and light are woven together in an energetic pattern. In this particular work, a backward "c" arcs into a thick, wiggly, dark-hued cord that barely contains a hot-colored center. But there's no chameleon.

The Karp painting my former husband got to keep is called "Aplomb for Pedro." The title is a play on words. "Plomb" is for plum, a nod to the color of the piece, although I used to think it had something to do with aplomb (complete composure or self-assurance). "Pedro" is Aaron's friend who doesn't appear in this abstract painting any more than the chameleon does in mine. Aaron often includes loved ones' names in titles like "Spanish Rain Plane for Jane" (his wife) and "Gentle Spirit," which recalls his father who recently passed away. Most titles reflect the artist as prodigious reader and would-be poet. Almost all are in English, as he is reluctant to name things in a language he doesn't speak well.

We were talking about titles, Aaron and I, when I made my annual happy birthday call to Albuquerque. I can never resist mining for insight into the full-time, working artist's mind. He has been my source for years. When I inquire about how and what he has named his paintings, he says he has "so many children [paintings]" he can't keep them straight anymore. He has different strategies for each series.

For instance, he was reading Science News about the time the Schumaker-Levy comet was discovered, and found titles for paintings-in-progress, "Galileo's Glue" and "Comet Cluster." He also reads art criticism, borrowing colorful phrases employed by my colleagues in the Big Art World to name paintings: "Poetic Alchemy," "Playing With a Paradox," "Fluttering Recall," and "Grafted Meanings."

"Should we be able to look at a painting and its title and see their relationship?" I ask.

"Sometimes, but not always," he says.

Austin painter Michael Mogavero agrees with Aaron's ambiguous response. "I don't see how you can not look for a relationship, with a label stuck next to the painting. For the painter part of me, though, it's not important. I do look, but I don't pay much attention."

Mogavero also paints abstract canvases, rich with filigree and formal shapes. He plays with spatial relationships. He is usually halfway through the painting when titles begin to come to him. As he works, Mogavero jots them down in a notebook he keeps for that purpose and, when the painting is done, he goes through the list of titles, choosing the one that feels right. On occasion, a specific title arrives early and can even direct the moves of the painting. The words don't describe the artist's images literally, but attempt to get at the spirit of the work. "Epitaph," the painting that appeared on an invitation to a show at Lyons-Matrix Gallery, was "emblematic," says Mogavero. It "seemed like a life summary." "Fade to Black" from the same show was a moody, deep-blue painting on wood. Like twilight, or the end of a screen play, the colors deepened and darkened until forms became indistinguishable from each other.

Austin watercolorist Malou Flato is best known for painting landscapes, but she says naming her work can still be a challenge. She remembers an early painting she called "Blind Goats" at her husband's suggestion. Although uncomfortable with the title, she entered it in a Texas Fine Arts Association competition, the work was accepted, and a reviewer wrote extensively about the piece, repeating the title -- which Flato had come to hate -- over and over in the article. Now, she says, she tries to be more direct and name her paintings according to the way she herself refers to them in the studio, usually based on the location where they were painted.

Personally, I've always been interested in titles, although I don't like to read them before looking at the art. My visual impression of the work itself determines my appreciation (or lack thereof) for a particular painting or exhibition. Good paintings don't really need titles, except as a means of identifying and cataloguing work. "I name work because it's too confusing not to," Malou Flato says, and Mogavero agrees that it helps in referencing paintings. As a former art dealer, I can testify that names, particularly descriptive titles, make artwork easier to manage.

Titles make a particular difference with conceptual art, where the object (if there is an object) provides little assistance in divining the artist's intent. The name of the work provides an important clue for the viewer who may, in fact, still need the critic as interpreter in order to really "get it." In that case, volumes of critical analysis in art journals eventuallly tend to outweigh the art itself. And then the words, carefully sorted through, can be plowed back into the closed art system as titles for paintings.

In the old days, artists were more direct. There was Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass," everybody's "Madonna and Child," Monet's "Water Lilies." It was Marcel Duchamp (begining in the 1920's), with his paintings and constructions and ready-made objects mounted on the wall, who began to use titles that seemed to be in opposition to his work. Where were his brides in "Bride" and "Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even"? Michael Mogavero suggests that conceptual artists ask themselves "How ambiguous can I make the art -- how literal can I make the title?" as they begin to work. Perhaps the gap between the two provides the energy and meaning (or intentional absence of meaning) in the work.

The notion of naming things has been on my mind lately because of my recent marriage, which used to imply an automatic name change. In the Sixties, I willingly gave up "Schulman," my maiden name -- too many letters, too close to the end of the alphabet -- for "Levy." Unlike a good friend who insisted -- in a New York Times "Hers" column -- that she knew from the minute she said "I do" that she didn't really want to give up her name, I had no regrets. I cast off all vestiges of my first life in favor of another. But that life is over now, and I'm on to the next one. After some serious consideration, I am once again ready for a new name.

"Leave your professional name alone," suggests a friend. "Your husband will understand."

He understands. But I am tired of deciding which title I should use in social situations. "Hello, I'm Rebecca...uh..." Life is complex enough without having to think who I am before answering the phone. I am just no good at switching back and forth from one guise to another like a chameleon. My new name, therefore, is Rebecca S. Cohen. It's a pretty straightforward decision. n If you haven't figured out who the mystery girl is yet, art maven Rebecca Levy has changed her name to Rebecca S. Cohen.

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