American Photographer, Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Sherrie Levine
Sherrie Levine's methods of appropriating and citing the works of important 20th century male artists established her as a consequential artist of postmodernism, ushered in during the late 1970s. Levine critiques the core tenets of Modernism, calling into question the role of the romantic, artist-genius. Along with artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, she questions how images are culturally constructed and the effects of their dissemination in a media-saturated age. Levine's work introduces perceptual questions about what exactly one is looking at and asks viewers to consider the reasons why we inherently trust and often fetishize values in art such as authenticity and originality. While Levine sees her work as more of a collaboration with previous artists, in copying and replicating the work of male artists Levine also levels a feminist critique against the ingrained patriarchy of art history and society at large.
- Levine's work, in which she creates almost indistinguishable copies of others' work, emphasizes that authorship is defined by use rather than individual creation and that nothing is inherently or singularly unique. In this way, 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.
- Levine's use of appropriation - the deliberate borrowing and copying, with little or no alteration, of others' images - has a long history in the 20th century, going back to Pablo Picasso's Cubist collages. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Robert Rauschenberg appropriated images and objects to incorporate into their work, but Levine and others of her generation took appropriation to a new level, to the point of infringing on intellectual property rights and arguably - plagiarism.
- Levine's copies and near-copies demand that we consider the relation between repetition and difference and how we look at pieces of art. Levine engages in a deep questioning of how images can be simultaneously familiar yet unfamiliar, original yet facsimiles, recognizable yet ambiguous, present yet absent. Ultimately, her work asks many questions but supplies few definitive answers.
- Levine has said that her work is self-consciously about fetishism. The fetish object is an ordinary object onto which we project our desires, and in turn, the object comes to have a power over us. In psychoanalytic terms, this object stands in for something else and has sexual implications. In Marxist terms, the commodity becomes a fetish when symbolic value is assigned a monetary value, and the commodity is seen as "a magical source of wealth and value," according to historian William Paetz. Levine engages both discourses by making work that is based on the perceived aura of a work of art and the viewer's own desires.
Progression of Art
President Collage: 1
In President Collage: 1 we see the familiar silhouette of George Washington that graces the U.S. quarter meticulously cut from a magazine fashion spread featuring a glamorous looking female model. Usually a collage consists of various materials - photographs or pieces of paper - arranged in a composition on a support, but here while there is only one material, the mass-produced fashion ad, there are two images due to the way Levine cut up the magazine page. Art historian Howard Singerman writes that for Levine, collage suggests "an edge between two things that needed to be acknowledged and read."
Levine's series of President collages uses fashion models and stock images of women cropped into the profiles of Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, all of which are found on U.S. currency. With these jarring juxtapositions, Levine draws the viewer's attention to the commodification of female sexuality to sell things and lifestyles as well as patriarchal constraints that expect women to appear and behave in traditional ways. The model represents an idealized female type designed for the male gaze. Presenting the image within the constraints of a president's silhouette not only underscores the commodification of women but also the underlying patriarchic structure that fosters the male gaze. The President Collage series represents one of Levine's first forays into the art of appropriation. She has taken found or readymade images and represented them in a way that transforms their original connotations.
Cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper - Collection of the Modern Museum of Art, New York
After Walker Evans: 4
Almost fifty years after Walker Evans took the photo of Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of an Alabama sharecropper, Levine audaciously rephotographed Evans' image. Significantly, she did not shoot the photographic print but a reproduction of the print in a Walker Evans exhibition catalog. After Walker Evans: 4, then, is a copy of a reproduction of the original photograph. Even this description, though, is a bit misleading, as there is no single "original" Evans photograph - multiple prints, all exactly the same, exist. In rephotographing Evans' photograph, Levine lays bear the paradoxes of originality and authenticity inherent in the medium. She also raises questions about how the artistic, or aesthetic, value of a work of art is wrapped up with notions of artistic genius and how that value is then monetized, based on singularity and rarity, in the art market.
