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.