New York

Sherrie Levine

Nature Morte Gallery

Sherrie Levine patches us into “1917,” her new installation of drawings and paintings after Kasimir Malevich and Egon Schiele, with an aphorism worthy of Jenny Holzer: “We like to imagine the future as a place where people loved abstraction before they encountered sentimentality.” It’s not news that the future is a prefabrication of the past, or that many of those fabrications later confess to being substandard. Rather, it’s the way the arch of the sentence, from eager hope to deflated defeat, is echoed in its subtle hierarchy of tenses, the way the leap forward from a happy present (“we like”) to the timeless infinitive (“to imagine”) is contradicted by the past tense of “loved,” which is in turn further antiquated by “before they encountered.” By the end of the sentence we are mired in the past (sentimentality), and to reach for its antidote (abstraction) is to reach even further into the past, into nostalgia and therefore more sentimentality. Note that no instance of the future tense occurs.

This is nice because Levine’s work has always illustrated Kant’s proposition that “appearances may, one and all, vanish, but time (as the universal condition of their possibility) cannot itself be removed.” Levine may not wish to predict the future, but she’s careful never to declare the end of time. Her copies can connote a dead-end frustration, but there’s enough room, particularly in the later, handmade works, to maneuver a footnote. Her homage to Malevich is both a yea and a nay reaction to the Leningrad Institute of Art Culture’s judgment, prior to Malevich’s removal as director of the formal theory department in 1930, that the last painting had been painted, and there’s some irony in the fact that this exhibition is dated “1917” when “The Last Futurist Exhibition” took place in 1915.

Levine seems to oppose attempts to stop or fix time. Not only the past’s future but also the past itself are revealed as false. Though dated “1917,” some of the works copied here are earlier: Schiele’s Male Nude (Self Portrait) II is a brush-and-ink lithograph from 1912; his Three Street Urchins dates from 1910. Whether the works are in the style of Malevich and Schiele or copies of actual works is unclear to me. After several hours of research, I could “verify” only two Schieles and none of the Malevichs, though some were merely left-right reversals of reproductions that I did find. And one “Schiele” may be a hybrid of an etching of Arthur Roessler and a typical Schiele anatomy. This hardly means that the originals do not exist, merely that the search was inconclusive. One hesitates to admit to ignorance, yet that is, I think, what the work wishes us to do. It’s a way of cleansing misconceptions. Levine perhaps uses “lies” to expose the lies of history.

One such lie is that the Suprematist style “belongs” to Malevich; if Levine’s attribution of a Suprematist painting to a disciple of Malevich’s is correct, then for the length of time we unthinkingly attribute the work to Malevich, we are thieves—and of the poor (in status). Levine’s theft, at least, is from the rich to the poor; style, one of the best things in life, is free. Another misconception, less subtle, is that Suprematism was more iconoclastic and revolutionary than Expressionism. But when the two modes were placed side by side here, the “Schieles” seemed more shocking, and bore more traces of their political beliefs—indications of the constraints of social class and occupation, and hints of protests against those constraints. Yet it is Suprematism that is remembered as a socialist experiment. An equally plausible response could have been that in the current rash of self-expression, the “Malevichs” were fresher.

1917 was a year heavy with the triumph of the revolution, yet it was also the year when German submarine warfare and air raids reached their high point. Russia was engaged in war on its western front and revolution on its eastern. Nor was the revolution owned by Russia: that year there were clamorings for home rule in India and Catalonia; socialist revolts in Munich; the beginning of equal, direct, and secret voting in Prussia; a new Mexican constitution providing for universal suffrage; and the wreckage of the Easter uprising to be dealt with in Ireland. Schiele was in the military.

This is what Levine’s work forces us to do, once we admit ignorance—it forces us to do research. Levine herself ends, seemingly, in ignorance. Her position, her choice, if she makes one, remains unfathomable. Does the emphatic nimbus of her “Malevich” lines (as opposed to the crispness of her “Schiele’” lines) constitute a position that emotion will out even when most ruthlessly suppressed—that when repressed it is simply redirected from the representation to a fetishizing of the material itself? Does she as a feminist approve of the androgyny in the Schieles, and/or disapprove of their suggestions of sadomasochism and child pornography? Does she disassociate herself from the authoritarian bombast of a Malevich who implicitly conflates himself with an “all-seeing, all-powerful, all-knowing” God? The very fact that Levine situates her work historically puts her at odds with Malevich’s ahistorical formalism, yet she features Suprematist works as the only two paintings in the show. After isolating the great debate of 20th-century art—abstraction versus representation—she never lets us know which she prefers.

If she told us, we might not do the research. The radicalism of the latest work is the way it argues that contemporary art should incorporate an almost philological skepticism, should be scholarly, critical, and cross-disciplinary, not just a collection of unrelated quotations. It must frame the questions, and, in order to answer them, to make artistic and political decisions—which turn out to be related—we must all be revisionist historians.

Jeanne Silverthorne