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Sherrie Levine Photo

Sherrie Levine

American Photographer, Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist

Born: April 17, 1947 - Hazelton, Pennsylvania
"It is something that artists do all the time unconsciously, working in the style of someone they consider a great master. I just wanted to make that relationship literal."
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Sherrie Levine
"My work has always been very self-consciously about fetishism."
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Sherrie Levine
"I was tired of no one looking at the work, looking inside the frame," "what I always made is pictures - to be looked at."
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Sherrie Levine
"Never aspired to belong to a school of appropriators. 'Appropriation' is a label that makes me cringe because it's come to signify a polemic: as an artist I don't like to think of myself as a polemicist."
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Sherrie Levine
"I wanted to make pictures that contradicted themselves. I wanted to put one picture on top of another so that there were times when both pictures disappear and other times when they were both manifest. That vibration is basically what the work was about for me- that space in the middle where there is no picture, rather an emptiness, an oblivion."
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Sherrie Levine
"Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture..."
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Sherrie Levine
"I have become interested in issues of authenticity, identity, and property - that is to say, what do we own?"
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Sherrie Levine
"I try to make art which celebrates doubt and uncertainty. Which provokes answers but doesn't give them. Which withholds absolute meaning by incorporating parasite meanings. Which suspends meaning while perpetually dispatching you toward interpretation, urging you beyond dogmatism, beyond doctrine, beyond ideology, beyond authority."
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Sherrie Levine
"Originality was always something I was thinking about, but there's also the idea of ownership and property...It's not that I'm trying to deny that people own things. That isn't even the point. The point is that people want to own things, which is more interesting to me. What does it mean to own something, and stranger still, what does it mean to own an image?"
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Sherrie Levine

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine Photo

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.



Progression of Art

1979

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 (1981)
1981

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

1987

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

1991

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

1990

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

2000

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

2010

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


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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Sherrie Levine Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 09 Aug 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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