When I first learned about the existence of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” I had just begun to digest the Adornian aesthetic. Honestly, I was thrilled by the idea that artistic objects could be shrouded in such mystery, always conceptually open and free from any definition — that objects were, in essence, “indefinable.” Mine was a long and complex process of understanding and assimilating the positions of Wittgenstein and Weitz, who denied the classification of art, which was only “synthetically” understandable through a never-explicable feeling. My process of understanding therefore suffered a setback when I came across the case raised by Borges. In his short story, the Argentine writer compares two works: the original "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes; and another story written by an imaginary author named Pierre Menard. Despite being two different works, the two texts are syntactically identical. As I thought about what could be the difference between the two, if in fact they were identical, I asked myself: “Why did Menard even rewrite the 'Quixote'?” Indeed, Borges’s expedient was excellent. After all, as early as 1939 he was using literature to test such concepts as originality, copy, translation, and contingency.
The answer to my question would come from Borges himself, who observes that the two texts differ in that they belong to different historical backgrounds that make them characteristic of their own time. Although Menard uses the same words in the same order as Cervantes, the difference is that he refers to the “land of Carmen” — which belongs to nineteenth-century literature and was probably influenced by Flaubert’s "Salammbô" — as an example of a historical novel. Contrarily, Cervantes describes the reality of "his own province" in an attempt to annihilate the chivalrous novel. Therefore, the main difference between the two resides in the manner of referring to places and times.
The timing must have been precise in order to set the stage for the events that would follow, for Borges’s work was not translated into English until 1962. Two years later, the American philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto would first see Andy Warhol’s "Brillo Box" installation at Stable Gallery in New York. Confronting the issue of the "indiscernible", Danto rethinks the art object in Plato’s terms (imitative theory) and moves beyond the dominating aesthetic — precisely the one I was assimilating when I came across the case of Menard/Cervantes — and theorizes a philosophy of art that necessarily has to reconceive the object starting with its ontological nature. The indiscernible could not be confined to a merely perceptual nature. It even went beyond the formal differences between Warhol’s "Brillo Box" and the supermarket version designed by James Harvey. The point was that such differences were no longer only confined to figurative art. Again, credit goes to Borges, who dealt with this dilemma outside the realm of art, and, even before that, to Marcel Duchamp, who signed a urinal “R. Mutt,” not to apologize for the ordinary but to explore the boundaries of art.
In the case of Menard/Cervantes, Danto distinguishes the concept of the “copy” from that of “appropriation.” The copy is what replaces the original, inheriting its structure and its relationship to the world. The appropriation, on the other hand, despite lacking some features of what it replaces, displays something that has such features. Moreover, the appropriation has a semantic structure and does not merely display the original in quotes. It has its own identity, which resides in the subtle matter of exactness: not being the result of an attempt to copy, the quotation develops its own meaning.
The artist’s latest appropriative romances are with Ad Reinhardt, Chaim Soutine, and an anonymous nineteenth-century Japanese sculptor of wild-animal bibelots. Two suites of fourteen monochromes on mahogany panels average the hues of Reinhardt’s blue paintings, from blackish to semi-ultramarine to powdery, with effects both lush and deadening. Two sets of fourteen photographs, one black-and-white and the other in color, of reproductions of Soutine portraits of staff workers—chefs, waiters, a maid, a bellboy—freeze-dry that painter’s turbulent soul. A tiger attacks a crocodile in one tenderly patinated bronze of a Meiji-era original. In another, two tigers ill-advisedly take on an elephant. As always with Levine, perfect craft secretes choked emotion. It’s as if somebody somewhere were angry about something, but incommunicado. Whose problem is this? Ours, alas, on account of the work’s remorseless beauty.
A founding member of The Pictures Generation, Sherrie Levine has been exploring notions of authenticity and originality throughout her singular and complex body of work. A photographer, painter and conceptual artist, she is best known for appropriating and citing works of significant male artist’s works through the medium of photography. Through this practice, she at the same time levels a feminist critique against the ingrained patriarchy of art history and society at large. This has established her as a consequential artist of Postmodernism. She questions how images are culturally constructed and the effects of their dissemination in a media-saturated age, introducing questions about what exactly one is looking at. Her solo show will soon be on view at David Zwirner. Simply titled "Sherrie Levine: Pie Town", the exhibition will feature some bodies of work that have never been exhibited before.
