View of “Sherrie Levine: Mayhem,” 2011–12. Foreground: Bachelors (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991, six-part suite. Photo: Sheldan Collins.

View of “Sherrie Levine: Mayhem,” 2011–12. Foreground: Bachelors (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991, six-part suite. Photo: Sheldan Collins.

Sherrie Levine

View of “Sherrie Levine: Mayhem,” 2011–12. Foreground: Bachelors (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991, six-part suite. Photo: Sheldan Collins.

“MAYHEM,” SHERRIE LEVINE’S EXHIBITION at the Whitney, was a remarkably cool endeavor. Perhaps the restrained elegance could be interpreted as a reaction to recent museum-as-fun-house scenarios, filled with slides, massive mobiles, actors, and a gamut of other bells and whistles. But it is far from clear why this exhibition took the form it did—not a retrospective, but a series of spare juxtapositions.

Early readings of Levine’s work emphasized its assault on traditions of authorship and originality via strategies of appropriation. In the version of his “Pictures” essay published in October in 1979, Douglas Crimp set Levine’s work against modernist medium categories still upheld by the museum—contrasting her provocative Conceptual approach with the Whitney’s “New Image” exhibition of 1978, where an emphasis on painting was hailed as part of a return to the object.

Levine’s simultaneous engagement with and deflection of art-historical traditions is evident in a 1984 statement where she described herself as “a still-life artist—with the book plate as my subject,” even as she insisted that the resulting work should “have a material presence that is as interesting as, but quite different from the originals.” Elsewhere, she emphasized the “almost-same.” The contradictory convergence of “quite different” and “almost-same” is striking in After Walker Evans: 1–22, the provocative set of photographs from 1981 that provided the exhibition’s opening salvo. As she did in several other series not included in this exhibition, Levine produced this homage by simply rephotographing second-generation reproductions of inherently multiple photographic images. Yet the physical object remains central, since it is only in the presence of Levine’s paradoxical original that one can discern traces of this process of mediation (their status as reproductions not being visible when Levine’s work is in turn reproduced).

As this exhibition, curated by Elisabeth Sussman and Johanna Burton, made abundantly clear, Levine’s emphasis on what appears within the frame—as opposed to a largely conceptual reading of the act of appropriation—extends to all aspects of the work’s materiality, from the impeccably fabricated three-dimensional objects, often presented in wooden cases that are an integral element of the work, to the mahogany that provides the support for many of her paintings. She also presents ample evidence of how the history of art has to be understood not only in terms of image but also in terms of materials and the associations that accrue to them.

Take something, cast it in bronze, and it will unquestionably be different. When Levine made her first such object in 1991, a version of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, the newfound associations with Brancusi came as a surprise to her. But Levine did not copy Duchamp’s fountain directly; rather, she found her own urinal, by the same manufacturer and of approximately the same vintage, which she used as its basis, and she did the same thing a second time in 1996, with a slightly different model. It would also be a mistake to think of her dialogue with Duchamp only in terms of the readymade, given her earlier engagement with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (aka the “Large Glass”), 1915–23. For the 1989 suite Bachelors (After Marcel Duchamp), she created frosted-glass objects based on the “malic molds” from the lower section of Duchamp’s work, realizing these two-dimensional shapes, which Duchamp had abstracted from three-dimensional uniforms associated with different professions, as three-dimensional objects.

One issue this exhibition highlighted is the art-historical background needed to understand works that evoke not only other artists but also the contexts through which their work circulates. Encountering pixelated versions of black-and-white photographs in her Equivalents (After Stieglitz): 1–18, 2006, one could easily guess the translation process if one knew the source. But more information was required to appreciate the irony in her 1990 “Melt Down” paintings, where her computer-generated blending of entire compositions by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Claude Monet, or Piet Mondrian results in, for instance, the latter’s carefully balanced primaries being translated as purplish-gray or dark beige monochromes. These works appear visually related to Levine’s “Broad Stripe” series, 1985, but in those the composition could more accurately be described as generic, not mediated (thus minimizing the notion of invention in a different way). Despite the monochromes’ formal affinity with the broad stripes, their reliance on existing sources means that they bear a stronger procedural relationship to Levine’s 1988 paintings after the comic-strip characters Ignatz Mouse and Krazy Kat.

Part of Levine’s initial provocation was to carve out space for herself within the tradition of art history by insistently taking up the work of male masters. With her reproduction of Duchamp’s malic molds, there was the added appeal of what Levine viewed as the forms’ feminine qualities (from an artist already involved in gender masquerade); in the case of the multiple identical postcards of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World presented in her 2009 After Courbet: 1–18, she has insistently repeated this explicit objectification of the female body. The grid of framed postcards emphasizes their inherent multiplicity, but it can also be related to the inspiration Levine has taken from Minimalism, particularly Donald Judd’s “one thing after another” anticompositional strategy—with the twist that Levine applies this approach to both abstract and representational forms.

