7 Great Artist Duos That Shaped Art History
While the lone wolf artist has long been romanticized for its singular (if not god-given) genius, the creative duo has also, many times over, recast the shape of art. Below, we explore seven of art history’s game-changing partnerships during the 20th century. For these pioneering artists—from Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Marina Abramovic & Ulay—collaboration was an integral, motivating agent in the development of their practices, which span monumental sculpture, endurance-testing performance, and innovative digital art.
COLLABORATED FROM 1916–1943
Taeuber-Arp and Arp were, using today’s vernacular, the Dada movement’s power couple. Alongside Max Ernst and Tristan Tzara, the duo pioneered abstract art by introducing geometric and biomorphic forms and absurdist content to their work. They also helped pen the Dadaist manifesto in 1917, the same year, by many accounts, that they fell in love. The Swiss Taeuber met the German-French Arp in 1915, when she attended a Zürich exhibition in which Arp was included. By 1916, they began to create a series of collaborative works that would shapeshift nimbly throughout their relationship, influencing both their individual practices and the avant-garde movements that swirled around them in 1920s Zürich and Paris. “I believe that collaboration is the solution and may bring us the harmony which would liberate art from its boundless confusion,” Arp once explained.
First, their exchange took the form of geometric “duo-collages.” Later, they made abstract tapestries, which fused their interests in applied and non-objective arts, and wooden sculptures, like Eheplastik (Marriage Sculpture) (1937), which mingled abstraction and allusions to their relationship. For other collaborations, they played distinct roles—Taeuber-Arp danced at the opening of the Dada Gallery decked in a costume of Arp’s design, for example. Though their joint efforts were cut short by Taeuber-Arp’s premature death of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1943, Arp continued to “collaborate” with his wife even after her passing, cutting up and reconstituting their early “duo-drawings” as fodder for new projects.
Collaborated from 1958–2009
Serendipitously, Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon were born on the same day in 1935. After meeting in Paris in 1958, the two artists embarked on a 51-year alliance that resulted in some of the largest and most daring feats of public art that art history has seen. In 1995 they swaddled Berlin’s Reichstag in 1,076,390 square feet of silver fabric; in 1983 they surrounded 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with 6.5 million square feet of floating pink polypropylene.
Above all, theirs was a partnership based on equality and close collaboration. During a 1995 interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Christo swiftly corrected the interviewer, who directed a question about the inspiration behind Wrapped Reichstag to only the male half of the duo. “First of all, you should understand that this is not only my project, it’s also Jeanne-Claude’s, all I do myself are the drawings,” Chirsto amended. “The only things I do myself is write the checks, pay the bills and pay the taxes. Everything else is Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the creativity. It’s about time that people correct this mistake,” Jeanne-Claude concluded definitively. While Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, Christo’s latest high-profile 2016 project, Floating Piers, in Lake Iseo, Italy, was conceived together with her in 1970.
Collaborated from 1959–2007
During their nearly 50-year-long partnership, Bernd and Hilla Becher indelibly altered the course of photography with their stark, black-and-white images of water towers, blast furnaces, grain silos, and other architectural emblems of the industrial era. Their approach—which fused photography, conceptualism, and minimalism—would go on to influence artists from Andreas Gursky to Candida Höfer.
The duo met in 1959. At the time, Bernd was painting orderly, meticulous watercolors of the industrial edifices that would become his lifelong obsession. Hilla, for her part, was trained as a photographer. Not long after, the two married and began exploring the architectural landscape of their native Germany, building their exhaustive taxonomy of structures, often on the back of an old motorcycle. The two worked closely, making no distinction between their individual roles. “No, there is no division of labor. Outsiders cannot tell who has taken a particular photo and we also often forget ourselves. It simply is not important,” they said in a 1989 interview, in which they emphasized that their answers came from them jointly, rather than an individual voice.
