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The National Gallery of Art announced today that the museum has acquired a signature contemporary artwork of the 1990s—and thumped the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the process.
Janine Antoni‘s “Lick and Lather” (1993–94) is a textbook example of new sculptural practice. It’s a set of self-portrait busts that the artist cast in chocolate and soap and finished by licking and bathing. With this piece, Antoni undermines the timeless nature of the classical marble bust by using materials that aren’t designed to stand the test of time. Her fugitive portraits are essential, even iconic feminist artworks.
That’s why the Hirshhorn picked up a pair of Antoni’s “Lick and Lather” busts in 2001. The museum included the piece in “At the Hub of Things,” a recent re-hanging of the museum’s permanent collection for the Hirshhorn’s 40th anniversary. In February 2015, the Hirshhorn hosted Antoni for a talk about using her hair, tongue, and even her eyelashes to make work. “I washed myself with myself and fed myself with myself,” she said of “Lick and Lather.”
So it came as a surprise to see the National Gallery of Art acquire a work that the Hirshhorn has trumpeted so recently. But where the Hirshhorn has two “Lick and Lather” busts, the National Gallery picked up 14: seven busts in chocolate and seven busts in soap. The National Gallery’s iteration is the only extant edition that includes 14 total busts, according to the museum.
Antoni first debuted “Lick and Lather” at the Venice Biennale in 1993; the Hirshhorn showed the 14-bust edition in a sprawling exhibit on beauty in 1999. These sculptures are not easy: A few years after the Hirshhorn acquired its edition of “Lick and Lather” (in 2001), the soap bust began to deteriorate. The work was “reconstituted” in 2007, and later, in 2011, Hirshhorn sculpture conservator Gwynne Ryan led a team that worked with the artist and her studio on a new plan for reconstructing Antoni’s soap busts. Not just for the museum’s copy, but for the future of the work. (Smithsonian magazine ran a detailed account of the process to coincide with Antoni’s talk at the Hirshhorn.)
The National Gallery’s acquisition of a 14-bust “Lick and Lather” suggests that the Hirshhorn’s pair is in some sense incomplete. If the Hirshhorn had already owned all seven soap and seven chocolate busts, it seems doubtful that the National Gallery would make the same purchase. “Lick and Lather” is the odd work that exists in different forms. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also owns a two-bust version; still a different two-bust edition is currently on view at the newly opened Met Breuer in New York. Both the LP and EP editions, so to speak, have their upsides. Two busts makes for a more iconic presentation: one is lick, one is lather. On the other hand, fourteen busts shows the variety in Antoni’s “carving” and how much sweat and saliva went into the making the project. And the classical presentation will resonate at the National Gallery. (“Lick and Lather” belongs in the West Building, by the way, not the modernist East Building.)
Antoni’s project isn’t the only thing over which the two museums have crossed swords (however politely). The Hirshhorn named Theaster Gates as a trustee in September 2015 and tapped the social-practice artist to serve as impresario for its 40th-anniversary party in New York last fall. But the artist’s first major show in D.C. will be hosted by the National Gallery and curated by Sarah Newman.
Now, it’s hardly a problem for either these museums or their viewers that both institutions are collecting Antoni. Both museums should be collecting Antoni. Perhaps two museums owning the same major contemporary artwork boosts the chances that “Lick and Lather” will be on view somewhere in D.C.—although, in the long run, the city would be better served by a deeper and broader distribution of her works.
The only real issue with the National Gallery’s pick-up—and it is ultimately a minor one—is that the National Gallery is eating the Hirshhorn’s lunch. The Hirshhorn invested heavily in “Lick and Lather”: Conservators worked with the artist, soap-makers, and even a soap chemist to create at least 20 different soaps to try to find a long-term fix for Antoni’s busts. (“Lick and Lather” is also the odd work in that the artist would rather see the piece rebuilt than watch the original deteriorate.) The National Gallery benefits in a major way from the years of work that Ryan and other Hirshhorn conservators put into securing a future for Antoni’s unstable busts. “Lick and Lather” is an easier acquisition today as a result. Credit where credit is due.
This post has been updated.