Investigations In Art: Alex Cohen
Essay # 25
Photo: “Serving Coffee” or “Sycophant” by Alex Cohen

If a title card is available next to a painting I have a hard time not looking at it.  Even before I’ve fully taken in the image, I look at the title its creator.  I’ve tried to break this habit, but it persists.  It feels somehow disrespectful to look at those words because words and paintings are always a bit incongruous and a painting should be privileged over its title.  I’d like to think that a painting shouldn’t need an explanation.   But words have their own attraction and subversively insert their place next to a painting.  Despite my conflict with titles, I am part of the problem as a namer of paintings.
The painting title feels a bit like a cage, something to tame and formalize a painting in preparation for ownership.  And yet, like a frame, it can be a mediator between the world of the painting and the world outside of it.  The title can segue from the nonverbal thought of the painting to the interpretive thought.  And also like a frame, the title is best when it compliments the painting but does not distract or diffuse.  At best a title is a talisman that focuses the energy of the painting and helps to provide a record of the emotional event inside the painting.  I enjoy a title that has a hint of poetry and quietly suggests there is more to an image than its subject.  But time seems to whittle a name down to essentials even if an artist has not done so.
Recently I sold a painting that the buyer wanted to rename.  The painting depicts the first person perspective of someone delivering coffee to a table of illustrious individuals at a forest gathering.  In my mind the coffee-bearer was able to be proximal to a lofty table discussion but not invited to participate.  This is how I often feel about painting— that it is getting close to greatness without being able to join in it.  I called the piece “Sycophant” as a self-deprecating allegory of painting.
Sycophant means one who is a self-serving, servile flatterer.  Seeing as this painting will be in a conference room where the new owner’s clients will be present, it didn’t seem prudent to suggest by association that he is a sycophant.  I thought a change of name was reasonable in this regard, yet I’d already used the name in exhibitions, interviews and conversation.  While this isn’t a painting that has achieved mass fame, it had an established name.  When we know a thing by a name it is hard to separate it.
This problem reminded me of the White Knight in Lewis Carol’s “Through the Looking Glass”. Before singing a song to Alice, he explains how the song is known.

The song’s name is called Haddocks’ Eyes
The song’s name really is The Aged Aged Man
The song is called Ways and Means
The song really is A-sitting On a Gate

It’s a playful way of pointing out how we label things and the problem of language conveying identity.  It can strain the mind at first to sort out what the Knight says. Without hashing out the distinctions between the use and meaning of words, Carrol suggests the inherent silliness of naming.  A name should help one to know a thing, but this example shows how the formality of naming can confuse the issue.  Nicknames can offer hints of a things’ reputation that a name alone might not, but with multiple handles, identity becomes slippery.
So, I made this painting about someone delivering coffee.  I gave the painting the title “Sycophant” and had particular notions of the meaning.  But to the buyer, the title was perceived as “Brown Noser”, which didn’t work, so he temporarily called it “Picnic in the Park”, which I found misrepresented the piece.  The conventional wisdom seems to suggest that less is more and making a more literal description rather than a qualifying description would be more broadly accepted.  So I’m renaming it “Serving Coffee”.  This doesn’t have the ring of “Sycophant” but it lets the painting be less filtered and certainly less offensive.
To me the disconnection between a title and the artwork it references is a reminder of the endurance of imagery.  This painting, like any other, has a lifespan different from the people and context by which it is surrounded.  The feelings and sights depicted cannot easily be translated into language, so its associations will continue to change.  I had a notion of what the painting was, but even I can’t make that a permanent truth.  Perhaps one day a confounding title card next to the painting will read…

The Painting’s name is called Brown-Noser
The Painting’s name is really Sycophant
The Painting is called Serving Coffee
The Painting really is …