Before the era of mechanical reproduction, some of the greatest artists used their talent by making the same painting several times. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, for example, painted at least six identical copies of The young designer and four of The Embroiderer. With their near perfect match of shape and color, these popular images could be sold to more than one collector. But they also served to show Chardin’s mastery of his medium. Some of the greatest connoisseurs have shown their appreciation by acquiring multiple copies of the same image.
When Robert Rauschenberg set out to produce the same painting twice in 1957, almost two centuries after Chardin’s death, a similar bet conveyed a very different meaning. Drawing on the tradition of abstract expressionism while prefiguring Pop Art, Memory I and Memory II are less a display of artistic mastery than a challenge to all that Rauschenberg’s contemporaries held sacred. In Memory II, Rauschenberg has carefully reproduced the spontaneous brushstrokes of Memory I, implicitly questioning the AbEx vernacular in which gestural extravagance was meant to reveal raw emotion. So that we do not forget how much the stakes had changed since mechanical reproduction had made the artist’s hand sacred, Rauschenberg punctuated his paintings with prints cut from newspapers: mass-produced images made unique by their margins unequal and singularly similar in the reproduction of their marginal asperities. .
Memory I and Memory II brilliantly establish the alluring premise of Double, a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The exhibition presents dozens of instances of deliberate duplication by artists of the 20e and 21st century. Like Chardin, some of them demonstrate an astonishing skill in the art of reproduction. Unlike Chardin, and related to Rauschenberg, most of them are interested in examining modern society through the dynamics of similarity and difference.
Many of the works overturn assumptions about phenomena that we usually take for granted. For example, we expect each window to break in a different way, a commonplace challenged by Jorge Macchi in parallel lives. Macchi has meticulously replicated the pattern of shards shattering a window he smashed with a hammer, forcing viewers to accept the unexpected as they encounter the original and copy side-by-side.
Vija Celmins achieves a similar feat with Chalkboard #14, precisely shaping the double of an antique slate. Even more than Chardin’s paintings, they are indistinguishable.
These two artists challenge our instincts for authenticity by committing minor acts of forgery that simulate everyday processes of entropy. But there is more to these works than mere trickery. Fraudulent reproduction of art often involves artificial aging. Macchi and Celmins show off what criminal forgers try to cover up. The aging process itself is their subject. They duplicate time – an instant in parallel livesa century later Blackboard – slyly suggesting that the experiences may be superficially identical but ultimately irreconcilable.
Roni Horn undertakes an act of duplication that more easily matches expectations, at least in terms of materials and craftsmanship. things that happen again comprises two solid copper truncated cones, each weighing one ton. Both are forged and machined to identical specifications, making them as indistinguishable as parts produced on a factory assembly line. But their relationship with each other is not stable, changing depending on their arrangement in the museum. Horn clarified that they can be configured to make them appear the same or different, or even merge as two sides of a single symmetrical object. Everything is a matter of perspective.
In this regard, things that happen again formalizes the ways in which we perceive everything within us. A forest, for example, can seem monotonous or overflowing with biodiversity depending on how we have been prepared to look at it. Trees can be thought of as a single living system, population, or planks of wood. We must choose our contextual framework with intentional clarity. Horn’s splitting reveals biases that impact our unexamined judgment, meticulously demonstrated under controlled conditions.
Of course, Horn’s essay in optics is also relevant to how we perceive people, a point made explicit in photographs of identical twins by artists ranging from Diane Arbus to Seydou Keïta. These images encourage us to compare and contrast siblings as much as we look back and forth between Celmin’s slates, Macchi’s windowpanes and Rauschenberg’s paintings.
Humanity is tormented by the challenge of treating all people as equals while honoring everyone’s uniqueness. Our forgetfulness of other beings is no less damaging. More than just an expression of these troubles, the art of the double can prepare the eyes and the mind to see through our prejudices.