New York

Twin Art

I’ve never much cared for poodles and I harbor an active dislike for the topiary excess occasioned by the breed. Any grooming process that transforms dogs into animated shrubbery smacks of an esthetic malaise not unrelated to Nero’s penchant for turning Christians into flambeaux to illuminate his garden parties. As a symbol of terminal frivolity and surrogate preening, the poodle is unrivaled.

As a desirable domestic accoutrement, the poodle reached the zenith of its American popularity during the isolationist ’50s. Replacing the sinuous Deco hounds of the ’30s and the sturdy little terriers of the ’40s, the poodle swiftly emerged as an identifiable decorative silhouette adorning cocktail napkins, black felt skirts, plastic pencil packs, linoleum chevrons, swizzle sticks, and toiletry packaging. For the better part of a decade, it was the dog. Twin Art’s window display at White Columns was devoted to the ’50s poodle.

Twin Art is the creative moniker for the Kahn twins (Ellen and Lynda) who have built their art career around the glorification of kitsch. Combining a zany fashion sensibility with a flippant salon sensibility, their work has approximately the same relationship to “serious art” as petting has to orgasm. For their “poodle power” display, the twins chose to evoke one breed of dog’s brief, intense exploitation by American merchandisers.

Two display windows (“twindows” in the Kahns’ terminology) were arranged to highlight photo enlargements of the twins. One window featured the prepubescent girls astride matching toy poodles in a vernacular interior; a scripted caption read “Twin Art 1956.” The other window showed the sisters’ postpubescent faces superimposed on poodle-walking, bolero-jacketed bodies promenading in Central Park; the caption read “Twin Art Cleans Up New York City.” The former photograph was clearly a family snapshot; the latter used a commercial shot from a ’50s fashion magazine. Massed beneath the photo enlargements were rolls of toilet paper stamped with a cunning poodle logo. Assorted poodle memorabilia—“Cutie” (a squeezable rubber poodle), miniature plastic TV sets framing poodle faces, a child’s vanity chair designed as a poodle, a doll with a poodle appliqué on its skirt, a “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” poodle penny bank, poodle-shaped cookie cutters and ashtrays—vied for attention among the columnar arrangements of toilet paper.

The only esthetic principle at work was one of rude archival ordering, and it resulted in something akin to the transitory effectiveness of a joy buzzer. Kitsch does not make for very good art (that’s why they call it kitsch) and retro affectations rarely transcend the phenomenon they are derived from. Yet the marketing impulse that occasioned Twin Art’s abundant archival fodder is a post-industrial fact of life. In that context, “Poodle Power” was not without some cultural resonance. I do think, however, that a Farrah Fawcett “twindow” could have made the point a lot quicker while allowing for a greater variety of materials.

Richard Flood