Double Vision

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008


"Collaboration" is possibly the most fashionable word in art right now. Heroic single authorship is out; a bunch of artists working toward a common goal is in.

John and Joe Dumbacher have been in fashion since 5:05 p.m. on Oct. 14, 1960. That's when John was born. Joe had hit the scene five minutes earlier. They've been collaborating ever since.

The twins started making art together as preschoolers, they say, around the kitchen table in Indianapolis. They were jointly elected "class artists" for their high school in Huntsville, Ala., where their engineer father had moved the family when he took a job at NASA.

From the first appearance of an abstract painting at Washington's Artomatic show in 1999, to several solo exhibitions (or were they duos?) of minimal sculpture with dealers in Los Angeles and Washington, to two new photographic works now up at Civilian Art Projects in Penn Quarter, all their art has been signed "Joseph Dumbacher John Dumbacher." It's a tag that functions more like one quadruple-barreled name than two separate identities lashed together.

Looking at the brothers, their oneness comes as no surprise. They're only fraternal twins, but you'd swear they were identical. They have precisely the same athletic, 6-foot-something build. They also have the same shoulder-length brown hair. And the same attractive face, just a bit too quirky to be model-handsome.

There are differences. John's a touch slighter, sunnier, more sociable; Joe's a bit more solid and remote. Joe's sunglasses, always dangling from his neck, hang over clothes that are California casual. John's ever-present sunglasses tend to pair with sporty-chic outfits.

For 10 years, Joe has lived in Los Angeles and John has lived in Washington. But whatever the difference or distance between them, they are still clearly a "we," as it seems they've always been.

"We thought of applying to architecture school," Joe says in Los Angeles. "But the day we found out we were going to be drawing toilets until the time we were 40 -- that did it for us," John elaborates in an interview in Washington. So "we" decided instead to study business and marketing, they separately explain, at the University of Alabama.

The brothers moved on together to master's degrees in entrepreneurial management at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Then, for more than a decade, they both made good money in product licensing -- for Disney and Universal Studios (John) and Guess (Joe).

Artmaking, however, "had always been the highest priority after the day job," John explains. "We aren't married, we don't have kids to look after." According to their mom, John says, at 10 they'd already declared that "the first million would be made in business, the second million in art."

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