Collaborated from 1969–1974
Not long after moving from Prague to New York, in 1965, Steina and Woody Vasulka began experiments with machine-generated imagery that would lay the groundwork for the burgeoning medium of video art. Steina’s experience as a violinist fused with Woody’s training as an engineer and filmmaker in psychedelic, sonorous video environments, like Noisefields (1974), filled with static and staccato notes.
Along with their pioneering electronic artworks, the Vasulkas developed tools that would unlock new frontiers in video and digital art, informing an emerging generation of artists interested in technology. With engineer Jeffrey Schier, the couple created a device called the Digital Image Articulator, which processed video imagery in real-time. They also co-founded the avant-garde performance art space The Kitchen in 1971; it still exists today. While they stopped working collaboratively on single works in 1974, they continue to inform each other’s individual practices.
Collaborated from 1972–1994
In 1972, photojournalist Nancy Reddin crossed paths with radical artist Kienholz at a Los Angeles party; the run-in would spur a partnership that persisted until Edward’s untimely death of a heart attack in 1994. (He was buried in his beloved 1940 Packard Coupe next to the ashes of his dog Smash and a 1931 bottle of Chianti.)
By the time the two met, Edward had already made waves in the 1960s L.A. art scene with seething sculptures and installations, built from urban detritus, that smacked of American culture’s vices: alcoholism, racism, violence, prostitution, and more. With Walter Hopps, he had also founded the city’s storied Ferus Gallery, which showed Andy Warhol’s “Soup Cans” for the first time. But it wasn’t until he met Nancy that the couple created some of their most ambitious—and audacious—works. While working in Berlin in the 1980s, they toiled on a piece that would become their largest and arguably most controversial installation yet: The Hoerengracht (Whore’s Canal) (1984-1988) is a 40-foot-long, labyrinthine replica of a red light district, where female mannequins wash themselves in grimy sinks or wait listlessly for customers.
Collaborated from 1976–2009
Oldenburg’s large, soft sculptures of household items and diner foods changed the course of Pop Art in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until he began collaborating with van Bruggen, in the mid-’70s, that his work took on a monumental scale. Together, Oldenburg and van Bruggen conceived towering public sculptures—15-foot-tall shuttlecocks or a 51-foot-long spoon tipped with a glistening cherry, for instance—that drew on Oldenburg’s penchant for injecting everyday objects with elements of absurdity.
The duo first crossed paths in 1970, when Oldenburg’s work traveled to an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, where van Bruggen was a curator. A few years later, they erected their first collaborative piece: Trowel I (1976), a 41-foot-tall steel shovel with its nose buried comically in the ground. Reminiscing about the project, van Bruggen has joked, “Claes said, ‘I made the trowel for you.’ I said, ‘It is not for me, and I don’t like it!’” The following year, they married. While some critics have dismissed van Bruggen’s contributions as superfluous, the duo asserted that their collaboration was essential—“a unity of opposites,” as van Bruggen once described. After developing the idea for a work in tandem, Oldenburg sketched the piece, then van Bruggen chose its colors and oversaw its fabrication and installation. The result: A cohort of whimsical sculptures scattered across the globe.
Collaborated from 1976–1988
In 1980, collaborators and lovers Abramović and Ulay each grasped one side of a loaded bow and arrow and leaned back. Pulled taut, the arrow was aimed directly at Abramovic’s heart. They held the position for an excruciating four minutes, then let the bow fall to the ground. The performance art duo’s partnership lasted from 1976 through 1988, during which time they realized some of the medium’s most daring, emotionally fraught, and disquieting works.
The end of Abramović and Ulay’s collaboration was marked, in 1988, with the work Great Wall Walk, for which they walked from either side of the Great Wall of China and met in the middle after 90 days. While their joint projects remain milestones in the history of performance art, their relationship has taken an antagonistic turn in recent years. Not long after Ulay appeared unexpectedly across from Abramovic during her momentous 2010 MoMA performance, The Artist is Present (the tearful run-in was documented in a viral internet video), Ulay sued his former counterpart for censoring their collaborative works.
Cover image via Wikimedia Commons.