On the Dark Side

Who owns these pictures? Who is their originator? These questions have surrounded Sherrie Levine’s works from the outset and, over the decades, have been teased out in countless variations. There was a time around 1980 when her art, like that of many others, was pigeonholed as “appropriation art,” raising issues such as original and copy, borrowing and theft, the death of an author, and more. The thinkers providing the key words – from Sigmund Freud to Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze (to name but a few) – were many and various, and Levine, prompted by critics, readily admitted to reading texts by these and others and to drawing on their ideas when she was talking about her own work. Theory-driven assessments of her artistic strategies, a preoccupation with art-historical, sociological, psychoanalytic (and so on) premises and assumed intentions in her work saw critics proposing correlations between her art and wider post-modern issues, inclinations, and idiosyncrasies. Much of this was certainly neither erroneous nor misguided. Her work does indeed touch on a number of important discourses, particularly with regard to Western art theory and social theories. However, this viewpoint often saw the context – the conditions of artistic activity – tending to (exclusively) take center stage, or, more than that, this viewpoint presumed to have the monopoly on explaining and legitimizing Levine’s works. The individual picture or object, or even series, would frequently only be mentioned in passing as evidence of pre-formed hypotheses. And even if certain critics felt that the outward-looking gaze from the frame (of the picture) had precluded any inward-looking gaze from the frame, that is to say at the picture itself, the association of her work with this kind of conceptualism was – and still is – both seductive and productive. This approach unleashes a multitude of fascinating realms of speculation that can both lead away from the works and connect with them, by dint of poetic or even acrobatic inferences and conclusions.

Let us briefly run through a time-lapse review of the question of origins and ownership, with regard to a specific work, After Walker Evans, #4, that is to say, Levine’s response to and transformation of an iconic shot by Walker Evans. At some point in 1935 or 1936, when Evans was commissioned to work on a project for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the lives and working conditions of sharecroppers hit by the Depression, a woman looked directly into his camera lens. Her face had struck Evans in a fleeting encounter as a potential “picture” and he was able to capture it on film with the aid of light and chemicals. The ensuing negative image was reproduced on paper in the darkroom and thus turned into a positive image. Whenever it appeared in newspapers or books it would be reproduced over and over. And it is all but impossible to be sure which of the printed reproductions Levine photographed. Each reproduction in this chain is an appropriation, shaped by specific interests, possibilities, and alterations. Where is the original now? Could it be that all the reproductions are in a sense collaborations with an original that cannot quite be pinned down? But this has not yet even taken us back to the picture of the face that the woman we see had of it herself, that “was” her in her eyes – we are not yet back at that ur-reproduction, so to speak. In and/or via Levine’s work we look into a woman’s eyes. She gazes out at us through all the reproductions. In an in fact improbable manner, that mutual gaze – so often mediated and transformed – comes about through multiple layers of repetitions and appropriations. Albeit only if the viewer is content not to get caught up in the wider circumstances of these transformations, and if he or she – despite the unavoidable wealth of reproductions of all kinds that dominate cultural life today – has not given up looking at motifs in their own right; in other words, if he or she takes the subject matter (or, as in this case, the subject) seriously and seeks to discover whether it has something to say to him or her and what that might be.

Closer examination of the motifs in Levine’s works, of the iconography of the images she selects, sees particular topics surfacing that persist remarkably stubbornly in her work. Let us return to After Walker Evans: 1–22 (1981). From the many shots of life during the Depression taken by Evans for what is now probably his most famous project, Levine made a selection of just under two dozen images, including – besides two of the best-known portraits – no less than six churches and two graves. The latter could be seen as symbols for barely graspable aspects of life. Religion and death naturally play an important – sociologically relevant – part in Evans’s documentation and take their place in his sequence of factual yet poetic, undramatized shots. However, the fact that around a third of Levine’s reproductions focus on these particular motifs is in itself striking and could invite us to take a closer look at the nature of her selection as a whole

