Sherrie Levine - Selected Press | David Zwirner

Sherrie Levine

- Selected Press

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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