New York

Vik Muniz

Vik Muniz’s work of the past two decades is an art-historical hit parade, the subjects of his photographic series often famous images reconfigured in ordinary, humble materials—Leonardo’s Last Supper in chocolate syrup, Caravaggio’s Narcissus in junkyard flotsam, Monet’s water lilies in hole-punched paper circles. Until recently, one would never have confused his simulations with the real deal. “I don’t want the viewer to believe in my images,” he has said before, avowing an aspiration to produce “the worst possible illusion.” The duplicity in Muniz’s latest exhibition, however, was thoroughgoing, with objects easily mistakable for original works, or at least for the flip sides of those works: The artist meticulously re-created, in one-to-one scale, the versos of nine iconic canvases by the likes of Matisse and Léger. Ranged around the gallery, slightly raised from the floor on padded blocks, and angled against the walls, they looked like the components of a show about to be hung.

Muniz pulled out all the stops in fashioning these three-dimensional replicas, collaborating for six years with curators and conservators from the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago as well as a cadre of artisans and forgers. Every transport ticket, Magic-Markered inscription, yellowing exhibition sticker, and penciled notation has been cloned, the frames, stretchers, and mounting hardware rendered with painstaking verisimilitude, down to the last scuffed crossbar or rusty screw. Beyond the aha! mirth of realizing, the instant one reads AMERICAN GOTHIC or A SUNDAY AFTERNOON ON THE ISLAND OF LA GRAND JATTE on a label, that these are versos without rectos, and forgeries at that, the doubles are absorbing forensic documents, offering capsule histories of the transactional realities of ownership and transfer that frequently remain opaque. They testify at once to the fetishization of already-fetishized objects—dealer J. K. Thannhauser affixed at least six tags bearing his name to Picasso’s Woman Ironing—and to a certain deflation of preciousness that attends an artwork’s circulation, the Sharpie-scrawled names and titles reminiscent of how moving boxes are marked.

The cavil to be put forward here, that the work’s waggish appeal overshadows its intelligence, is one that dogs much of Muniz’s output. The archival high jinks of “Verso,” 2002–2008, are so entertaining that the series’ subtler operations—its participation in well-rehearsed, if seemingly unexhausted, dialogues about illusionism and mimesis, or photography and the copy—are easily extenuated. Cleverest, perhaps, is how Muniz apes those very elements (provenance, inventory numbers, exhibition history) that would otherwise secure for a painting its status as singular, thus engaging concerns of authenticity and value that are as trenchant today as they were for the Pictures generation of which he is a self-conscious legatee.

Ultimately this show posed an endgame question, one worth taking seriously: At what point does an image become so familiar and disseminated that it is itself expendable? The inquiry continued in the back gallery with another set of knockoffs, facsimiles of the backs of well-known photographs from the New York Times archive at MOMA. Although only identified by date stamps and taped-on captions, the pictures likely came immediately to most viewers’ minds, and included the 1969 photograph of an astronaut’s footprint in lunar soil and Eddie Adams’s snapshot of the execution of a suspected Vietcong. Unfortunately, these were hung flush against the wall, and the other “Verso” objects canted too steeply to see their reverse sides. It would be interesting to know how Muniz signs the versos of his versos.

Lisa Turvey