Almost 40 years apart, the soup can and the urinal each figured centrally in some of the art world's biggest hullabaloos. Now these ordinary-items-turned-masterpieces figure centrally in A Twisted Pair, an exciting, cerebral exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum examining the curious overlaps between Warhol and Marcel Duchamp.
Such a show might seem a tad simplistic if it merely followed the examples set by other exhibitions that have included both artists' work. Duchamp was a titan of the 20th-century avant-garde whose most famous pieces were everyday items (like a urinal) that he scandalously declared to be art; Warhol's images of soup cans and other sundry items were just as outrageous when they first appeared, in the early 1960s. Their work has been shown together many times, along with pieces by other artists who similarly reveled in the commonplace accoutrements of modern living.
So on one hand, Twisted Pair scratches a kind of populist itch to pin up and gawk at two figureheads of different generations in experimental art. No doubt, this is satisfying. The Warhol's curators even got their hands on the good stuff, like a signed replica of that famous urinal, "Fountain;" "L.H.O.O.Q.," which depicts the "Mona Lisa" with a mischievously penciled-in mustache; the "readymade" snow shovel, wittily titled "In Advance of the Broken Arm"; and an extremely rare, full-sized, wood-and-etched-glass copy of "The Large Glass," often considered Duchamp's greatest work. (The original, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is cracked and too fragile to move.) On the Warhol side, needless to say, there's plenty to see as well.
But besides being a real crowd-pleaser, the exhibit is supremely creative and staggering in its depth of research. Its curator, Warhol archivist Matt Wrbican, doesn't just employ the artwork to showcase the men's shared artistic proclivities; he also draws heavily from archival papers, correspondence and photographs to augment the obvious comparisons with sometimes-bizarre findings that bind Warhol and Duchamp in history and thought. Yet somehow, with each example, the Warhol-Duchamp comparison becomes less overt and more mystical, as the artists, rather than the artwork, emerge as the exhibit's real subjects.
For instance, it doesn't initially seem plausible that the one day Warhol spent vacuuming an art gallery was in any way related to Duchamp's decision to incorporate a bit of accumulated dust into one of his pieces. But then we learn that Warhol owned a rare photograph of that same work of Duchamp's, clearly showing its fine layer of grime.
Meanwhile, a five-way portrait of Duchamp made with carefully angled mirrors is fairly convincing as a possible inspiration for Warhol's ongoing fixation with repeated images. But it's eerie to see that Warhol posed for the exact-same photo -- suggesting that the younger artist may have been slightly obsessed with his forebear, even outside the studio.
And it was not always Warhol who copied from Duchamp. In the late '60s, the latter produced a series of works printed on sheets of clear plastic acetate. The technique is similar to the photo silk-screening process that Warhol popularized and used throughout his career.
What ultimately emerges from these patterns of interest and homage is a tangled and shadowy view of two men who labored to advance the frontiers of art and imagination. This is the great success of the exhibit. Because even as it becomes clear that Warhol might have pulled some of his most important ideas straight from Duchamp's work, the show's pleasure comes largely from the uncertainty and surprise in discovering the convoluted ways in which this happened. Viewers will not just see famous and interesting works of art, but also glimpses into their origins. For embedded in the works of art is a mysterious sort of biography -- the story of two men and the twisted connections between them.
Twisted Pair runs through Sept. 12. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org