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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

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