Ken Aptekar (American, b. 1950)
I Hate the Name Kenneth, 1996
- Oil on wood with sandblasted glass and bolts
- 69 x 120 7/8 x 3 in. (175.3 x 307.1 x 7.6 cm)
- The Jewish Museum, New York
- Purchase: Barbara S. Horowitz, Howard E. Rachofsky, Ruth M. and Stephen Durschlag, Marcia May, J.W. Heller Foundation, Michael L. Rosenberg, Helga and Samuel Feldman, Caroline B. Michahelles and Robert G. Pollock gifts, and Fine Arts Acquisitions Committe, 1997-26a-h
In this work, Ken Aptekar juxtaposes text and images to explore aspects of his identity, as well as the identities of his family members.
I Hate the Name Kenneth is comprised of four painted portraits overlaid with thick panes of glass. The portraits are based on works by the Austro-Hungarian Jewish artist Isidor Kaufmann (1853–1921).
Kaufmann began making the portraits in the 1890s, when he traveled to towns throughout Eastern Europe in search of traditional Jewish life. Aptekar appropriated, or borrowed, these images but transformed them in a number of ways. While the Kaufmann portraits are rendered in color, Aptekar’s are in black, white, and grey. In addition, Aptekar includes fragments of trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) frames, crops the images, and adds areas of blank white space within his compositions.
Aptekar says he selected these four Kauffman portraits because they reminded him of his family members, though not necessarily in terms of physical appearance.
Sandblasted onto the glass panes is a text Aptekar wrote about his two grandfathers, his parents, and himself. He offers narrative, biographical fragments that provide brief but poignant verbal portraits of each grandfather. He also hints at some aspects of his identity and that of his parents.
The reader learns that both grandfathers were named Abraham and both immigrated to the United States. The brief account describes how one changed his name to Albert and assimilated while the other maintained his European Jewish identity by preserving his customs and his name. As the text continues, the viewer begins to understand why Aptekar might dislike the American name his parents gave him.
Aptekar has commented that he is conflicted about his Jewish heritage: “Jewish names… interest me. Perhaps because of pangs of guilt at my own willingness to pass as Not Jewish, I have little tolerance for Jews who change their names to sound less Jewish.” On the one hand, he understands the impulse of his grandfather Abraham to assimilate and change his name. On the other, he is critical of his own and others’ choice to pursue this route and is more supportive of the other grandfather Abraham’s decision not to do this.
There is another connection between the appropriated portraits and Aptekar’s text: Kaufmann sold his portraits to Viennese Jews who were both anxious to assimilate and concerned about losing their ties to Judaism.
In commenting on his own work, Aptekar says:
- When I work on my paintings, people often ask me, do I arrive at the text first and then go looking for images? Do I see an image and then go looking for text? The answer is, yes, both. And sometimes I’ll start with one text, find an image, and then change the text. Sometimes I’ll write a text, go look for an image, and change the image. There’s no formula for how I arrive at what I do….
In the case of I Hate the Name Kenneth, I wrote the text knowing about the work of Isidor Kaufmann, because I had already done quite a bit of research about him…. I wrote the text and then I searched through his paintings and located images that essentially reminded me of the characters in my family that I was writing about. Even though they didn’t really look like them per se, there was a kind of quality about them that suggested those people in my history….
I think of my use of paintings from the past as a Talmudic maneuver. By that I mean that much in the way that the Talmud is a reinterpretation, a continuing, ongoing reinterpretation of biblical texts, my paintings, I feel, are a reinterpretation of art historical texts, paintings from the past. I feel that my work is in a sense a commentary on those paintings in the past in an effort to make them come alive in the present, become more relevant to us as contemporary viewers….
Benedek, Nelly Silagy. Examining Identity in Contemporary Art and Photography: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Jewish Museum, 2005.
Ken Aptekar Biography