Sherrie Levine took appropriation to a new level, to the point of infringing on intellectual property rights. Creating almost indistinguishable copies of others’ work, she echoes the ideas of French theorists such as Roland Barthes who declared “the death of the author” and whose texts became seminal for postmodern theory. Re-photographing, abstracting or digitizing these images, Levine makes them “ghosts” of the original images, putting a picture on top of a picture. She also works with sculpture and painting, examining similar concepts. She prefers to view her work as a regenerative act of collaboration, transforming the considered extraordinary masterpiece into something organic and continually renewable. Some of her best-known collections are "After Walker Evans" from 1981, "After Stieglitz, After Cézanne" from 2007 and "After August Sander" from 2012.
The series "After Russell Lee: 1-60" from 2016 will be on view for the first time in this exhibition. A continuation of Levine’s ongoing practice of photographing reproductions of artworks and her largest grouping of works to date, it appropriates work by Russell Lee, the lesser-known contemporary of Walker Evans. He was contracted by the Farm Security Administration alongside ten other photographers with an idea to bring public awareness to the challenges faced by a large number of Americans living outside of cities. In her work, Levine revisits a 1940 group of color photographs that depict life in Pie Town, New Mexico, further complicating its layers of meaning. Besides this series, the exhibition will also feature a number of cast bronze sculptures that appropriate objects from outside of the Western canon including "Gamelan Figures", "Naga Effigy", and "Little Dancer", all from 2017, as well as "Monochromes after Van Gogh Sunflowers: 1-12" from 2015.
"It is something that artists do all the time unconsciously, working in the style of someone they consider a great master. I just wanted to make that relationship literal", Levine once explained. The artist joined David Zwirner in 2015, and her inaugural solo exhibition at the gallery in New York was on view in 2016. The second solo show at the London gallery by Sherrie Levine will be on view from October 4th until November 18th, 2017.
These ’80s Artists Are More Important Than Ever
Images and technological media now pervade every minute of our lives so thoroughly that much of what passes for reality is indistinguishable from its representation. The urban environment is a cloaca of hypnotic, animated signage, sounds and image streams that follow us into taxicabs and hospital waiting rooms, and in turn, any banality, from a misspelled street sign to a funny advertisement, is considered suitable to become an image on social media.
This didn’t happen overnight. One of the least helpful clichés of recent years has been the declaration that some phenomenon or person is “on the wrong side of history”; the presumption that history is headed, with occasional setbacks, toward a much-improved, even utopian state of things could only be endorsed by someone unfamiliar with history. Mistaking the perfection of our devices for the perfection of ourselves relieves us of responsibility for what happens to the world: It will just naturally turn out O.K., sooner or later. But technology can easily outrun our comprehension of what it does to us, even while it incarnates our wishes, fears and pathologies. (What could be more pathological than a nuclear weapon?)
Our present bedazzlement-by-pixels was anticipated by a loosely affiliated group of artists who emerged in New York in the mid-1970s and early ’80s — before iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. “The Pictures Generation” has become a ubiquitous, awkward catchall term, probably abrasive to the artists themselves, for something that was less an organized movement than a heterogeneous expression of a zeitgeist. Their art was connected by an interest in examining power and identity in a media-saturated, politically uncertain age. The name derives from a 1977 show at Artists Space curated by Douglas Crimp, simply called “Pictures,” where five of these artists — Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith — were featured. A survey exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum a few years ago folded in another 25.
Some of the artists that carry the Pictures Generation label are well-known to the general public, such as Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, David Salle and Cindy Sherman; many have achieved canonical status in the art world, with their work featured at multiple venues throughout any given year, all over the world. A few, such as Walter Robinson and Troy Brauntuch, are only now starting to get long-overdue recognition. A number of them, like Louise Lawler, the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this spring, have re-entered public consciousness at a moment that is oddly similar to the one in which they first appeared. The questions they all first addressed in a faraway, predigital period may be even more relevant today than they were then.
