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In the subtitle of The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900, curated by James Meyer at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), the terms “identity” and “difference” do not signal, as they often do, an exhibition organized around categories of gender, race, ethnicity, or nationality. Identity is instead presented as much more slippery and unstable. Through the figure of the double, Meyer proposes a capacious thematic for understanding twentieth- and twenty-first-century art, as well as how we know and relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us. An extraordinary selection of over 120 works reveals the splits, juxtapositions, reflections, and multiplications deployed by modern and contemporary artists to explore sameness and difference, the original and the copy, the self and the other. The accompanying catalog reproduces each artwork with a full color plate and includes a sweeping essay by Meyer and short thematic contributions by W. J. T. Mitchell, Andrew Solomon, Tom Gunning, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, and Hillel Schwartz.
The exhibition’s first section, “Seeing Double,” provides a historical orientation and introduces some of the most compelling and salient arguments about the themes of repetition, reproduction, and imitation in modernist art. Its opening gallery braids together two strands of modern art—modernist painting and the historical avant-gardes—through a shared interest in painting the same thing twice, not as a form of copying, but to see anew. Henri Matisse renders a still life of apples and oranges, and then paints the scene again, “to give the same feeling, while carrying it on further” (21). Marcel Duchamp twice takes up the subject of the chocolate grinder, first painted in stark, shadowed perspectival recession, and then unmoored from any sense of concrete space, with all modeling replaced by delicate threads sewn into the canvas. Rather than attempt to capture the same feeling, Duchamp instead pushes into new zones of representation. A painting by British Constructivist Marlow Moss reveals the way she built on Piet Mondrian’s visual vocabulary of the grid to arrive at the double line, and next to it, Mondrian redoubles Moss’s innovation, creating a call-and-response that also speaks to the double’s dialogic nature. Duchamp and Man Ray’s investment in optical technologies like stereoscopy, which uses a pair of images taken at slightly different angles to produce the illusion of three-dimensional depth, illustrates as well how doubling relates to the very condition of seeing.
Around the corner is one of modern art’s most notable doubles, Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II (1957). Rauschenberg moved back and forth between the canvases, adding elements to one (a slash of paint, a newspaper clipping, a bit of fabric) and then duplicating it on the other, so the two works are the same but different, neither one a copy—a theme also addressed in works by Jacqueline Humphries and Bernard Piffaretti. The Factums, in dialogue with Andy Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (1963–64) hung across from them, establish how, by the late 1950s and 1960s, the issue of the double was now wrapped up in mass media culture, a world of reproducible images. So too does the pair set up questions of originality, uniqueness, and authorship that surfaced in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, which are subsequently picked up in Sturtevant and Sherrie Levine’s appropriations of Frank Stella and Walker Evans, respectively. For Sturtevant and Levine, double functions as a verb, an act of subversion that challenges modernist notions of artistic originality and its gendered connotations. The narratives of twentieth-century art presented in these opening galleries are familiar ones, but with a stethoscope pressed to the steady heartbeat of a doubleness that has been pulsing all along.
Meyer also links the double to the idea of the past repeating itself, echoing across time. Felix Gmelin’s Color Test (Red Flag #2) (2002) projects two videos, each featuring a person running down a city street carrying a red flag, handing it off to a new runner every few minutes. The video on the left is of student activists and their professor in West Berlin, radicalized by the tumult of 1968; on the right is a reenactment staged by the son of the professor, with students of his own, thirty-four years later. Mary Kelly uses the strategy of reenactment in WLM Remix (2005), wherein a ninety-second loop crossfades between a projected photograph of a 1970 Women’s Liberation demonstration and a contemporary recreation of the same scene. While the tendency to think of feminism in terms of “waves” implies generational chasms and disparate political goals, Kelly’s work emphasizes solidarity and identification with a shared project. At the exhibition’s entrance, Meyer stages his own temporal doubling, pairing Jasper Johns’ Two Flags from 1962 with Glenn Ligon’s Double America from 2012, made exactly half a century later. If Johns’s work points to the American flag’s status as a sign and its lack of fixity in terms of meaning, Ligon links such instability to bifurcated experiences of America along racial lines.
