Marcel Duchamp excelled there. Jasper Johns, although less theatrical, was his best pupil. What the two realized was that “identity,” insofar as it exists, always goes against description.
“The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900” at the National Gallery of Art is partly about this. It also discusses double vision, copies, mirror reversals, shadows, twins and alter egos. It’s a lot to take on. But the show is concise, rigorous, funny and sincere. As such, it is an antidote to the harmful politics that today turns every word into a slogan against its opposite.
Even better, he moans 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 fractured in two, by Sylvia Plath. The poet made it at Smith College while writing her graduation thesis on – what else? – the theme of “double” in Dostoevsky’s novels.)
Johns and his hero Duchamp underlie “The Double”, which was put together by James Meyer, curator of modern art at the National Gallery. Both artists dismantled the notion that our identities are stable or knowable. Rather, they immersed themselves in whirlwinds of poetic secrecy, spirals of deviation, a circus of self-escapism.
The show is, as the subtitle quite emphatically promises, about “identity and difference”. But don’t be discouraged. Meyer takes these quirky words of our present time and all their unspoken implications (“you must express your assigned identity; you must celebrate difference”) to a deeper place. Transcending the infantilizing miasma of affinity groups, identity acronyms and rote recitation of pronouns, the works of “The Double” take us to stranger, more provocative, more philosophical places.
Two works of art at the entrance to the exhibition seem to announce a political agenda. One is a double flag painting of Johns, the other a neon sign (the word “America” and its reversed inversion) of Glenn Ligon. Johns has spent his career thinking about the implications of copies, pairs and doubles. Like targets and numbers, the flag was simply (as he put it) an image that “the mind already knows”. He wasn’t trying to talk about an America divided. Foisting this read on “Two Flags” may be tempting, but it’s flippant.
Ligon’s “Double America,” on the other hand, is clearly political. It’s about America’s racial divide and what WEB Dubois called the necessary “double consciousness” of African Americans. But Ligon is too subtle and adult to make easy propaganda statements. Something deeper is going on in his work, and in the show in general.
Admission to the National Gallery is free. Nevertheless, you wander through the first few galleries of “The Double”, unable to shake off the constant, elated feeling of getting two for the price of one. After the Johns-Ligon prologue, we discover two still lifes by Matisse. The first time he painted a motif, Matisse wanted to record his first response; the second time, to distill and deepen it.
After the Matisses come two paintings of a chocolate grinder by Duchamp. One casts shadows, the other is flatter, more schematic, with thread sewn into the canvas; a new proposal on the same. A little further on are two versions of Arshile Gorky’s harrowing double portrait of himself with his late mother, followed by two near-identical abstractions by Robert Rauschenberg.
What is happening here? Why did these artists paint the same thing twice? And how do we know that the copies are not counterfeits?
Rather than propositions about identity, the works of “The Double” are above all expressions of curiosity. Some ask, at the most basic level, what it means to have two eyes instead of one, or what about the fact that our bodies are fundamentally symmetrical – one side mirroring the other?
Others address reproduction technologies which, with ever-increasing facility, transform an image into a copy of itself, a double. How, they ask, can our sense of ourselves as unique survive this creeping duplication? When a copy is made, is it identical to the original? Or is a quality (his “aura”?) escaping? And what about love? Isn’t love also a manifestation of life’s inherent desire to duplicate itself?
At the end of the show, one wonders if all art is not the expression of a need to duplicate nature. This proposal is tackled head-on by René Magritte, whose 1933 painting, “The Human Condition”, shows a window with drawn curtains. In front of the window, exactly in harmony with the outside landscape, is a landscape painted on an easel. “Each picture,” notes the wall tag, “is double what it represents.”
Much of modern art was an attempt to escape this truism – to make images that represent nothing and are therefore singular, irreplaceable. Hence the abstraction. But Magritte suggests that art is always mimetic, if not of the outside world at least of consciousness.
One way to create a duplicate – albeit upside down – is to mirror the original. I was bewitched, in part of the exhibition on the reversals of mirrors, by the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti. Boetti was so obsessed with duplication 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 simultaneously. The text inscribed with his left hand (“The body always speaks in silence”) mirrors and inverts that written with his right. Impressive feat!
Doubles create dilemmas: Of the two things in front of me, which do I prefer? A work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who used found objects (à la Duchamp) and modes of poetic minimalism to express aspects of same-sex love, includes two stacks of white paper. The leaves in a pile are inscribed “Nowhere better than this place”; those on the other with “Somewhere better than this place.” Visitors are invited to take a sheet with them, but which one?
Nearby is a tribute to Gonzalez-Torres and his partner, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1991. The artwork is by Roni Horn, who once declared his desire to have “a language without pronouns” and approvingly compared the Thames to “an identity solvent”.
Gonzalez-Torres and Laycock had seen and liked an earlier work by Horn – a thin crumpled sheet of annealed gold. Thus, after Laycock’s death, Horn made a second work: this time two sheets of shimmering gold, one above the other. “There’s sweat in between,” she told Gonzalez-Torres, who replied, “I knew it.”
In a context of AIDS and homophobia, even sweaty sheets are political. But if “The Double” is trying to teach us anything about politics, our current dysfunction may be at least partly attributable to our preoccupation with grossly limiting “identities.”
The idea that to achieve justice people must come together and march under particular identity banners has led to incredible gains. But as these militant strategies have spread, they have tended to calcify, to deepen divisions, to provoke reactions, to jeopardize democracy. It may be that to extend justice today and preserve democracy, we need to lower those banners and become more curious about each other.
And that’s of course where the art comes in. So it’s a relief that this show, in the heart of a city suffocated by politics, is above all tenderness, humor, invention and love.
“The double: identity and difference in art since 1900” at the National Gallery of Art until October 31. nga.gov