Levine's conceptual project, hailed as a hallmark of postmodern art, echoes French philosopher Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author," an essay in which he argued that it was the role of the reader - not the author - to generate and determine meaning. In fact, Levine appropriated Barthes' own words when she wrote, "A painting's meaning lies not in its origin, but in its destination. The birth of the viewer must be at the cost of the painter." By placing so much power in the hands of the viewer, that is, calling upon the viewer to question and interpret, Levine calls into question the romantic notions of the "genius" (usually male) artist who presents authentic reality and suggests instead a scenario in which images are never original and always made from multiple sources that must be parsed by the viewer.
Gelatin Silver Print - Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Large Gold Knot: 1
Beginning in 1987, Levine began creating Knot paintings, painting over the naturally occurring knots in plywood. Here, Levine has taken an inexpensive and common construction material, often used for shipping crates to transport works of art, and transformed it into fine art. As in much of her work, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" loom large in interpreting the work. Here, Levine does not appropriate another's work but alters material she has found in the way that Duchamp minimally altered bicycle wheels, bottle holders, postcards, and urinals.
Levine's choice of medium also references Donald Judd's plywood boxes of the early 1970s. He chose plywood because it was a material with no specific connotations within the canon of art history. Levine elected to use plywood, by contrast, largely because of its connotations with Judd, who was one of the most strident voices of Minimalism and who also raised issues of authorship (by having his sculptures manufactured by others) and explored the effects of seriality and repetition. Levine's wry sense of humor, evident in the titular pun on "not paintings," is both straightforward and subversive, poking fun at the seriousness with which the Minimalist sculptors conducted themselves.
Metallic Paint on Plywood - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp: A.P.)
Sherrie Levine cast a urinal in lustrous bronze and entitled it Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), referencing the godfather of Conceptual art and his infamous "readymade" sculpture. Originally, Duchamp found a standard urinal in a plumbing supply shop, turned it on its side, and signed it with his pseudonym "R. Mutt." Duchamp wanted to skewer ideas of "original" art by elevating non-art to an art object, but over the decades, Duchamp's critique of originality itself became institutionalized as an original gesture. Duchamp already recognized this conundrum in 1962 when he wrote to his friend Hans Richter, "When I discovered the ready-made I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my ready-made and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty." Recognizing the irony that Duchamp had several decades earlier, Levine enshrined Duchamp's Fountain in shiny bronze and issued it in a series of six casts, suggesting more a high-end decorative object that is diametrically opposed to a one-off utilitarian, found object.
Unlike her earlier works that copied photographs by famous male artists, Levine re-presents Duchamp's work in a slightly altered form. Levine told an interviewer, "I'm interested in the almost-same." Levine's Fountain is almost the same as Duchamp's but not quite, and, as Howard Singerman points out, that "not quite" is important. Levine's urinal is "not quite" Duchamp because its polished metal surface reminds one of another important 20th century sculptor, Constantine Brancusi. Brancusi, himself, trafficked in the differences between originals, replicas, and copies but insisted that each of his Birds in Space was uniquely different, with subtle distinctions in material, size, and presentation. In referencing both Duchamp and Brancusi, Levine claimed to be "trying to collapse the utopian and dystopian aspects of high modernism."
Bronze - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
La Fortune (After Man Ray): 4
La Fortune (After Man Ray) creates an uncanny feeling in the viewer with its strangely elaborate legs, its carefully placed billiard balls, and its pocketless corners. Stranger yet when several of the edition of six full-sized tables are shown together and the viewer realizes the balls are arranged in exactly the same formation on each of the tables. Levine succeeds in heightening the eerie, if absurd, feeling created in Man Ray's painting La Fortune, in which an oversized billiards table seen from an odd angle sits - or maybe floats - in a desert-like landscape with multi-colored clouds above. With this sculpture, Levine takes her method of appropriation in a new direction, creating a three-dimensional replica of a two-dimensional image, perhaps following the advice of Surrealist Andre Breton who said that "objects seen in dreams should be manufactured."
When one sees several of the tables together, one conjures up a gentlemanly pool hall, a bastion of masculinity. Levine subverts this sense, however, through the ornate legs of the tables, which Levine says have "an erotic and feminine quality to the form." This anthropomorphism underscores the subtle feminine critique that Levine often engages in. As a female artist appropriating images from exclusively male artists, who, like Man Ray, used the female body in much of their art work, Levine asks the viewer to question our gendered assumptions of creativity as well as the male dominated art historical canon.
