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.