Art Collecting

All-Star Show at the National Gallery of Art doubles identity | Pro Club Bd


The best artists invariably hate being “understood.” They will fight to the death if they feel like they are being explained away. Artistic statements, although sometimes unavoidable, are anathema to them. (Why make art when you can wrap it in a statement?) Many believe the best way to avoid the obligation to “make yourself clear” is to create bait in the form of avatars, stand-ins, or duplicates .

Marcel Duchamp excelled in this. Jasper Johns, although less theatrical, was his best student. What both recognized is that “identity”, insofar as it exists, always defeats description.

The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900 in the National Gallery of Art is in part about just that. It also deals with double images, copies, reflections, shadows, twins and alter egos. That’s a lot to take on. But the show is concise, rigorous, fun and heartfelt. As such, it is an antidote to the pernicious policies that today turn every word into a slogan against its opposite.

Better yet, it groans with great art. Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, Kerry James Marshall and Eva Hesse are just a few of the artists included. There are surprises galore. (My favorite? A self-portrait, suggestively broken in two, by Sylvia Plath. The poet made it at Smith College while writing her thesis on—what else?—the theme of the “double” in Dostoyevsky’s novels.)

Johns and his hero Duchamp underpin The Double, compiled by James Meyer, curator of modern art at the National Gallery. Both artists dismantled the notion that our identities are either stable or recognizable. Instead, they plunged into whirlpools of poetic secrecy, spirals of distraction, a circus of self-escape.

The show is, as the subtitle evokes rather sweepingly, about “identity and difference”. But don’t be put off. Meyer takes these offhand words of our current era and all of their unspoken implications (“You need to express your assigned identity; You need to celebrate differences”) to a deeper place. Beyond the infantilizing miasma of affinity groups, identity acronyms, and memorized pronoun recitation, the works in The Double take us to stranger, more provocative, and philosophical places.

Two artworks at the entrance to the exhibition seem to herald a political agenda. One is a double flag painting by Johns, the other is a neon sign (the word “America” ​​and its upside down inversion) by Glenn Ligon. Johns has spent his career pondering the implications of copies, pairs and doubles. Like goals and numbers, the flag was simply (as he put it) an image that “the mind already knows.” He wasn’t trying to evoke a divided America. Suppressing that reading on “Two Flags” might be tempting, but it’s shallow.

Ligon’s “Double America”, on the other hand, is clearly political. It is about America’s racial differences and what WEB Dubois called the necessary “dual consciousness” of African Americans. But Ligon is too subtle and mature to make simple propaganda statements. There is something deeper going on in his work and in the show in general.

Admission to the National Gallery is free. Nonetheless, you weave your way through the first few galleries of The Double and get the constant, elated feeling that you’re getting two for the price of one. After the Johns Ligon prologue we see two still lifes by Matisse. When he first painted a subject, Matisse wanted to capture his first reaction; the second time to distill and deepen it.

After the Matisses come two paintings of a chocolate mill by Duchamp. One casts shadows, the other is flatter, more schematic, with threads sewn into the canvas; a new proposal about the same thing. Further along are two versions of Arshile Gorky’s heartbreaking double portrait of himself with his late mother, followed by two near-identical abstractions by Robert Rauschenberg.

What is going on here? Why did these artists paint the same thing twice? And how do we know the copies aren’t fakes?

The works in The Double are more expressions of curiosity than statements of identity. Some ask, quite simply, what does it mean to have two eyes instead of one, or what to make of the fact that our bodies are fundamentally symmetrical – one side reflecting the other?

Others speak of reproduction technologies that transform an image into a copy of itself, a double, with increasing ease. How, they ask, can our sense of ourselves as unique survive this rampant duplication? If a copy is made, is it identical to the original? Or does some quality (his “aura”?) escape? And what about love? Isn’t love also a manifestation of life’s inherent urge to duplicate?

At the end of the show one wonders if all art is not an expression of the need to copy nature. This thesis is tackled head-on by Rene Magritte, whose 1933 painting The Human Condition shows a window with the curtains drawn. In front of the window, exactly congruent with the landscape outside, is a painted landscape on an easel. “Each image,” the wall label reads, “is a duplicate of what it represents.”

Much of modern art has been an attempt to escape from this truism – to make images that represent nothing and are therefore unique, unrepeatable. Hence abstraction. But Magritte suggests that art is always mimetic, if not of the outside world then at least of consciousness.

One way to create a double, albeit in reverse, is to mirror the original. In a section of the exhibition about mirror images, I was fascinated by the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti. Boetti became so obsessed with doubling that he changed his name to Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti): no longer one artist, but two. A two-minute video shows the artist writing on a wall with both arms at the same time. The text written by his left hand (“The Body Always Speaks in Silence”) mirrors and reverses that written by his right hand. Impressive performance!

Doubles create dilemmas: which of the two things in front of me do I prefer? A work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who used found objects (à la Duchamp) and forms of poetic minimalism to express aspects of same-sex love, consists of two stacks of white paper. The sheets of a stack are labeled “Nowhere better than this place”; the other with “Somewhere better than this place”. Visitors are invited to take a leaf with them – but which one?

Not far away is a tribute to Gonzalez-Torres and his partner Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1991. The Thames became a ‘solvent for identity’.

Gonzalez-Torres and Laycock had seen and loved an earlier work by Horn – a thin, crumpled slab of glowing gold. Thus, after Laycock’s death, Horn made a second work: this time two leaves of shimmering gold, one on top of the other. “There’s sweat in between,” she said to Gonzalez-Torres, who replied, “I knew that.”

In the context of AIDS and homophobia, even sweaty sheets are political. But if The Double is trying to teach us about politics, it may be that our current dysfunction stems, at least in part, from our preoccupation with grossly limiting “identities.”

The idea that people must unite and march under certain banners of identity to achieve justice has generated incredible gains. But as these activist strategies spread, they tended to calcify, deepen divisions, invite reactions, and endanger democracy. It may be that in order to spread justice and preserve democracy today, we need to lower those flags and become more curious about each other.

And that’s where art comes in, of course. So it’s a relief that in the middle of a city choking on politics, this show is all about tenderness, humor, inventiveness and love.

“The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900” at the National Gallery of Art through October 31.

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