Mahogany, Felt, Billiard Balls - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Red and Gray Check: 7-12
References abound in Levine's Red and Gray Check: 7-12. The series of six paintings recalls Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre's sculptural pieces, the grid that organized so much of the early Modern painting by artists like Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, and a chess board - an oblique reference to one of Levine's greatest influences: Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp famously declared that he had given up art making in order to play chess, remarking "I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art - and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art is in its social position."
In many ways, Levine herself approaches art making like the game of chess, in which infinite possibilities exist within the strict rules of how pieces can be moved. Levine suggests, "[I]t's more useful to think of art-making as play rather than work. Fantasies of aggression and control have an interesting place there. I think that's one of the reasons that I've been so attracted to games as subject matter." In chess, "check" refers to threat of the other player's king being captured. It does not signal the end of the game but its possibility. Levine is always questioning gendered hierarchies in art history and culture more broadly, and here she seems to be sending a clear warning.
Oil on Aluminum - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Crystal Skull: 1-12
Levine moves away from specific art historical reference in featuring twelve human skulls, markedly smaller than human proportion, displayed in glass vitrines, but she still remains within the realm of art history. From its depiction in Northern Renaissance paintings (where it functioned as a memento mori, suggesting the presence of death) to Damien's Hirst's diamond-encrusted cranium, entitled For the Love of God (2007), the human skull persists as one of the most important and recurrent icons in visual art history. While the crystal skull recalls the readymade, in this instance it also suggests the history of still lifes and scientific inquiry.
By casting the diminutive skull in crystal, Levine transforms the ghastly into the decorative. The size of the skulls, characteristic of a collectible objet d'art, along with their placement in vitrines highlight the fetishistic nature of the work - a protected prized-possession (anthropological or art historical) on display for all to see. The fact, though, that there are 12 identical skulls displayed in identical ways and arranged in a grid undermine the preciousness of the individual fetish and instead invokes a retail setting where one might shop for luxury goods.
Crystal Glass - Private Collection
Biography of Sherrie Levine
Early Life and Education
Sherrie Levine was born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining town, in 1947. She subsequently grew up in a suburb outside of Saint Louis, Missouri, where she frequented the Saint Louis Art Museum with her mother, who loved to paint. Levine recalls that while she frequented the museum, much of her knowledge of art came from seeing reproductions in books and magazines. She attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, receiving her BA in 1969 and her MFA four years later. During college, Levine created Minimalist grid drawings that were met with acclaim from her professors but closely resembled contemporaneous works by Brice Marden. Confronted with this similarity and the feeling that these drawings were an unsuccessful attempt at "reinventing the wheel," Levine turned to photography as a means to break through the impasse. Photography would later become the means by which Levine would return to the very problem of originality that led her to the medium in the first place. Her photographic reproductions of other art works trafficked more straightforwardly and brazenly with the question of copying and originality in art, thus securing her place as a key figure of postmodernism. Levine actively eschews any mythologizing of the artist and so avoids discussing her personal life and relations for the record.
During and after college, Levine worked various jobs in commercial art to earn money, and in 1973 Levine moved to Berkeley, California, where she taught art at various venues throughout the Bay Area. After graduate school, she made a short film and other conceptual art pieces before turning to collage and photography exclusively. Needing a change, she moved to New York City in 1975, lived on unemployment benefits, and worked in relative isolation until she met the painter David Salle, who subsequently introduced her to his friends from CalArts, including Jack Goldstein
In 1977, she had her first solo show at 3 Mercer Street at the invitation of Stephen Eins. Here, Levine exhibited 75 children's dress shoes she had found at a thrift store in California and carted with her to New York. Perhaps inspired by the fact that her father was a shoe salesman, Levine simply displayed the found objects on a checkered quilt and advertised them, "2 shoes for $2," turning them into fetish objects. Later that year, curator Douglas Crimp, who lived near the artists David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Robert Longo, included Levine in his seminal exhibition entitled "Pictures," alongside the work of Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, Philip Smith, and Troy Brauntuch. The legendary exhibition explored these artists relationship to representation "not in the familiar guise of realism, which seeks to resemble a prior existence," but as a questioning of how meaning is made through representation. It also provided the nom de guerre for a generation of artists including Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman - dubbed The Pictures Generation. Crimp selected one of Levine's early series, entitled Sons and Lovers (1976-77), for the exhibition. The work presented varying configurations of the silhouette profiles of five former U.S. presidents including Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy. Levine returned to the motif of presidential profiles in 1979, this time utilizing images excerpted fashion magazines, for the series Presidential Collages.