The second section of the exhibition focuses on “Reversal.” On the first wall, Man Ray’s pair of portraits of Luisa Casati—one positive print and one negative—reflects on the ontology of the photographic process itself, with its attendant reproductions and inversions. In his essay, Meyer describes the impact of photography on twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic practices as another way in which the advent of modern art and the idea of doubleness are inextricably linked. Rashid Johnson’s The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett) (2008), centered on the back wall of the small, dark room, also considers the medium of photography and its doubleness, here in relation to representations of Black subjectivity. Shawn Michelle Smith’s essay frames photography as a tool for challenging white supremacy and “the violence of racist misperception” (236), situating Johnson’s mirrored photograph in conversation with the “infamous paired photographs of Emmett Till” (238), W. E. B. Du Bois’s notions of “double consciousness” and “second sight,” and Frederick Douglass’s investment in his own photographic representation.
The third section, “Dilemma,” addresses the double as a choice between two options. Often this choice is a paradoxical or impossible one, as in the case of Duchamp’s Door, 11 rue Larrey (1927), which is “at the same time open and closed,” or Walter De Maria’s A: Walk to Sign B, B; Walk to Sign A (1961), which sends the visitor on an infinite loop. A diptych of metal squares by Alighiero Boetti demonstrates the falseness of consumer choice: the two panels are painted slightly different shades of red, the patented colors of two rival motorcycle companies, raising the question as to how meaningful the differences produced by brand identity really are. But not all the works included in this section offer a clear choice. In Renée Green’s Color I (1990), passages from two American novels depicting racist encounters are arranged on either side of a grid of paint chips—the names of the colors conspicuously gendered and racially coded. Meyer suggests the dilemma posed by this work is “a negative one. One cannot decide which citation is more troubling, as if that were possible” (41). But the pairing of excerpts seems less “a format of comparison” (40) than an accumulation of evidence of how racist ideology is instantiated and perpetuated through language.
The final section, “The Doubled and Divided Self,” alludes to the prevalence of the double in early twentieth-century psychoanalytic theories (e.g., shadow selves, doppelgängers, the Unheimlich). Photography dominates this section, largely organized into thematic groupings: one wall presents an array of double exposures and mirrored reflections, and on either side of a narrow hallway are images of shadows and twins. Another group of works showcases artists’ alter egos, including Brian O’Doherty’s Patrick Ireland, Eleanor Antin’s King of Solana Beach, Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being, and Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980). The closing room is anchored by Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Lovers-Paris) (1993)—two delicate strands of illuminated lights dangling from the ceiling, hopelessly entangled into a single mound once they reach the floor. Just a few feet away is a pair of pure gold sheets, delicately laid atop one another, by Roni Horn, dedicated to Gonzalez-Torres and his partner Ross Laycock. These works, along with those by Harmony Hammond, Gilbert and George, and Man Ray’s photograph of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, suggest a queer aspect to the double. Yet, in her catalog essay, Julia Bryan-Wilson cautions against the conflation of “queerness” and “sameness.” The crucial insight of Gonzalez-Torres’s pairs of objects, she reminds us, is that “these things . . . are not identical” (228). Rather, their queerness is a condition of their “coexistence, interdependence, and mutuality” (228)—the works resist the double’s logic of cleavages, dualisms, and binaries, in favor of a collective oneness.
With fewer than ten works in the exhibition produced in the last decade, and none from the last five years, one is left to wonder: What is the future of the double in contemporary art? Will it continue to loom large, perhaps offering an exploration of the divisions we feel between our digital and physical selves or increasing political polarization? Or will the double prove to be a twentieth-century model, replaced by an embrace of fluidity, hybridity, and in-betweenness? Put another way, what comes after two?
PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University