New York

Sherrie Levine And Joost Van Oss

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street

For all its theoretical sophistication and high-wire cerebral balancing acts, Sherrie Levine’s art has often fused a sense of mourning with a sense of humor. Duplicating classic works of “heroic” modernism, sometimes more or less exactly (as in her 1981 photographic series “After Walker Evans”), sometimes shifting them into another medium or turning the elements of a two-dimensional image into sculpture, she can leave you with the sense that doors are closing, options are narrowing, and the only way left to be original is to carve tombstones for the past. On a different day, though, or perhaps for a different viewer, her work may strike a note of gleeful mischief. Making free with existing artworks, taking the toys from the boys, Levine creates space for herself and opens up possibilities.

This exhibition, a collaboration between Levine and the Dutch artist Joost van Oss (who has exhibited in New York only once before, a decade ago), was based on the De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld’s Berlin Chair and Divan Table, both designed in 1923. Those canonical works were made from panels and posts of painted wood, set in asymmetrical but balanced compositions related conceptually to the rectangular arrangements of Piet Mondrian’s paintings. Translating these forms into thick slabs of rolled steel, Levine and van Oss skipped the paint, opting for rich but forbidding surfaces of gray-to-black metal. They next arranged twenty-four chairs and twenty-four tables in two neat side-by-side grids, a move that both respected and denied Rietveld’s principle of asymmetry: In a lopsided presentation, each half was uniform. This also amplified the work’s somber effect, for geometric repetitions and restatements are already built into Rietveld’s designs, and in bare steel their multiplication is dizzying and even subtly threatening.

Yet there was an exhilarating quality to the exhibition: Its severe austerity was almost shocking and could make you laugh, like diving into cold water. Contributing to the effect was the artists’ eye for this particular space—for the ranks already implied there by rafters and floor and for the natural light from the high skylights, which gave the steel a cold lusciousness. Seeing the work here also evoked memories of this gallery’s association with Minimalism—as if the planes of Rietveld’s chair and table were raised and upended versions of a Carl Andre metal floor piece. From there, the viewer was off on an indefinitely extensible round of associative thought.

The grid, for example, is a strategy in modern art well beyond Minimalism, and also in architecture, yet here it seemed to declare a no-go zone. This was furniture you might not want to touch, let alone sit in: metallic where Rietveld’s was motley, rigid where his had give, and not just rigid but loudly so. It had the look of machinery, or of a formation of military vehicles. At the same time, each object was modest in size, and there was something here of the schoolroom, with its grid of little desks. Was this to suggest the onward march of the armies and students of modernism? Or else its end. If Rietveld applied the aesthetic ideas of high modernism to the world of function and use, Levine and van Oss effected a translation in reverse—making furniture with the allure of weaponry, or of art.

David Frankel