I first wrote about Daniel Douke’s astonishingly meticulous replications of ordinary objects in 2008. He lived in the Hotel Green, a complex of three buildings in Pasadena, California. Built in 1893 by George Gill Green, the original, ornately designed building was where Marcel Duchamp stayed when he had his retrospective, Marcel Duchamp, at the Pasadena Art Museum (October 8–November 3, 1963). Organized by Walter Hopps, the groundbreaking exhibition introduced the breadth of this modernist master’s work to Southern Californian and, by extension, American artists, changing the course of art history.
Douke has long been engaged in a wide-ranging, nuanced dialogue with Duchamp, late 19th- and early 20th-century American trompe-l’oeil painting, and artists from generations before his, from Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Artschwager, and Donald Judd to Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins.
First recognized for his photorealist paintings of Southern California swimming pools, Douke collapsed the distinction between painting and sculpture in 1977, when he began constructing and painting three-dimensional renditions of cardboard boxes containing 12 or 24 cans of motor oil and breakfast cereal boxes — the fuel that keeps our machines well-oiled and keeps us energized.
In these works, Douke always left one box side open so you could see the stretcher and the back of the canvas — a practice he continues no matter the size or shape of the object. The degree of exactitude he attained in his work testifies to his engagement with his subject matter, be it a cardboard mailer from the German devotee of exactitude, Peter Dreher; a worn-out prefab plastic table leaning against a wall, its legs folded; or a sleek white cardboard box containing an Apple product.
Five years younger, and lesser known, than Celmins, Douke has made a substantial, museum-worthy contribution to “looking at the overlooked,” as Norman Bryson put it in his book on still-life painting (Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, 1990), or from examining “things that are seen but not looked at,” to cite Jasper Johns.
There is something profoundly weird, unsettlingly funny, and mind-bogglingly perfect about Douke’s painted objects, such as a rural letter box, a packing crate, and a safe. Something similar happens to me when I am looking at Celmins’s “Untitled (Desert)” (1973), a graphite drawing of an aerial photograph of the desert, and Douke’s meticulously painted reconstruction of an olive green “Relay Mailbox with Declarations” (2014). In both works, the viewer encounters a seamless melding of utter futility and something approaching ecstatic joy. The difference, of course, is their subject matter.
In portraying spider webs, the night sky as seen through a telescope, or rough ocean waves, Celmins shows us something we know is unique, but has come to seem generic. The night sky has been drained of all awe for us. In this sense, it has become interchangeable with an aerial view of the desert. However, instead of seeing eternity in a grain of sand, as William Blake proposed, we may sense our own numbness at being alive and, inevitably, inconsequential. Celmins’s work is haunted by death, as she continually examines proof of her unavoidable absence.
Douke examines absence by following a different trajectory. The enclosing walls of his containers, from cereal boxes to, more recently, a “Safe” (2019), form the barriers (or packaging) between the viewer-consumer and the desired object. No matter who we are and what we do, he sees us as unquenchable, termite-like consumers.
Douke’s work suggests that endlessly waiting for and bottomlessly wanting a new thing form the bedrock of our deepest experience: we live not in the present, but in a perpetual state of looking to the future, unconcerned about the waste we leave behind. Painting — the very act of making and preserving — becomes a counter to this constant feeling of lack in one’s life, of a hideous, inescapable hungering.
Douke and Celmins also share a devotion to drawing. While drawing is a central feature of Celmins’s work, Douke’s drawings remain almost unknown. In fact, his drawings constitute a body of work within his oeuvre that has yet to be looked at in any depth.
I wanted a deeper sense of Douke’s drawings. He emailed me this explanation (dated May 11, 2020):
The reason for me to make a drawing is because I have an idea. Not all my ideas are translatable into paintings, but I still want to get it down. I have always believed that drawing is the simplest and most direct way of facilitating an idea. Whether that idea leads to a painting or not. I seem to have more ideas than I care to make paintings of. Nothing seems more direct than having an idea, and putting a pencil to paper. Pretty basic! To this day I still keep a sketchbook with me. You never know when an idea will strike. The images in the sketchbook are usually simple and rough. […]
In the sketchbooks, we see the first inklings of a painting. In later drawings, Douke works out the initial idea in greater details, which may lead to a painting. This is one side of his drawing practice. Another side is made up of the diagrammatic drawings for his painting-sculptures; these detail the width, height, and materials of a three-dimensional stretcher for a cardboard box or a wooden packing crate, for example.
A third group forms an extremely singular body of work within Douke’s oeuvre: a series of drawings and works on paper based on well-known images and motifs by other artists, including Johns, Lichtenstein, and Ruscha. In some cases, they lead to a painting that reimagines rather than copies a work.
This leads me to ask: What would we call a work of art based on another work of art that is neither a parody nor a copy, but something else — an homage that is also a complete transformation? Douke turns the three-dimensional object in Jasper Johns’s “Souvenir” (1964) — a stained ceramic dish with the artist’s photographic image on it — into a handmade painting that precisely replicates the dish. In one photograph he sent me, it sits on his mantelpiece below his trompe-l’oeil painting of a piece of corrugated cardboard painted white that evokes both Johns’s “White Flag” (1955) and a painting by Robert Ryman. In another work, he turns Warhol’s silkscreened image of Jackie Kennedy into a hand-painted picture, framing Jackie with a wide silver border.
By going from the machine to the hand, Douke reverses the flow of time, as chronicled by those invested in the death of painting. There is something perverse and uncanny about making a copy of a reproduction of a mechanically produced painting based on a news photograph. He also made at least two versions on paper of Johns’s “Painting with Two Balls” (1971), one in red, yellow, and blue and the other in grisaille. His watercolor of a well-known image by Eugene Delacroix, complete with a deliberately distressed surface, acknowledges the effects of time.
This is the opposite of photographically precise copies done by studio assistants or fabricated by shop workers; it comes from drawing and the artist’s hand. By faithfully replicating works by modern and old masters, while eschewing all forms of mechanical reproduction, Douke conveys the possibility that painting, even after its death, remains inexhaustible. Drawing lies at the heart of this belief, the process enabling the idea to become a thing.