The Starn Twins were born May 18, 1961, in Abescon, N.J. "Five minutes apart," says Mike, "at 11 o'clock at night," adds Doug. Sometimes when you speak to them they complete each other's sentences like telepathic twins in spooky works of fiction. The Starn Twins -- like their pictures -- have a deeply gentle doubleness. They're so immersed in we-ness, so conjoined in their thinking, that they will not, cannot tell you what they singly contribute to their shared works of art.
At the age of 24, they suddenly became hot Manhattan art stars. The Twins were still living in Boston when what is clumsily described as their first one-man New York show opened at the Stux Gallery in SoHo. "Run, don't walk, don't miss it," advised the Village Voice in a centerfold review. Their tattered and romantic pieced-together photographs were just right for the market. Theirs was art that made no enemies. Reassuringly New Yorky -- in its Rauschenberg-like raggedyness, its testings of convention, and its Warhol-like embrace of the cloyingly familiar -- it also had about it an unexpected poignancy, an odd forgiving piety.
Before the year was out, the Starn Twins had been chosen for the next Whitney Biennial, and Charles Saatchi of London, that snapper-up of art stars, had started to collect their works in depth. By the end of 1989, the Twins had been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Victoria & Albert, London, the National Museum of American Art, the Walker, the Boston and the Met. They'd shown in Athens, Warsaw, Duesseldorf, Tel Aviv and Vienna. Sly Leo Castelli -- the prophetic New York dealer who had early on picked Rauschenberg and Warhol, Stella, Lichtenstein and Johns -- had lent his imprimatur, and Flash Art, that most voguish of art magazines, had declared the Twins "among the preeminent talents of our times."
Some masters have to wait decades for their museum retrospectives. The Starns didn't. "Mike and Doug Starn: 1985-1990," which opened in September at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, is now at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In some ways their new pictures are just what one expects to see in columned art museums. The Starn Twins like to photograph grand, age-hallowed paintings -- say, the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt portrait. Even in the real world, they tend to aim their camera at just the sort of subjects the masters chose to paint. Skulls grin from their photographs. Horses neigh within them, fragrant roses bloom, Madonnas mourn Christ crucified, mists shroud lofty mountains, and breezes stir the sea.
The pictures of the Starns, while traditional in subject, aren't in presentation. The photographic papers on which their images appear have been torn, stained, pierced by pushpins, crumpled, distressed. Often those cracked papers are attached to one another by lengths of yellowing, lifting, cheap transparent tape.
Most photographs in art shows have a pristine, antiseptic feel. They're like scientific specimens matted against whiteness and flattened behind glass. Instead of casting the light from the enlarger on one neat piece of paper, the Starns will make a patchwork quilt of sepia and gray sheets, and cast their images on that. The images feel different, roughly handled by the artists, fingered by your mind.
Looking at that rose through the haggard gridwork of its splicings is like fondling a memory frequently retrieved, a memory antiqued by the process of retrieval. The Starn Twins take you back to medieval Europe, ancient Greece, the Paris of Picasso. They make you feel as though you're traveling back and forth in time.
It's no wonder that this work achieved its fame so quickly. Though perhaps a bit too likable, it's instantly seductive.
The Starn Twins aren't. Their shyness is like armor, their cool politeness like a shield. There's something dampening about them. They meet a stranger warily, and even when he tells them that, he too is a twin, they show no curiosity but hold to their reserve. It takes an act of will to remember which is which. Doug's the one in the brown shirt. Mike has on a wristwatch. They wait patiently for questions, and then respond as blandly as good manners permit. It's as if they're under water in the deep pool of their twinship. They know that they leave strangers high and dry, excluded. "We were always shy and somewhat distance," Doug explains.
Did they ever feel a need for separate identities, to replace the we with I? "From kindergarten on," says Doug, "they put us in separate classrooms." "But it didn't help," says Mike. "We always were best friends." "We know twins," Doug continues, "who get really angry at us because we are such friends.