According to Douglas Eklund from the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Sherrie Levine shot over the shoulders of photography's founding fathers ... in order to create something akin to musical overtones - a buzzing in the space between their 'original' and her 'copy' that effaced the distance between objective document and subjective desire." This indeterminacy in Levine's work is controversial because it closely resembles plagiarism, but also serves a different, perhaps more important function: to collapse the authority and status given to the notion of originality, and its presumed conflation with artistic value.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Levine further pushed her strategies of appropriation by re-shooting iconic works by celebrated (and exclusively male) photographers, including Eliot Porter, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston, and in the early 1980s she also exhibited color reproductions of paintings by Claude Monet, Fernand Leger and Vincent van Gogh, among others, which she claimed as her own. In 1983, Levine also began to painstakingly recreate printed reproductions of works by modernist masters such as Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and Edgar Degas in a variety of media, including ink, watercolor and photolithography.
Arguably her most well-known series of photographs, After Walker Evans, in which she presented photographic reproductions of the photographs, was exhibited at Metro Pictures Gallery in 1982. The Estate of Walker Evans interpreted the series as copyright infringement, threatened a lawsuit, and then bought all of the photographs to limit their distribution. In 1994, the estate gifted them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Subsequently, Levine largely avoided copyrighted images.
Throughout the 1990s, Levine created abstract paintings loaded with art historical references as well as sculptural works which reproduced iconic artworks and modernist motifs, such as the ever-present grid. She also made a series of prints, called the Meltdown Series, after woodcuts by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Piet Mondrian, and Claude Monet during this period. To create the works, Levine photographed a reproduction of each artwork, which was then converted into twelve pixels using a computer program. The resulting image consists of a color grid loosely derived from the palette of the original work. Levine also created a number of sculptures during the 1990s, including a bronze rendition of Duchamp's famous urinal and cast aluminum tricycle that recalls one of William Eggleston's most celebrated photographs.
Levine's recent work has included cast bronze sculptures of taxidermied animals, glass skulls, and African masks. While these subjects appear to have few commonalities, they reference important leitmotifs in the art historical canon. An antelope skull cast in bronze cites Georgia O'Keeffe, and a traditional Lega mask from Cameroon rendered in bronze offers vastly different connotations than the rough-hewn and pockmarked wood of its referent, an object with myriad exemplars and deep context in Euro-American modern art from Picasso to Modigliani.
The Legacy of Sherrie Levine
Sherrie Levine, along with Richard Prince, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and a small cadre of other artists came to define "The Pictures Generation." Their collective efforts wrestled with age-old questions surrounding authorship, citation, and originality in art. Her acts of artistic appropriation drastically renegotiated what was permissible both creatively and legally in an unprecedented way.
Levine's interests are especially focused on the intersection of gender politics and artistic representation, exploring the biases inherent to art history and the art market that historically favors white, heteronormative males from Western countries. Consequently, her work has inspired newer generations of artists who are concerned both with issues of authorship and identity politics. Artists who have been marginalized to some extent because of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity have found inspiration in Levine's reclamation of objects from the power structures to which they belonged.
Her capacity to radically alter the "aura" of an object by placing it in a different context resonates in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who similarly employed found objects in his practice. Levine's cynicism surrounding the business machinations of the art world appears very much alive in Darren Bader's work. Alex Da Corte's Die Hexe exhibition at the Manhattan gallery Luxembourg & Dayan featured all white copies or "ghost replicas" of other artist's work, including Haim Steinbach, Robert Gober, and Bjarne Melgaard.