Important Art by Sherrie Levine
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.
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.
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.