From the Archives

It is what it is. Or is it?

There may not be two more recognizable names in the Art world (and hopefully beyond) than Duchamp and Warhol. At different points in art history, the work of these individuals radically changed the ways in which we think about art. Their influence can be found in just about every nook and cranny of art and pop culture. The artists in the upcoming exhibition It is what it is. Or is it?, at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston carry on the legacy of these ready-makers and continue “denying the possibility of defining art.”

It is what it is. Or is it? will be on view May 12 – July 29, 2012.

The following article was originally published by Michael Tomeo on July 15, 2010:

If the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh keeps putting on shows like Twisted Pair: Marcel Duchamp/Andy Warhol then maybe the ol’ Burgh deserves a place on the official Dia art pilgrimage map, along with James Turrell’s Roden Crater in Arizona and Walter De Maria’s New Mexican Lightning Field.  Curated by longtime Warhol archivist Matt Wrbican, Twisted Pair is smart, funny and long overdue. Where many curators employ obscure art theory in attempts to somehow prove that what they are doing is true, Wrbican actually uses the archive. This makes for a much more grounded take on these artists, which is exactly what they need after decades of art world deification.

This show reminds us that before all of the flashbulbs, fame and auction numbers, Andy Warhol was just another young New York artist, albeit a very promising one. It also accurately depicts Duchamp as being fairly aware of what young artists were up to, despite his status as art world legend. He was more accessible as a chess playing jokester than a solitary genius.

Andy Warhol, Oxidation, 1978. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964.

There are some terrific pairings in this show, like Warhol’s Oxidation paintings next to Duchamp’s Urinal. There are also a few rare finds like Warhol’s The Lord Gave Me My Face But I Can Pick My Own Nose, 1948 and Duchamp’s Door at 11 Rue Larrey Photographic Enlargement, 1964. But some of the best stuff on view are the letters and archival material that might truly feel sacred to fans of either artist. Usually ephemera bores me to tears but here I was fascinated to see a butcher-paper test print for one of Warhol’s Shadows hanging above a case full of Duchamp’s optical illusion machines.

Among the qualities that Warhol and Duchamp share are a desire to shock, a taste for celebrity, a belief in the everyday object, a penchant for drag, and a strong voyeuristic impulse.  Duchamp’s groundbreaking idea of the readymade looms larger than any other in the 20th century and no one did more with it than Warhol.  Warhol understood that advertisements, consumer objects, newspaper photos, the Empire State Building, and people themselves were all up for grabs as objects d’art. If Duchamp’s Bottle Rack looks rather pedestrian next to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, it’s because Warhol never fully committed to the anti-retinal to the same degree that Duchamp did.

Andy Warhol, The Lord Gave Me My Face But I Can Pick My Own Nose, 1948, Collection Paul Warhola Family.

This show is so effective in pointing out connections between these two artists that it is tempting to see them as the same creative force formed by two separate eras. However, their differences are just as striking as their similarities. Duchamp embodied an authentic lackadaisical attitude that Warhol could only feign. With a work ethic that would make his Pittsburghian forebears proud, Warhol called his studio the Factory and constantly cranked out product.  Duchamp let large amounts of time, not to mention dust, seep into his works before finishing them. Warhol was a worldwide sensation while Duchamp only appealed to art-nerds. These days it is impossible to imagine any appropriation art, assemblage, or hip art collective like the Paris-based Claire Fontaine without these two artists – they are so influential that we are almost tired of them.

My friends in Pittsburgh roll their eyes when I over-praise their city’s magnificent bridges, or go on about how the PPG Building is like the best Banks Violette sculpture ever. And yes, I’ve been caught on Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball hat.  But hometown bias aside, this show is worth traveling for.

On the other hand, Twisted Pair is so essentially New York that its next destination really should be the Whitney, but I doubt this will happen.  If a real sense of what these artists were like intrigues you, and the thought of seeing relics pertaining to their lives and work gets you all fluttery, then a trip to Pittsburgh is a must. After the show, indulge yourself with a little urban exploration. Vacant, post-industrial downtown Pittsburgh might be the closest thing to 60s SoHo to be found.