What is in a title? Or, Rapunzel Redux.

This weekend I went with my daughter to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and saw a work named Rapunzel #10. It was breathtaking and moving. Literally moving. It was a computer generated image of hanging flowers swinging in a computerized breeze positioned in a stairwell. As we walked up to begin our afternoon of art-looking, we were both taken by its beauty. So much so that at the end of the day, after lots of great art (and a yummy piece of cake and tea) we went back to Rapunzel. We sat in the stairwell, side by side quietly watching the flowers swing in the breeze.

The night before the two of us had gone to see the movie “Tangled” also a reference to the story of Rapunzel. This coincidence made me pay special attention to the title of our stairwell art and to ask her, when it comes to art, “what is in a name?” This question blossomed with the hanging flowers into a good discussion. My daughter noticed that in another equally notable exhibit we saw that day The Color of Light, that the painter named many of his paintings “Phenomena”-this or “Phenomena”-that. We started asking why? What was he asking us to pay attention to? With the installment Rapunzel #10 a placard asked us to consider the story of Rapunzel and the image’s relevance to addiction and child abduction in contemporary society.

Hmmm…I just wanted to enjoy the emotionally and literally moving flowers. I wanted to meditate on my own response and here was the artist jumping into my experience and demanding that I turn my thoughts elsewhere.

What is in those pesky names? Perhaps ask your kids at dinner tonight. Why do they think an artist leaves a work named “Untitled”. Why would they instead choose a powerful reference like “Rapunzel”? How does that change our experience? Perhaps – turn the question towards a book your child is reading: why did the author choose the title… can you come up with a different title? Or, look together at some art and discuss the names you find. In reference to the name of his work Women and Bird in the Night, Joan Miro in a rather satisfying explanation said:

It might be a dog, a woman, whatever. I don’t really care. Of course, while I am painting I see a woman or a bird in my mind, indeed very tangibly a woman or a bird. Afterward it’s up to you.

A Turkish artist, Ihsan Cemal Karaburçak, explained his very different approach of leaving works untitled:

I essentially do not give titles to my paintings. A landscape could portray any given place. What does it matter! A tree, a house, a mountain, a cloud, a flowerpot or an apple can be found at anytime, anywhere. The important thing is how it is tempered with, how it is interpreted and depicted. The object is only the means through which the artist reflects his inner world on a board or on a canvas. What matters is the inner world of the artist.

Or, create some art of your own and try coming up with names. You may of course end up choosing “Untitled”.

Jennifer Steinkamp‘s website has a video of one installment of Rapunzel.

Paul Jenkins is an abstract expressionist painter. This means that simplistically put his work is in the same general category of other artists I have written about here, Rothko and Pollock. You can see his Phenomena at his website.

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3 thoughts on “What is in a title? Or, Rapunzel Redux.

  1. *Our* (me + 12 yo) response was Untitled is so you can make your own title and think about the piece in your own terms. However, having recently been mesmerized by the very same Rapunzel in the stairwell, we think the flowers look like long hair in the wind – “It makes you think about it being more hair than flowers” . I do think though, that each piece is capable of being a simple visual experience, a much more complex multi-layer experience or that the option to gaze longingly at the relaxing flowers and skip the depth is a very real tier of the artists creative complexity. We take away from the piece what we want to take. As deeply tiered or as singularly simple as we want to absorb that hour, day and year. Thanks so much for this wonderful and discussion provoking post! We enjoyed it!

    1. You are so welcome! Yes, the flowers look like hair and, indeed the artist actually designed them based on hair. She said: “The computer-generated vines were created with an algorithm that simulated hair. I attached flowers to the long hair/vines, as the hair moved the flowers held on.”

      And yes, titles of artwork often facilitate different levels of interpretation. These can range from simple gut responses to the thoughtful recollections that occur days later as our minds work away at what we experienced.

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