"Throughout art school ... ," Doug begins, and Mike continues, "we did separate work. But we always had this innate knowledge of what the other one was doing. I could do his work. He could do mine." Which one takes the pictures now? Which one clicks the shutter? "We both do," says Mike. "We'll go to museums together," says his brother, "and trade the camera back and forth."
Strong creative collaborations often fall to pieces. Gilbert and Sullivan came to hate each other, the Beatles split in time, so did the Supremes. But the Starn Twins claim they've never felt, and cannot now foresee, any nagging need to individualize their art.
Most boy twins have a way of breaking up at puberty. You don't take along your brother on your solo explorations of the thickets of romance. Yet though one is married now -- Mike's wife is Anne Pasternak, who once worked as director of the Stux Gallery, New York -- the Starn Twins say they're still as close as ever. Something in their twinship remains eerily inviolate. You sense that in their presence, you see it in their art.
Both wear battered Reeboks. Their haircuts, or the lack of them, are pretty much the same. They share an unself-conscious style of unkemptness as if they were not art stars yet, but students.
One thing they have changed of late is how they choose to bill themselves. Now Mike and Doug, or Doug and Mike, they no longer call themselves the Starn Twins. "We didn't want to become the label," explains Mike. "It's something we wanted to get away from. Somehow it kept people thinking of our youth." Yet their exhibition catalogue -- which includes effusive essays by scholar Robert Rosenblum and critic Andy Grunberg of the New York Times -- contains an artists' Q&A in which their answers aren't attributed to Doug or Mike but only to: "Starns."
Their show will stay in Baltimore through April 21. Nothing in there is particularly confessional, except perhaps one large shadowed portrait, a kind of mourning memory, of a friend they once heroized. The Starn Twins met Mark Morrisroe at the Museum School in Boston. Morrisroe died of AIDS in 1989. They say he taught them much. And what is it they learned from him? "He wasn't uptight," says Doug. "Mark Morrisroe," says Mike, "was interested in beauty."
It is beauty that perfumes their art, almost unabashedly. Even when they show us no imagery at all, but only black overexposed or white underexposed collaged sheets of paper, the tracery of arcs and lines that floats there on the surface lends their work a kindliness rare in advanced art. The coarse materials they employ -- those peeling tapes, those chunks of pine, and the metal orange-handled pipe clamps that they often use to make their pictures bend, as if they were not merely photographs but part-transparent sculptures -- does not undo their art's fragility. Instead it tends to guard it like a sort of spirit-frame.
Lyric celebration -- of the mightiness of steeds, the vastness of the ocean, the sacrifice of Jesus -- is a chief theme of their photography. Twinship is another. You cannot wander through their show without noticing its doubleness. You see it in that two-necked swan, in those paired Leonardos. Up and down are equal in that odd self-portrait -- in which the Twins are joined like two jacks on a playing card. Their transparent tape lifts, their papers warp. The pictures of the Starns -- a nightmare for conservators -- seem to wither as you look at them. But that rose will never fade and those waves will keep on rolling. It is constantly before you -- you sense it in their symmetries, their attackings-and-embracings of art history's conventions, as in their evocations of the dying-with-the-deathless -- everywhere one looks one feels twinning in their art.
Even the "Stretched Christ," the Starn Twins's best-known picture (it's based upon a canvas in the Louvre by Philippe de Champaigne) evokes eerie thoughts of doubling. It is both photograph and painting, both corpse and resurrection. Its tearings and extensions somehow call to mind a unity distressed, as if two different minds were attempting to inhabit, to somehow coexist within a single being.
Nearby hangs a photograph that shows a pair of Siamese twins, babies when they died, bottled in formaldehyde. A spooky picture, that one. "We photographed it in the Harvard Medical Museum," says Doug. "In Boston," Mike continues. "In 1982," his twin concludes.
The interview is over. The Starns, impatient to return to installing their exhibit, end it with their silence. Unlike most photographers, the twins don't hang their works in ordered rows, but one above another, or scattered on the wall. They are making fine adjustments now to the placement of their pictures. They do not touch each other's arms, or catch each other's glance, and yet they move as if connected. Sometimes they exchange quiet monosyllables. More frequently they work in odd harmonious unison, and do not talk at all.