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