The Pictures artists, so-called, were born in Cold War America, during the schizoid cultural meshing of unparalleled national prosperity with the daily threat of looming nuclear annihilation. They grew up with Hollywood movies, low-def network television and ad-heavy pictorial magazines like Look and Life as the audiovisual wallpaper of their childhoods, mostly in American suburbs.
One could say the beach ball is little more than the balloon's fat cousin; it is just heavy enough that it wants to remain earthbound, making it an ideal instrument for various beach games that require little to no effort. The Internet tells me that the beach ball was invented in 1938 in California, and is usually attributed to a gentleman named Jonathan DeLonge. It seems that visual culture played a large part in the beach ball's popularity, according to expert author Gail Leino at Ezine Articles, "Beach balls had a big resurgence in popularity resulting from Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon's string of beach movies in the 1960s. Now, beach balls are often seen at the beach, poolside, graduation ceremonies, rock concerts and any other place where there is a gathering of folks ready to have a good time." It is also worth noting that, according to Leino, beach balls are especially suited for children because of their lack of sharp edges. They are entirely innocuous. There is nothing worse than being completely agreeable and totally inoffensive.
One might expect, however, that Sherrie Levine's Beach Ball after Lichtenstein (2015) would, in fact, crush a small child. It's a badass beach ball—a beach ball from "the other side of the tracks." Even so, its ability to inflate and deflate has been stunted, like a cancerous lung—reminiscent of Midas's damning touch that forever immobilizes his daughter. What must the beach ball give up in order to become solid and stable? Drunken losers at Coachella will no longer toss it around, but its effervescence and joyful plumpness must be sacrificed.
The precarious state of the beach ball as a material object is just one of many uncertainties mined by Levine. After all, her beach ball is more detailed than Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl with Ball (1961), after which Levine's sculpture is allegedly named. Levine’s iteration, for example, has a valve to blow in air, which the bronze, has, of course, rendered impotent. This is different than the traditionally-held notion that Levine merely copies, a charge that was often levied against Pop artists like Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as well.
However, it is exactly this foundational connection that Levine seems to question—the very naming of her piece and its place within art history. What if the beach ball is not after Lichtenstein, but rather a fabulous painting from Pablo Picasso's neo-Classical period, Bather with Beach Ball (1932), creating thereby a different kind of art historical connectivity? The tendency to position Pictures Generation artists, such as Levine, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince, as the logical heirs of Pop is pervasive and largely unhelpful. After all, Levine does not copy Girl with Ball, but rather excises one component and changes its medium and composition. In his obituary for the astonishingly complex Sarah Charlesworth, Richard B. Woodward claims, "Following the example of the Pop artists, Charlesworth scavenged books, newspapers and magazines for ready-made images she found sufficiently compelling to reproduce and rearrange." The masculinist tendencies of the Pop artists aside (most canonical Pop artists were indeed men, with Corita Kent being a notable exception), such a simplistic comparison makes little sense considering the expansive and multifaceted ways that Charlesworth and her Pictures Generation colleagues manipulated found imagery—in ways that oftentimes surpassed the conceptual rigor of the Pop artists.
What would it mean to consider Levine's work to not just be one "after," but rather a compendium of "afters,"—a summation of past avant-gardes that includes the innovations of the early 20th century? This methodology would indeed be true to the beach ball's purpose. History, like the beach ball, is passed around from person to person. Sometimes it is dropped; sometimes it is voided of air, but it can always be re-inflated. It moves with unchecked entropy, with no clear narrative or lineage. Levine casts this phenomenon in bronze so that, for a moment, we can interrupt its motion and examine its roots and effects.
Sphere of influence: Sherrie Levine displays works inspired by past masters
Photographer, painter and sculptor Sherrie Levine has long blazed an idiosyncratic path. In reflection of this, Chelsea’s David Zwirner gallery is celebrating her latest creative endeavours in an eponymous new show.
