Washington, DC

View of “The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900,” 2022. From left: Felix Nussbaum, Orgelmann (Organ Grinder), 1942–43; Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920/1964; Kerry James Marshall, Two Invisible Men Naked, 1985; Lorna Simpson, Untitled (Two Necklines), 1989. Photo: Robert Shelley.

View of “The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900,” 2022. From left:
Felix Nussbaum, Orgelmann (Organ Grinder), 1942–43; Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920/1964; Kerry James Marshall, Two Invisible Men Naked, 1985; Lorna Simpson, Untitled (Two Necklines), 1989. Photo: Robert Shelley.

“The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900”

In 1919, Sigmund Freud theorized the concept of the uncanny—the making strange of the familiar by the addition of the unfamiliar. He speculated about the various doublings or mirrorings of the self that occur in the psyche and opened the door to a great range of narrative possibilities.

Art is, from a certain vantage, a proliferation of duplications, emendations, and appropriations, but much of that depends on the goals—and, of course, the cunning—of the creator. Such notions were at the heart of “The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900” at the recently reopened East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Split into four sections—Seeing Double, Reversal, Dilemma, and the Divided and Doubled Self—this ninety-person show frequently returned to the same artist, but through different lenses, and leaned heavily on the Surrealist legacies of Brassaï, René Magritte, Man Ray, and, of course, Marcel Duchamp, whose pair of Chocolate Grinder paintings (No. 1 and No. 2), made between 1913 and 1914, opened the first room. Unsurprisingly, given curator James Meyer’s status as a leading voice in the history of Minimalism and the 1960s in general, much space was given over to the painting, film, and sculpture of the era; one encountered Robert Morris’s painted plywood Two Columns, 1961/2018, early in the exhibition, while the mark-making of Mel Bochner and Alighiero Boetti cropped up more than once.

At times, this attention to the mid-twentieth century felt like a hangover from another moment. In a year when much of the Eastern Seaboard was given over to the deification of Jasper Johns, did the artist really warrant more prime real estate? (His all-too-familiar Two Flags, 1962, was installed at the start of the show opposite Glenn Ligon’s far more ominous and timely neon sculpture Double America, 2012.) Given that the exhibition’s fulcrum seemed to be the 1960s, there were callbacks to the oscillating anxiety and hope that accompanied the Kennedy era and the paranoia fueling the Nixon years. But such nostalgic throughlines didn’t quite connect to the particular strain of horror that suffuses the present. Nonetheless, the show limned some strange terrain, making its methodological and political marks obliquely.

Viewers felt an undeniable material pleasure in seeing deep cuts by established artists from around the world—the gleaming diamond dust on a late Andy Warhol self-portrait, Myths: The Shadow, 1981, whose spectral cast is frequently lost in reproduction, or Robert Smithson’s wall-mounted sculpture Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965, a 2003 re-creation that felt bracingly fresh: ’60s abstraction delivered not via photo documentation or preparatory drawings (i.e., phantom pictures) but in the flesh. By attending so thoroughly in concept and execution to materiality, Meyer was able to draw together seemingly disparate practices in unexpectedly harmonious ways. This result was evident in Vija Celmins’s unnervingly exact replication of a dusty chalkboard Blackboard Tableau #14, 2011–15, which echoes the haunting figuration and facture of Kerry James Marshall’s black-and-white painting Two Invisible Men Naked, 1985, and the nearly subliminal variations realized in Lorna Simpson’s strategically truncated photographs of Black women Untitled (Two Necklines), 1989. It would be a mistake, however, to focus too closely on the technical achievement of Marshall or Simpson at the expense of their deft critique. Yet “The Double” was notable because it was precisely about artistic and social identity, but not about a politics of identity as such. Meyer’s revisionary work is in taking recent scholarship seriously and putting previously siloed artists into dialogue, highlighting relationships that were always there but curatorially ignored. This is most legible in several arrays of black-and-white photographs, including Seydou Keita’s Untitled, 1953–57, a sweet and funny depiction of Senegalese twin babies that was installed near Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Half-Opened Eyes Twins, 1989. A sculpted pair of Yoruban ère ìbeji figures—to which the solemn melancholic men in Fani-Kayode’s image seem kin—were placed next to the work.

Other trajectories, of performance, film, post-Minimalist sculpture—via Eva Hesse, Mary Kelly, Howardena Pindell, and Yinka Shonibare CBE, among many others—played out in adjacent galleries. Overall, the show’s unexpected refractions offered up a dual investigation of creative process and psychic disturbance. We were presented with a twentieth-century history of art where shadows roam freely.