Perspectives: What’s in a Name?

Recently, there was a debate amongst some staff at FWMoA on the correct way to refer to an artist: first name and last name, first name only, or last name only? Sparked by a book we featured in our What We’re Reading post by Alexander Nemerov on Helen Frankenthaler, the author, though he never met the artist in person, feels a strong connection to her and uses this as leverage to refer to her by her first name. Reviews were critical; claims were made that he would never refer to a male artist by their first name, and, in fact, in Nemerov’s (note the use of last name!) previous books on male artists he didn’t. This begged the question: Can we refer to artists, and other significant figures, by their first name?

Referring to an artist by their first name: For

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

When I recently read Alexander Nemerov’s Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, I, like many critics, was struck by the author’s decision to refer to his subject by her first name. We know certain visual artists (and many musicians) primarily by their first names: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Hokusai; but, more typically, style guides for formal writing dictate that last names be used on second reference. Why these exceptions? For one, naming conventions vary across time and culture. Until around 1450, Italians didn’t use surnames in the modern sense (family names), but members of the upper classes used an indicator of birthplace (Leonardo is from Vinci). Other times, artists become so famous they’re recognizable by only one name or market themselves that way as a stage or artist name. For the artists who haven’t quite reached that level of super-stardom, the decision by a writer or historian to refer to them by their given name can be influenced and informed by any number of factors, resulting in a similar range of impacts.

How names are used helps determine the tone of a written work: small touches can go a long way in making a topic more approachable, especially in a field with a perception as stuffy as art history. Although it may not be “proper” in academic writing, referring to a subject by their first name lends an intimate, conversational tone that can help bridge the gap between artist and reader. Nemerov explained that he called Frankenthaler “Helen” in part due to the closeness he felt to her and her work, an immersive proximity that is then passed on to his readers. We, too, get to feel like we’re part of the “in” crowd, travelling to Spain right alongside Helen and Bob (Robert Motherwell). In contrast with purely academic writing where such informality would be unacceptable, biographers can take greater creative liberties with how they approach their subjects (although this doesn’t exclude them from scrutiny). Maybe the artist’s work should play a role in dictating what we call them. First names befit the Abstract Expressionists whose paintings are so clearly extensions of themselves, but what about cool, impersonal Minimalism? It might be a better fit to keep them at arm’s length.

Sometimes, the decision is purely pragmatic, as when multiple artists share a last name. For example, Artemisia Gentileschi’s father, Orazio, was a respected artist and her first teacher (although she’s the bigger name now, her work was actually misattributed to him in at least one instance). In Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel refers to her titular subjects by their given names as well, eliminating potential confusion when discussing married couples like Elaine and Willem de Kooning. Marriage begets another reason why first names might make more sense in a full-length biography–women’s names traditionally change, and it would be confusing (and a bit strange) to use a maiden name for the subject as a child, then change it later on in the telling. 

Even such pragmatic choices are rife with deeper implications. For many, names are tied with cultural or familial identities and histories. First names are also more often gendered and linked with implicit bias. A study by the University of Luxembourg found that not only do real-world women artists earn considerably less than men, imaginary works by artists with feminine names were seen as inferior. Women have often used masculine or gender-neutral pen names or signed their work with a first initial and last name as one workaround. While yes, using last names for all artists puts them on equal footing at least in writing, the idealist in me wants to believe we shouldn’t have to. In an art world that has been strongly biased towards white men for so long, maybe part of moving beyond that is celebrating differences rather than hiding them, and names might be just one part of that.

Referring to an artist by their first name: Against

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco states that when referring to an artist for the first time, you use their whole name: Johannes Vermeer. This is, in part, to distinguish them from artists and/or other historical figures that may share their name. When referring to an artist for the second time, you use their surname or family name (last name): Vermeer. You can do this because you’ve contextualized the person for your reader, and they know to whom you are referring. You never refer to an artist by first name only. Though this guide doesn’t provide a reason for the statement, culturally we accept that last names are used out of respect, in honor of an age gap (I’m 29 but I still refer to all of my friend’s parents as Mr. & Mrs. Last Name), or to show a lack of familiarity. People will respond, “Oh, we’re on a first name-basis” when asked why they refer to a colleague, friend, or professional using their given name. Can you, however, be on a first-name basis with someone you’ve never met?

As Nemerov never physically met Helen Frankenthaler his use of her first name in his book is unsettling. When reading articles on celebrities in magazines the interviewer will refer to them by their full name and then their first name because they’ve met, often multiple times, and are setting the tone for an “intimate” conversation. In-person interviews also engender a familiarity that transfers to using someone’s first name, after introducing them with their full name. Less so with a book like Nemerov’s that is a non-fiction biography meant to shed light on a person after their death; particularly because he never met Frankenthaler, and she had no hand in the book, the use of first name struck people as odd and disrespectful. It resonated and drew more attention than usual because an intimate feel isn’t necessary in an academic text meant to educate the reader; therefore, did Nemerov affect this tone because she’s a woman and isn’t as “historically prominent” (and deserving) of a full academic writing like her contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

There are arguments that we should refer to women by their first name because when they get married and change their name it creates confusion. How are we to follow their career if their early work uses their maiden name and later work incorporates partner name(s)? Evelynne Mess Daily, whose work is in the permanent collection at FWMoA, is an excellent example of this. Twice married, she can be found on the Internet as Evelynne Bernloehr Mess Daily, Evelynne Mess, and Evelynne Mess Daily. Wouldn’t it be simpler to refer to her as Evelynne? Perhaps, but she stated a preference for Evelynne Mess Daily and it isn’t hard to track her work through these names. To combat this, many women will continue to use their maiden name for their artist work even if they have legally changed their name. Other artists, both male and female, take on an artist name to eschew this problem completely. (A quick Google search of “artist name” will return over 17 billion hits helping you generate your artist’s name and ensuring it’s Google-friendly.)

While to Westerners the idea of changing one’s name can be odd, in Eastern countries it is not unusual to go by a different name. For example, artist Dong Kingman moved to Hong Kong with his family as a child and, upon entering school, received a new name, part of Chinese tradition [his family name Dong preceded his newly bestowed name chosen to reflect his interest in art: King (meaning scenery) and Man (meaning composition)]. Many Japanese artists also choose specific artist names that aren’t connected to their given or family names. Choosing an artist name, however, does not solve the issue if a biographer chooses to refer to their subject with their given name as many artists, writers, musicians, and performs want to use their given names to celebrate their work. If we leave it up to the artist, a quick look at Helen Frankenthaler’s work gives us the answer as her paintings are signed with one word: Frankenthaler.

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