Appropriation is key to Levine’s practice – she frequently references 19th and 20th century artists for her art. In fact, she’s photographed Van Gogh paintings from a text on his work, based watercolours on Fernand Léger’s paintings and even turned out cast-glass copies of Brancusi sculptures.
This time, Levine has developed a more unlikely pairing. In doing so, she’s also taken cues from a somewhat unconventional source – an ad for SMEG refrigerators plucked from the British magazine "The World of Interiors". In this case, Levine sets the scene with four actual SMEG refrigerators in saturated shades of pink and punchy orange. (‘The World of Interiors is my favourite shelter magazine,’ the artist confesses.) In a bizarre juxtaposition, she offers up 12 monochrome paintings after Renoir’s "Nudes" on mahogany, a nod to the very hues found in the iconic 19th century painter’s works. Three paintings and a single refrigerator constitute an individual work.
‘Sherrie looks to Donald Judd when it comes to minimalism and repetition but now she is incorporating found objects which happen to be in a retro style,’ says Larry List, who penned the show catalogue and knows the artist personally. ‘She’s fusing contemporary culture and the notion of impressionism,’ he adds in reference to the Nudes. ‘It’s about pushing the boundaries of painting [and] sculpture as well as both installation and conceptual work.’
But what’s Levine’s intent in such an unlikely provocative pairing? ‘I’m hoping some sort of synergy results,’ she has said.
If that’s not enough, also on display are works ’after’ Joseph Victor Chemin, Walker Evans, Man Ray and, most alluringly, a gleaming beach ball drawing on the work of pop art supremo Roy Lichtenstein.
“Mayhem,” Sherrie Levine's exhibition at the Whitney, was a remarkably cool endeavor. Perhaps the restrained elegance could be interpreted as a reaction to recent museum-as-fun-house scenarios, filled with slides, massive mobiles, actors, and a gamut of other bells and whistles. But it is far from clear why this exhibition took the form it did—not a retrospective, but a series of spare juxtapositions.
Early readings of Levine’s work emphasized its assault on traditions of authorship and originality via strategies of appropriation. In the version of his “Pictures” essay published in October in 1979, Douglas Crimp set Levine’s work against modernist medium categories still upheld by the museum—contrasting her provocative Conceptual approach with the Whitney’s “New Image” exhibition of 1978, where an emphasis on painting was hailed as part of a return to the object.
Levine’s simultaneous engagement with and deflection of art-historical traditions is evident in a 1984 statement where she described herself as “a still-life artist—with the book plate as my subject,” even as she insisted that the resulting work should “have a material presence that is as interesting as, but quite different from the originals.” Elsewhere, she emphasized the “almost-same.” The contradictory convergence of “quite different” and “almost-same” is striking in "After Walker Evans: 1–22", the provocative set of photographs from 1981 that provided the exhibition’s opening salvo. As she did in several other series not included in this exhibition, Levine produced this homage by simply rephotographing second-generation reproductions of inherently multiple photographic images. Yet the physical object remains central, since it is only in the presence of Levine’s paradoxical original that one can discern traces of this process of mediation (their status as reproductions not being visible when Levine’s work is in turn reproduced).
As this exhibition, curated by Elisabeth Sussman and Johanna Burton, made abundantly clear, Levine’s emphasis on what appears within the frame—as opposed to a largely conceptual reading of the act of appropriation—extends to all aspects of the work’s materiality, from the impeccably fabricated three-dimensional objects, often presented in wooden cases that are an integral element of the work, to the mahogany that provides the support for many of her paintings. She also presents ample evidence of how the history of art has to be understood not only in terms of image but also in terms of materials and the associations that accrue to them.
It's difficult sometimes to know how to engage with new work by an artist like Sherrie Levine, whose very name has come to stand as a kind of marker in the history of art. When one thinks of Levine, one thinks of "appropriation"—I have an image in my mind of a portrait of the tight-lipped woman that Walker Evans shot for the Farm Security Administration or Duchamp's Fountain done over in bronze. I think of doubling, copying, postmodernism, the death of the author, the birth of the text. I think, in other words, and while I think I often pass over the material reality of her work, and how it might mean.
