One of a Kind: R. Luke DuBois in Multiplicity

The artists featured in Multiplicity, an exhibition currently showing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum reads like a Who’s Who of major 20th-century artists: Kiki Smith, Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Brice Marden, Barbara Kreuger. 

Recalling the first time he saw the list, R. Luke DuBois says, “I sort of figured, ‘Oh, those are just the five really famous people in the thing and then everybody else is going to be like me.’” But, as he read on, the list continued to impress: Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Kara Walker, Helen Frankenthaler, and on and on. That his name was included among such stars of the art world “was kind of cool,” says DuBois, an assistant professor in the integrated digital media department at NYU-Polytechnic Institute.

DuBois’s modesty belies his achievement: He is the youngest artist to be featured in the exhibition, and his work — “Hindsight Is Always 20/20” — was one of the museum’s most recent acquisitions. It holds all 12 sets of the 43 prints that compose the piece, though only two are displayed in the show at any one time. (The Smithsonian has regularly switched out the two prints since the show opened last fall.)

“Really it’s about seeing three or four of them in a row or the whole set, though” he says.

The arrangement is key, because the artwork is based on a statistical analysis of State of the Union addresses made by the first 43 presidents of the United States. Each print represents the 66 words most used by each president, with the words laid out like an eye chart. “The idea is to riff on vision,” explains DuBois. “We talk about historical characters based on their vision, like, ‘That person was a visionary.’”

“It shows the history of the United States through presidential rhetoric,” continues DuBois. 

George Washington’s most frequently used word, for example, is “gentleman,” while George W. Bush’s is “terror,” statistical outcomes that allow the viewer to draw personal conclusions uninfluenced by political or editorial spin. 

That effect may have been most poignant at the artwork’s debut, when it displayed at the Republican National Convention during the hotly contested presidential election year of 2008. “Hindsight Is Always 20/20” is actually composed of two parts, and the second of the two — a sculptural work of 41 lightboxes standing more than six feet tall apiece — debuted at the Democratic National Convention in the same year. Today the sculpture sits in storage in Camden, New Jersey, until DuBois can find a permanent home for it. 

Those wishing to view the print version of the artwork should visit Washington, D.C., soon. “Multiplicity” closes on March 11th.