New York

Sherri Levine

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Sherrie Levine’s art is more significant for what it stands for than for what it is in itself. And what it stands for has become almost a cottage industry in the art world. These days, artist after artist reruns important past art, as if to attain instantly the meaning and energy that reference, erasure, revision, montage, and quotation can indeed accrue. Here Levine, after apparently abandoning direct quotation, has turned to serializing the quotable. This takes the form of the repetition of such elementary, universal, “minimal” patterns—presumably traditionally Modernist—as stripes and the “checkerboard” (grid) in a variety of “intriguing” colors. These are forms that are not really produced by Levine but are “eternal objects,” in Alfred North Whitehead’s sense of the term, that she has glamorously reproduced.

The chosen forms, put through their paces via repetition and serialization, become fraught with grand, if unspecifiable, consequence—both devalued and overvalued at once. That which is shocking to the viewer—the work’s ambiguity—is “proof” of the cunning, self-conscious art consciousness and the irony that haunts this art describing itself as “intellectual"; but it is as hollow as what is behind the shock, because it also relies on a schematic of what art is supposed to be. No doubt that’s supposed to be the ultimate irony, but such tautological success is a form of self-defeat. Tautology, indeed, is what this show is about: the empty self-identity of art declaring itself art. And it keeps on circling, for it applies to Levine’s art as well: her art about the emptiness of “art as art” becomes meta-empty. Tautology is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the works consisting of unpainted plywood sheets with the knots painted gold, 1987, here in a larger version than her first “Golden Knots” series, 1985. The plywood, framed, is dramatically empty.

While all this makes Levine a good disciple of theories, there is a problem: she deals with art’s sources, rather than art’s transformation of its sources, which is where “originality” might be said to lie. Originality suggests a depth of engagement. By staging her sources as though they were waxworks, Levine in effect invalidates the motivation and ethos in their esthetic and therefore never starts out with the “body” or content of the art. She does, indeed, return it to the condition in which she seems to find it—that of a corpse. At best, her quotations or references, limited as they are to a pattern of sources and certain signs of adjustment to them, suggest a shallow possibility of effacement—of self but also of others—and create a “learned” textbook art about what happens to art.

I think the real point of Levine lies in the fact that all of the images and generic ideas she chooses are famous. She’s into famous brands, names, and icons as much as Warhol was. She wants to become famous for “commenting” on the famous, like a gossip columnist. Her art achieves its dubious superiority over the art of those less “conscious” only through the reductive violation of the art of her “formers.”

Donald Kuspit