New York

Sherrie Levine

Baskerville + Watson

Our experience of most artworks is through reproductions—transparencies, photographs, magazine or book illustrations—and to an extent we unconsciously accept them as equivalent to the original. But what is the “truth” of an image? What constitutes the difference in psychological investment between an original artwork and that of its reproduced image—and what precisely does the latter reproduce? While Sherrie Levine’s is not the only work which invites us to consider these issues through the annexation of preexisting images, it is among the most austere, beginning with her presentation of photographs “after” those of such paternalistic figures in the history of photography as Edward Weston and Walker Evans. The qualitative difference between Levine’s product and the original photograph is barely perceptible. Their contents are virtually identical. But this displacement of the image from its historical context compels us to attach a different meaning to it. A slippage occurs away from what is intrinsic to the image to what frames it: a system of values structured by connoisseurship and commodity. The “impropriety” of Levine’s operation is its exposure of culture’s institutionalization of the image. As object, an isolated and framed photograph is invested with greater cultural value than an illustration from the page of a magazine, perhaps because it transforms the status of the image from information to souvenir. The souvenir is that which stands (in) for that which is ostensibly absent; its value is the nostalgic desire it embodies, and therefore is always in excess of that of the thing itself and only relative to the extent of the investment in it. Within the hierarchy of things, the hand-crafted painting still has greater commodity status than the mechanically produced photograph.

However, the question of value becomes more problematic in Levine’s watercolor versions of illustrations of paintings by early-20th-century Modernist masters such as Stuart Davis, Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky, and Mondrian. The works are “faithful” only to the color and scale, however aberrant, of the reproduction, which may, indeed, have been black and white. That Levine chooses to rework icons of Modernist art by male artists may be an ironic comment on a value system constructed by men to the exclusion of women, and within which the concept of the unique artistic vision was given greatest priority. There is, therefore, a Machiavellian ambivalence to Levine’s latest move, which returns to the image what the mechanical reproduction removed—the aura of material “presence” and the place of the author; not, of course, that of the original artist, but that of Levine herself. Rendered as precious and exquisite as a Victorian botanist’s documentation of exotic flora, the image retains the fetishism of the souvenir—a memory of an innocence of vision that is no longer tenable—and reestablishes the place of the author. What seems to condense around these images in their passage through time and the potentially infinite process of reproduction is a constellation of meanings centered on codes of production that erase or empty the work of Modernism’s transcendentalism.

Jean Fisher