PRINT December 2007

Johanna Burton

A MINISURVEY of Sherrie Levine’s work, organized jointly by London’s Simon Lee Gallery and New York’s Nyehaus, was exhibited during the summer months in the UK before crossing the pond in time to usher in the fall. I saw the exhibition at its second venue, whose location, in a converted apartment within the rambling National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South, somehow remains just far enough off the beaten track to feel clandestine. (The day I went with a friend, we had the good fortune to be the only visitors for the duration of our stay.) Nyehaus intentionally courts what might be called a kind of progressive atavism, its founder, Tim Nye, comparing the venture, in character, to Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 and its ilk. Whatever one makes of this claim or of Nye’s proposition that he continues the tradition of presenting “selections of avant-garde art” to the public, a visit to Nyehaus indubitably effects a kind of reframing of what’s on view there. Indeed, even while finding one’s way to the space, then navigating the club’s labyrinthine halls, enfilades of overstuffed parlors and dining rooms, and tucked-away elevator (and perhaps happening upon the likes of an elaborate juried showing of work by members of the Pastel Society of America, as my friend and I did on our visit), one is made aware of just how regulated—and boring, for all their spectacular size and design—most of our art venues have become.

Here, in the upstairs-downstairs, nook-and-cranny-filled, sized-to-live-in rooms that make up the gallery, many key examples of Levine’s work over the past three decades were rather nonchalantly offered. Hanging like family photos in a hallway were three “Afters”: Untitled (After Walker Evans), 1981; Untitled (After Egon Schiele), 1984; and Untitled (After Alexander Rodchenko), 1987. To encounter this trio—a seemingly impromptu rural domestic scene; an erotic, wispy watercolor; and a hard-edged photographic abstraction—grouped there together, just so, engendered a surprising surprise. “Pictures” in the sense in which our postmodern selves have learned to understand them, but also things, they were suddenly much more intimate, or at least more present than we usually take them to be. In other words, even while taking its raison d’être to be a self-conscious performance of the conditions of coming “after” (and therefore always reflecting obsessively on a “before”), Levine’s work is also very much here and now. Its own aesthetic self-relegation to the past is attended by an unabating material obduracy. The artist’s pillaging and redoubling of items from the museum, the art-history books, and, lately, the flea market do continue, as so many have argued before me, to undo pretense to originality and call into question constructions of genius. But Levine also gives her secondhand items a second life or, better, a kind of unexpected body.

This is true more subtly in two-dimensional works, of course, though all the more striking because so unexpected there. The key terms of Levine’s reception encourage us to think of her work as functionalist or Conceptual, but such long-standing postulations are undercut by a hyperawareness in the face of them that, in fact, all “pictures” do have support (this both literal and figurative), even if they lie loosely upon it. Of course, the relationship we have to Levine’s best-known images is complicated by the fact that they have themselves become almost as canonical as the images they digested. To paraphrase Howard Singerman, who has long written, and rewritten, on Levine, it’s hard to know where to look when one looks at a Sherrie Levine: inside the frame, outside the frame, or at the frame. But there are other kinds of embodiment in Levine’s work, too, more literal ones. Like an alchemist, the artist distorts her originals so that they remain recognizable even if wholly changed: a Gerrit Rietveld Krate table (his 1934; hers 1993) increased in size by 50 percent and thus rendered Donald Judd–like; a version of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (his bought at a plumbing-supply store, hers cast in bronze); and bronze skulls, one steer, one human (seemingly generic signifiers, if decadently so, but in Levine’s hands clearly indebted to O’Keeffe and Cézanne).

Included here was also a good sampling of those works by Levine that are more reticent, and thus ultimately more inclusive, about their references. Untitled (12 Checked Paintings), 1998, a dozen thin vertical wooden rectangles, the checks applied in heavy graphite; Large Pink Knot: 9, 2003, a painting on plywood, its only marks flatly delineating the ready-made composition of knots; and Untitled (Lead Checks/Lead Chevrons: 4), 1988, the title patterns in stark black and white on a deep gray metal ground: All allude to modernist painting tout court. And if that weren’t enough, they all look like variations of game boards, mutely withholding the rules of participation. But flooded with light from the gallery’s enormous window, they were also flatly beautiful works, the pastel pink in the painting that is “knot” a painting bringing out the patterns inherent in the cheap wood’s dancing whorls, even as everything about this work would seem to resist such rarefied appreciation.

In a sense it is pure hyperbole to nominate for a “best of the year” feature an artist who has so efficiently made a practice out of tallying her own list. But such an endeavor points up a strange, if largely unremarked, effect: Given the nature—or better, maybe, the narration—of Levine’s work, perhaps it is apropos that people often think they know it even while rarely having seen much of it. She has been recognized, since the mid-1970s, for swinging the wrecking ball at mythical ideologies and revealing the scaffolding of gendered hierarchies (the male artist, the female muse, for instance). The material labors of Levine’s own artistic production are thus assumed to be quite literally beside the point, comprising so many conceptually driven knockoffs. Yet it is precisely this second-citizen status that makes Levine’s ostensibly known quantities something to be reckoned with when they are encountered in the flesh, to invoke what would seem—but, I think, isn’t—a wholly inappropriate metaphor. (It is telling that Levine has received abundant critical attention but has not been the subject of a retrospective at any major American museum, or the focus of a traditional monograph—one only hopes that this dearth is in part due to her own selectiveness since context is content for this artist.)

And while the showing at Nyehaus was modest, with fewer than twenty works, it was nonetheless revelatory, at least for me, and not because I suddenly discovered a piece I had never heard of before that was a hidden key to the artist’s work. It had, if anything, the opposite effect, as I stood in front of pieces that I thought I knew well but up to that point had nonetheless not actually been in the presence of: a pair of little shoes from Levine’s now-famous 1977 Shoe Sale; one of her strangely sensual stripe-painted chair seats from the mid-’80s; and the funny-sad 1991 ink drawings of Koko the Clown, for example. And though I had encountered Loulou, 2004, in person before, here the shining bronze parrot held a new resonance. Modeled after the beloved pet of the pitiable Félicité, the tragic heroine of Flaubert’s 1877 novella Un Coeur simple (A Simple Heart), Levine’s bird evokes a kind of uncanny symbolism in the round. In its mortified, decorative perpetuity, it is rendered speechless but is still (or perhaps more than ever) a site for signification. I found Levine’s Black Newborn, 1995—a presentation of “her” Brancusi, the signature orb rendered here in black glass and perched, like a fragile, dented egg, on a shiny baby grand piano—in a room of the gallery that is also a dusty, elegant library. And while it’s possible that the thick atmospheric romance of the National Arts Club was working on me, coming upon this work in this setting increased my feeling that the material pathos of Levine’s practice can’t be separated from her “critical” enterprise. Indeed, though fetishizing the object would seem to go against the very point of all we think we know about Levine, actually seeing it surely does not.

Johanna Burton is an art historian and critic based in New York.