Before the age of mechanical reproduction, some of the greatest artists made the most of their talent by making the same painting more than once. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, for instance, painted at least six identical copies of The Young Draughtsman and four of The Embroiderer. With their near-perfect match of form and color, these popular pictures could be sold to more than one collector. But they served equally to exhibit Chardin’s mastery of his medium. Some of the greatest connoisseurs showed their appreciation by acquiring several copies of the same image.
When Robert Rauschenberg set out to make the same painting twice in 1957, nearly two centuries after Chardin’s death, a similar gambit conveyed a very different meaning. Drawing on the tradition of Abstract Expressionism while foreshadowing Pop Art, Factum I and Factum II are less a demonstration of artistic mastery than a challenge to all that Rauschenberg’s contemporaries held sacred. In Factum II, Rauschenberg carefully replicated the spontaneous brushstrokes of Factum I, implicitly questioning the AbEx vernacular in which gestural extravagance was supposed to expose raw emotion. Lest anyone forget how much the stakes had changed since mechanical reproduction gave sanctity to the artist’s hand, Rauschenberg punctuated his paintings with printed matter clipped from newspapers: mass-produced images rendered unique by their uneven margins and uniquely alike by the replication of their marginal unevenness.
Factum I and Factum II brilliantly establish the beguiling premise of The Double, a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The exhibit showcases dozens of instances of deliberate duplications by artists in the 20th and 21st century. Like Chardin, some of them show uncanny skill in the art of replication. Unlike Chardin, and akin to Rauschenberg, most of them are interested in examining modern society through the dynamics of similarity and difference.
Several of the works upset assumptions about phenomena we typically take for granted. For instance, we expect every pane of glass to break in a different way, a commonplace defied by Jorge Macchi in Parallel Lives. Macchi has meticulously replicated the pattern of shards crazing a window he smashed with a hammer, forcing viewers to accept the unexpected when they encounter the original and copy side-by-side.
Vija Celmins achieves a similar feat with Blackboard Tableau #14, precisely crafting the double of an antique slate. To an even greater degree than Chardin’s paintings, they cannot be told apart.
Both of these artists question our instincts about authenticity by committing minor acts of forgery that fake everyday processes of entropy. But there is more to these works than mere trickery. The fraudulent replication of art often involves artificial aging. Macchi and Celmins flaunt what criminal forgers attempt to conceal. The aging process itself is their subject. They duplicate time – an instant in Parallel Lives, a century in Blackboard Tableau – slyly suggesting that experiences can be superficially identical yet ultimately irreconcilable.
Roni Horn undertakes an act of doubling that more readily fits expectations, at least in terms of materials and fabrication. Things That Happen Again comprises two truncated cones made of solid copper, each weighing a ton. Both are forged and machined to identical specifications, making them as indifferentiable as parts produced on a factory assembly-line. But their relationship to one another is not stable, changing depending on their arrangement in the museum. Horn has specified that they can be configured in ways that make them appear the same or different, or even seem to merge as two sides of a single symmetrical object. It’s all a matter of perspective.
In that respect, Things That Happen Again formalizes the ways in which we perceive everything in our midst. A forest, for instance, can look monotonous or appear to be overflowing with biodiversity depending on how we’ve been primed to look at it. The trees can be seen as a single living system, a population, or board-feet of lumber. We need to choose our contextual frame with intentional clarity. Horn’s doubling reveals biases that impact our unexamined judgement, meticulously demonstrated in controlled conditions.
Of course Horn’s essay in optics is equally relevant to the ways 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 much as we look back and forth between Celmin’s slates, Macchi’s panes, and Rauschenberg’s paintings.
Humankind is bedeviled by the challenge of treating all people as equals while honoring each person’s uniqueness. Our oblivious to other beings is no less damaging. More than just an expression of these troubles, the art of the double can prime the eyes and mind to see through our prejudices.