Levine's recent exhibition at David Zwirner, however, her first at the gallery, gave one the opportunity to consider the physical facts that constitute her practice—actually, it insisted that one do so—in part because of the strange diversity of items and materials that the artist put to use. The primary space of the exhibition consisted of four separate works, each of which comprised a set of similar components: On the left stood a new, unmodified smeg-brand refrigerator, whose retro design features a sherbety color and Streamline Moderne curves, while to the right hung a trio of monochrome panels, each a different hue. Looking at these triptychs, one might have thought for a moment of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s iconoclastic Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color of 1921, except that where the Russian Constructivist's work was meant to boil down painting to its primary colors, what the artist called its "logical conclusion," Levine's wooden panels are invested in painting's history: The color of each is derived from the digital averaging of the hues in one of Renoir's many zaftig yet jaundiced nudes. (Levine previously used a similar operation in her 1989 series "Meltdown.") It's interesting to learn that fact, because none of these mahogany panels—and there were beautiful matte tints of olive, orange, midnight blue, and pink, among others, on display here—look like anyone's flesh. In fact, they do not appear wholly out of place next to the fridges, which Levine purchased in their commercially available colors. Are these nudes too, one might ask, and if so, what do they reveal? A whole history of art, a circuit of bodies and objects, circled through my mind as I took in these compendia, and yet I couldn't shake the specter of Richard Hamilton's $he, 1958–61, which features a woman and a refrigerator in a ghostly embrace. Germane, too, is Byron Kim's work Synecdoche, 1991–, one of the most contested works of the 1993 Whitney Biennial. It presents a grid of colored panels based on the skin tones of friends, family, and strangers in order to create an image of diversity that challenges both identitarian and essentialist conceptions of race. But where Kim attempts a "true" match between the skins of real bodies and the surfaces of his paintings, Levine trades in the field of representation, showing that the signifying power of the subject cannot be held apart from the logic of the commodity.
Having surveyed this new work, I found it interesting to wander through the other galleries of the exhibition, which contained works closer to what we think of when we think of Sherrie Levine: two long rows of photographs of African masks after Evans; a grid of postcards depicting Duchamp's 50 cc of Paris Air. However, four bronze sculptures titled Tengu Element, 2015, each a representation of the deeply hybrid Japanese figure, stood out. Featuring human physical characteristics fused with those of the bird, the mask that Levine selected for re-creation offers up a wily visage with a long nose and a slightly sinister smile. It's difficult not to read it as a trickster. Like any mythic character, this figure has undergone endless variations over time, these being only four of many, and certainly not the last. As such, Levine's appropriation reminds us that copying—whatever that might mean—need not level everything into equivalence, but rather insists on both the irreducible difference and continuity of things.
Thirty years on, Levine's art-historical critique still has bite.
To some of us of a certain age, Sherrie Levine was a hero of our youth. The queen of 1980s appropriation art, she transcribed modernist paintings, sculpture and especially photography, skewering not only the pretensions of art history, but some of its fundamental underpinning—authenticity, originality, genius—which seemed like straight white male prerogatives. Lauded by starchy, theory-loving critics and academics, her work nonetheless thrilled us with its subversive comedy. That she's never received a full-scale retrospective at a major museum (unlike some of her contemporaries) appears to attest to the bite of her critique.
The Whitney's exhibition still isn't that retrospective: It doesn't hew to chronology or explore Levine's artistic evolution. It lacks key works, such as her brilliant early watercolors copied from often stained or discolored illustrations in art books. Instead, it presents a spare selection of some 30 years of her art as a single floor installation, unified by decorous and slightly funereal beige walls.
Fittingly, the show starts with what still represents Levine's most audacious and radical gesture, the 1981 series "After Walker Evans." The photographs hung in a grid appear to be the famous images of rural and small-town America that Evans took for the Farm Security Administration in the mid-1930s. In fact, they are Levine's own photographs of reproductions of Evans's work, visually indistinguishable from their sources, but philosophically a world apart. By claiming authorship of Evans's poignant shots of Depression-era people and places nearly 50 years later, Levine replaces Evans's subjective vision with her own cool irony, his emotional affect with her critical distance. It's a mind-fuck, to be sure, one that can feel arch and airless, but also exhilarating, freeing us to think about how images actually operate, replicate and are owned—especially now, in the age of viral recycling on the Internet.
