San Francisco

Sherrie Levine

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

In After Man Ray (La Fortune), 1990, Sherrie Levine’s ambitious, elegantly ironic appropriation of Ray’s classically Surrealist painting from 1938, the 19th-century billiard table has been removed from the original dreamscape and carefully reproduced not once, but six times. Though in Man Ray’s painting, the table’s bottle-green surface is raked at an alarming angle, three balls rest on the field of felt in a neat triangular configuration. Levine’s massive mahogany tables are each crowned with an identical triangle of red and white balls. As if in a long camera pan, vast slabs of green and brown recede down a long, high-ceilinged gallery. In making the image real, Levine has also “made it strange”; perhaps the effect is, in large measure, due to their simultaneous air of newness and age. This contradictory set of signals resonates with the slightly decaying splendor of the museum’s Beaux Arts building in a way that few works of contemporary sculpture installed there have been able to.

In Levine’s earlier pieces—the photographs, in particular—the relationship between source material and her appropriations seems far more bluntly literal than it does either here or in her recent version of Marcel Duchamp’s malic molds. These more recent works are more poetic; they function as graceful translations. There is a fantastic opulence about After Man Ray as well; a fin de siècle decadence seems to have fueled a modest little painting’s multiplication into an eccentrically cinematic vision. The succession of spotlit tables suggests the props for a pointed farce—a comedy of manners and morals the subject of which is the equal mix of skill and luck involved in the manipulation of power. The masculine gender of the players in this drama, whether it is taking place in a pool hall, the boardroom, or in the art world, is unmistakable. An invisible Greek chorus intones the still-unanswered questions Levine’s work has always posed, regarding the (equally invisible) role women have played in these various theaters of conflict. Success, she seems to be saying, is a game of chance. Even with a stacked deck that has already yielded fame and fortune, critical acclaim, and museum shows, it takes at least the six opportunities to score suggested by her serial tables for her sex to win.

Maria Porges