Take, for example, her adaptation of Brancusi’s Newborn, which appears in both frosted translucent and black glass. The production of variants tracks back to Brancusi himself, who re-created the original 1915 marble sculpture multiple times, in the same material as well as in bronze and even stainless steel. Levine’s display of her glass replicas on borrowed grand pianos suggests a more oblique homage to Brancusi’s emphasis on the interplay between sculpture and base, though it has a specific source: a photo from Art News of the interior of H. S. Ede’s home showing Brancusi’s Prometheus, 1912, centered atop his piano. But the decision to present six such arrangements when Levine showed her Newborn works at the Philadelphia Museum in 1993 has another reference point, in the seemingly endless row of pianos that makes an appearance in Busby Berkeley’s musical extravaganza Gold Diggers of 1935.

At its best, Levine’s work situates itself in the midst of a complex relay that encompasses both her own interests and a host of other associations. The appearance of Courbet’s explicit image on a postcard draws attention to the changed context of the art world. For a time, the painting was so thoroughly hidden that Linda Nochlin almost gave it up as lost when attempting to track it down for a 1988 exhibition. Yet these days it is prominently displayed at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and reproductions are a popular gift-shop item. Both painting and facsimile are a lot less provocative than many things collectors proudly display on their walls, and even Facebook has backed down from its censorship of the image. From a different direction, Levine’s lavish sculptural rendition of Duchamp’s Fountain not only emphasizes its canonical status but also points to the way in which the so-called readymade is already famously represented by a limited edition of specially manufactured facsimiles issued in 1964.

Yet sometimes Levine’s multiples are exactly that—simply more than one, dispersed to different homes. Likewise, sequential adaptation can start to evoke the idea of a retail line, with planned variants. The frosted glass that Levine employed for Bachelors (After Marcel Duchamp) figured significantly in Rosalind Krauss’s reading of the works’ relationship to Duchamp’s “Large Glass.” Yet the 1991 version displayed here is made from bronze. The use of this material sets up interesting tensions when the result is a cast version of a urinal or, for that matter, the garden gnome that is paired with a frosted-crystal Disney dwarf in her Avant-garde and Kitsch, 2002 (not included in this exhibition). But elsewhere, such as in the bronze animal skeleton that constitutes False God, 2008, the transformation seems thinner—the metal seems merely to function as “art” material for an important, collectible work.

The other story concerns how much was missing from this exhibition—particularly early work, characterized by a modesty of means and scale. Absent were the provocative photos after Edward Weston and Eliot Porter, the pairs of ready-made children’s shoes shown in her first New York exhibition in 1977 and later reproduced for a Parkett edition, the magazine images cut into the shapes of presidential profiles taken from coins, the early watercolors after various modernist masters, and the drawings of ca. 1917 works by Egon Schiele and Kazimir Malevich that were shown together at the Nature Morte gallery in 1984. This last body of work, which was on display in the contemporary galleries at the Museum of Modern Art at the same time the Whitney exhibition was up, would have been particularly apropos, with its juxtaposition of figurative and abstract work emphasizing their coexistence both in the early twentieth century and within Levine’s practice. It is in these absent works that the challenges Levine has posed to hierarchies of style, originality, and power are the most direct, the most searing.

In a sense, the gesture of appropriation is old news, given how thoroughly it has taken root within and beyond the art world. Yet pervasiveness hardly equals smooth sailing, as is evident in the veritable snowstorm of cease-and-desist letters issued on behalf of purported rights holders and in the recent legal battle surrounding the photographic elements Richard Prince liberated from Patrick Cariou’s Yes, Rasta book for a series of photo-based paintings. Given that some of the excluded works—the photographs after Weston and Porter in particular—were the focus of copyright concerns early on, one wonders whether there wasn’t an overabundance of caution in the selection process for this exhibition. Levine’s work is still capable of provocation, especially for those coming to it fresh. Showing her Fountains to an undergraduate class is an almost surefire means of generating discussion: Even those resistant to Duchamp’s readymade can find themselves holding up his authorship against hers. There are issues aplenty if one knows where to look, but this exhibition seemed perversely intent on making the work appear both cohesive and conservative through decorous arrangements that polished away the transgressive impact of Levine’s insistently unauthorized use of preexisting forms and images.

Martha Buskirk’s book Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace is forthcoming from Continuum in April.