On a low pedestal next to the photographs, "Fountain (Buddha)" materializes Marcel Duchamp's urinal as a cast bronze copy. (The 1917 original disappeared shortly after Alfred Stieglitz documented it in a photograph.) But it also ossifies Duchamp's piece, making a weighty monument from what had been a playful, ephemeral act. Levine's 1996 work also points out the Duchampian aspect of her practice as a whole; unlike Duchamp, however, she selects her readymades from the history of art instead of the plumbing supply store.
Four of Levine's 1985 "Broad Stripe" paintings on wooden panels hang scattered throughout the exhibition like a leitmotif, featuring vertical bands in pairs or trios of alternating colors. Generic approximations of geometric abstraction and Minimalism—among the 20th century's most recognizable brands of art—they constitute loving homages, deconstructions and parodies all at once. To my mind, their matte, handcrafted surfaces (as well as their strange, acidic combinations of hues) make them Levine's most beautiful works, which may well be her point: Thinking that the artist's touch signifies genuine feeling, we still go gaga over it, even though we know it's a farce.
A suite of four identical dark mahogany billiard tables form the exhibition's centerpiece. Each has massive turned legs and three balls positioned in the same place on their green baize beds. Titled "La Fortune (After Man Ray)", the 1990 sculptures reproduce a pool table depicted within Man Ray's 1938 painting "La Fortune", which hangs in the Whitney's "Real/Surreal" show one floor below. Transforming the Surrealist dream object into something ponderously physical, and duplicating it four times, Levine changes a metaphor for chance and the unconscious mind into a literal reality that repeats itself over and over again. The deadpan Freudian joke gains a certain lightness by its installation; from a certain vantage point at one end of the gallery, the lines of perspective formed by the tables receding into the architectural distance find an echo in the trapezoidal window of Marcel Breuer's Whitney building, which frames empty sky.
In "Crystal Skull" (2010), the most recent work in the show, tall vitrines in two rows hold eight small human skulls cast in colorless translucent glass. Not copies of anything in particular, the skulls have no specific art-historical sources. Neither do they function as memento mori, reminding us of our own mortality; they're too bland, too immaterial for that. They just sit there like enshrined paperweights. And yet in their obdurate sameness and hall-of-mirrors-like doubling and redoubling, as well as their uncharacteristic reticence about their origins, they perform a neat trick we would never have expected of Levine's works: They exhale just a whiff of ineffable mystery.
Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld is a monument of modernist architecture. It was built by Mies van der Rohe in 1928 as a private residence. Together with Haus Esters right next door, the two residences are part of the Kunstmuseums Krefeld, and are among the most beautiful exhibition spaces for modern and contemporary art in Germany. Haus Lange is a space that the American artist Sherrie Levine had long dreamt of using. For her solo exhibition in this historically and aesthetically significant building she presented a tailor-fit selection of works, mixing signature pieces with some that might surprise or irritate viewers. Levine is known for her habit of using modernist artworks as a point of departure for her own work. She belongs to the forefront of a generation of artists that became known during the late '70s and early '80s under the label of postmodernism. During the first half of the '80s many American artists based their own work on earlier modernist art—critics described this trend as "appropriation art." The photo works by Sherrie Levine after Walker Evans, Andreas Feininger, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and other masters of early modern photography are among the most radical works in this context. Her re-photographed images raised questions of originality and even copyright infringement. They are icons of the age of postmodernism.
