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Seeing Double at the National Gallery

For the Insta girlies who fawn over neon light sculptures, the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900 has you covered. However, featured artist Glenn Ligon’s neon light installation “Double America” (2006) is just the tip of the iceberg.

For avid contemporary art lovers like myself, I recommend the trek to the Mall to see the show-stopping works of Vija Celmins, Kerry James Marshall, Barbara Probst and more in this monumental exhibition – the first of its kind to investigate how modern and contemporary artists explore the idea of “doubling” to investigate identity, history and the larger world around us. On view through October 31st, this rich exhibition is worth seeing for yourself, but I’ll start by sharing some of my favorite pieces.

Photo Credit:

The art historian in me first gravitated towards René Magritte’s “La condition humaine” (1933). The painting displays a muted-colored living room with a three-legged easel that stands in front of a large window, overlooking a lush, grassy field beneath a blue sky full of clouds. Upon closer examination, there is a canvas on the easel that depicts the identical pastoral landscape, seen out the window. Magritte’s fine attention to detail differentiates the great outdoors from the small painting with merely the smallest clue of an exposed edge of the canvas. The artist’s exploration of the “meta-picture,” a work that refers to itself and the act of representation, resonates with me, especially while living in our own technological era of deep fakes and easily manipulated news and information. The work begs the question of what is truly “real,” and what is the purpose behind trying to reproduce reality.

Photo Credits: Matthew Marks Gallery

Next, I turned to Artist Vija Celmins’ “Blackboard Tableau #14” (2011-2015). After seeing Celmins’ retrospective at the Met Breuer in New York City in 2019, I was excited to revisit her series of doubled works. In “Blackboard Tableau #14,” Celmins presents one found object, an old grade-school blackboard, and one made object, a reproduced blackboard – so detailed that even the remnants of sage chalk are identical to the real. Many may question what the purpose is of recreating a simple blackboard when one could simply buy another one or take a photo to account for its accuracy? It is that very question that marks Celmins’ work. The ability to trick her viewer into questioning reality allows Celmins to turn away from simply pointing something out in her artwork. In our technologically advanced world, we continuously strive to find an explanation for every phenomenon and categorize the world around us. Celmins reminds us that the world is more rich than our minds can digest.

Photo Credits: Tate Modern

The following artwork incorporates this idea of doubling to experiment with the distortion of history and news. Artist Nam June Paik’s installation, titled “Nixon” (1965-2002), presents a compilation of videos from Richard Nixon's presidency including his inaugural address, televised press conferences, and his resignation speech. The compilation is broadcasted side-by-side on two identical, single-channel monitors with magnetic coils that attach to television monitors. As the electrons inside the television respond to the magnetic coils, the broadcasted picture becomes distorted and warped, weakening and distracting from the words of the former president. Paik’s deliberate distortion of these videos subtly and humorously highlights how easily information is manipulated, despite what one may believe, or in this case, see.

Photo Credit: National Gallery of the Art

As I continued to walk through the exhibition, past a curated series of black-and-white photographs that employ double exposure and reverse printing, I came across Lorna Simpson’s Untitled (Two Necklines) (1989). The artwork explores gender, identity, race and culture through the fusion of photography and text. Simpson presents two identical necklines of a Black woman, displaying merely her chin, neck, collarbone and scalloped detail of her white blouse. The two circular black-and-white images hang on either side of a list of phrases, such as “lasso,” “halo,” “cuffs” and “areola” that probe her viewer to think about the quotations of these words against the two peaceful images. The final text phrase reads “feel the ground slipping under you” in a stark red highlight. If you haven’t caught it yet, Simpson’s work alludes to the chilling act of lynching. This poignant contrast between the images and the text shed light on Simpson’s beautiful, yet deeply political work that directly probes her viewer’s consciousness.

Next to Untitled (Two Necklines) is another work that explores race and invites the viewer to look more closely and think more deeply – Kerry James Marshall’s Two Invisible Men Naked (1985). I was already familiar with some of Marshall’s work that sheds light on black stories to reframe narratives and address the gaps in representation in Western art history; however, this diptych’s simple, yet bold composition took me by surprise. The eerie work comments on stereotypes of whiteness and blackness – Marshall depicts one “invisible” white man with half the canvas painted white on the left, and the black invisible man with a faint outline with only the bright whites of his eyes and smile showing through. Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 book Invisible Man, Marshall exposes the visibility of blackness in defiance of white erasure in history. By instilling discomfort in his viewer, Marshall encourages them to think more deeply about systemic racism and the role of blackness in America.

Whether you were first lured to the exhibition to see a Robert Rauschenberg or Rashid Johnson, the exhibit is packed with beautiful works that encourage deep contemplation of difficult history, race and identity. Be sure to catch Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900 at The National Gallery before it closes on October 31st.


Margaret Rand is a senior in the College, studying Art history and Journalism. She’s the Indy’s Spotlight Editor and arts columnist, native New Yorker and proud cat mommy.

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