Vik Muniz’s ‘Verso’


You might think the gallery is still installing Vik Muniz’s show: Framed paintings are turned to face the wall, their backs—stretcher bars, bare canvas, and wood panels—facing out. Look closer and you’ll see labels, many yellowed and torn, identifying the works as masterpieces of 19th- and 20th-century art and noting the museums to which they’ve traveled. Picasso’s Woman Ironing is owned by the Guggenheim but has been lent to the National Gallery in Washington and Montreal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, and it’s nice to know that when the Art Institute of Chicago loaned Grant Wood’s American Gothic to the Dallas Museum in 1936, it was “Not for sale.” With stupefying verisimilitude—nicks and dings in the wood, elaborate hanging hardware, gesso cracking along canvas folds—Muniz and a team of “dedicated craftsmen, artists, forgers, and technicians” have exactingly re-created the backsides of various icons of painting. (Experts will check the verso of any artwork to help determine its authenticity.) Everyone knows Hopper’s Nighthawks, but here, amid screw heads biting into the back of the dark-stained frame, you get only the title and artist’s name on a small tag. That, and a maddening urge to tilt these objects—they’re essentially sculptures—away from the wall to see what’s on the other side. (No spoilers here; the pieces are pitched at an angle that allows a tantalizing hint.) Trompe l’oeil images of studio materials are a time-honored trope of painting, but Muniz’s 3D re-creations enter the realm of the forger’s obsessive attention to detail.

In the rear gallery, art history meets “the first draft of history”—Muniz and his team have re-created the backs of more than a dozen famous newspaper photographs from The New York Times’ archives, including the Hindenburg disaster and LBJ’s swearing-in after JFK’s assassination. As with the paintings, you never see the actual images, only crooked date stamps, scribbled notations, and ragged Scotch-taped captions—physical surfaces as dense as Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” collages of ephemera. In both these series, Muniz thumbs his nose at our age of effortlessly perfect digital reproduction. He gives us objects ravaged by handcrafted scars that lovingly replicate the presence of these cultural touchstones while denying us the aesthetics that originally made them famous. As Muniz once told someone who groused that a seven-year-old could paint a Picasso: “Probably, but he couldn’t do the back.”

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: Aug. 6. Continues through Oct. 11, 2008

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