The concept of postmodern art, as it was put forth by many critics at the time, can be seen today as an attempt to describe a fissure between modernism and the new art. In the view of postmodern critics such as Craig Owens or Hal Foster, modernism was identified with a quest for originality, authenticity and transcendence, whereas the new art was described as a manifestation of disillusionment with these values. It seemed fitting at the time to encounter so many artists preoccupied with questioning the originality of modern vanguard art. But, as most attempts at historical classifications of artistic developments are bound to fail because of their implicit simplification, it became obvious that the fissure between modern and postmodern was not so easy to pin down. Appropriations of earlier works have taken place in almost all periods of artistic creation as well as in many genres, from painting and sculpture to music, poetry and literature, with a variety of motivations ranging from education—copying the master—to homage, and to satire and even plagiarism and forgery. Sherrie Levine has reflected this complex territory from the very beginning of her artistic career. It might be justified to claim today that it is no longer important to attempt a classification of her work as modern or postmodern—it suffices to say that it surely qualifies as an art of outstanding complexity and beauty, stimulating desire as well as philosophical thought.
Levine has worked in a variety of media, ranging from photography to painting and sculpture. Her works are distinguished by a strong sense of perfection with little trace of the human hand—many of her works are manufactured by highly specialized artisans working repetitiously with carefully selected materials. Her paintings are in most cases executed on mahogany panels. Her sculptures are either cast in polished bronze or in black or white frosted glass. She has also crafted the appearance of objects as readymades, presented in rows of seemingly identical pieces such as the billiard tables in her 1991 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, derived from Man Ray's painting "La fortune" (1938). Over the years, Levine has extended the panorama of original objects in her work. In addition to modern art she has represented everyday and natural objects such as skulls and animal skeletons. For her exhibition at Haus Lange, she selected works forming pairs or small groups she calls "posses"—an unusual word in this context but nicely alliterative with "pairs." The presentation was impeccable. In the hall on the first floor of the villa, "White Newborn" (1993-1994) was presented on a Steinway grand piano; four walls of the building were sparsely and elegantly furnished with several postcard collages; and in the smaller rooms of the house, wooden showcases contained reflective bronze and occasionally black or white glass sculptures. It is unusual that these sculptures are presented as single pieces, making them appear more precious and less "conceptual" than in earlier shows in which the whole edition of a sculpture was exhibited—as for instance in Levine's solo exhibition at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe in 2007, where an impressive row of cattle skulls could be seen, in clear reference to paintings by O’Keeffe. Repetition has been an important aspect of Sherrie Levine's art, alluding simultaneously to the industrial fabrication of the object and to a psychoanalytic dimension—detachment and desire are present at the same time.
When New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art staged "The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984" in the spring of 2009, "New Yorker" critic Peter Schjeldahl couldn't seem to find enough words of opprobrium for the work exhibited—"menacingly cynical," "brittle," "pitiless," "alien." Sherrie Levine's work was singled out as encapsulating the Pictures approach with "diabolical efficiency." Indeed, Levine has, over the years, been cast as both the purest and the most heartless of the appropriation artists. The Whitney Museum's overview of her career from the 1970s to the present, comprising more than one hundred works in a wide range of media—photographs, prints, paintings, and sculpture—will provide a welcome opportunity for reassessment. Coupled with a catalogue featuring essays by the curators as well as by Thomas Crow, David Joselit, Maria Loh, and Howard Singerman, this show will no doubt attest to the emotional resonance, historical insight, and exceptional taste that have always characterized Levine's work.
The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition "A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation" is the first significant overview of the strain of 1980s art derived style and substance of the media and popular culture. Focusing as it did, the show provided a counterbalance to the Neo-Expressionism that gained so much attention earlier in this decade–and it also provided a very particular kind of art world revue, replaying what happened to the '80s as the decade comes to its close. While the exhibition's 30 artists range from the mediocre to the exceptional, all either question or reject such modernist ideals as the transcendent possibility of art and even the idea of originality.
Modernism's utopian longings apparently don't provide answers for these artists, whose work response to the decaying conditions, as they see them, of a postmodern world. Thomas Lawson, who was represented in the show by his 1980 paintings of victims of violence in newspaper photographs, coudl be speaking for many of the artists when he says: "Our daily encounters with one another, and with nature, our gestures, our speech are so thoroughly impregnated with rhetoric absorbed through the airwaves that we have no certain claim to the originality of any of our actions. Every cigarette, every drink, every love affair echoes down a never-ending passageway of references–to advertisements, to television shows, to movies–to the point where we no longer know if we mimic or are mimicked."