Many years later the motif of a grave was joined by a three-dimensional, miniature coffin (Tight Coffin, 2013). The latter was a counterpart to a child’s cradle (The Cradle, 2009); although the latter was full size it was similarly on the cusp between bric-a-brac and memento. Classical vanitas motifs abound in Levine’s work in the form of skeletons and skulls, either from humans (as in Human Skull, 2001; Crystal Skull, 2010; Pyramid of Skulls: 1–12, 2002) or from animals (Unhorned Steer Skull: 3, 2002; False God, 2008; Giraffe Skull, 2012). In certain cases the object goes a stage further than the usual symbolical level; evidence of a blow on a human skull suggests violence and the sight of a deformed, two-headed animal evokes the uncanny as a whim of nature. And, talking of the uncanny: in Levine’s second photographic foray into the work of Walker Evans, the series African Masks After Walker Evans: I–XXIV (2014), she not only highlights Westerners’ decontextualization and aesthetic canonization of non-Western artifacts, she also pictures in a fundamental way that which we fear. Body Mask (2007), in polished bronze, is related to the latter in its invocation of fertility rites. In the photo-series After Karl Blossfeld: 1–20 (1990), Levine’s selection, from thousands of shots, brings to light a “Gothic” strand in Blossfeld’s images, in dark, incomprehensible figurations hidden within an ornamental exterior. This form of the uncanny, now as it were coincidentally grotesque, reappears in the “root” figures, The Three Furies (2007). Black Newborn (1994) is of course the impenetrably darkened, negative version of an elegantly gleaming, highly polished sculpture by Constantin Brancusi – his renowned Newborn. The presentation of Levine’s sculpture on a black concert-grand piano echoes a photograph of another work by Brancusi on display in a private collection; it may also point to the potential assimilation of modern art into luxury living and, as such, its demotion to a consumer object. However, this combination inevitably, and almost emblematically, also calls to mind the imagery of grief and death. The radiant head of a perfect newborn has mutated into a light-absorbing skull in the color of mourning, presented on an eloquent plinth in the form of a silent, closed instrument. Lastly, there is yet another facet to this unsettling tendency toward transience and death in Levine’s pictorial repertoire, toward the dark, disturbing aspects of life, seen here in L’enfant juif (2006). The child’s head and open hand could be replicas of decorative figures that have survived as fragments from some greater whole. But then there is the title (“Jewish Child”), which immediately invokes the photograph, reproduced thousands or even millions of times, of a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. As one of a group rounded up at gun point by Nazi troops, he holds up his hands in surrender. His cap could easily be concealing the wavy hair that looks so appealing on the bronze head. Even the position of the fingers on the boy’s left hand is like that of the fingers on the bronze hand. And isn’t there a similarity between his uncomprehending, innocent expression and that of his gleaming revenant?

There is no need to pursue this line any further, citing works such as the dark Dolorosa prints of 2005 or the rigorous, familiar-unfamiliar duo, Black and White Bottle (1992). Nor is it necessary to point out that Marcel Duchamp’s “male molds” seem finally to have been petrified into untouchable lifelessness in Levine’s adaptation (Bachelor: Gardien de la Paix, 1989), or to suggest that the gold, lead, or pink painting of the mechanically filled imperfections in the plywood Knot pictures is about accentuating “wounds” (Lead Knot: 4, 1988). Because of course it would be nonsensical to reduce Levine’s œuvre to nothing more than vanitas imagery. What room would there then be for works such as the photographic reproductions or the watercolors after works by modern masters? Unless one were to widen one’s view and interpret reproduction not only as an analysis and confirmation of the impossibility of authenticity with regard to pictures but also as a kind of mourning, as a melancholy undertaking (considering the distance separating one from the original), as a futile attempt to recall an origin, or as a hopeless invocation of the latter. Particularly in the minutely executed watercolors, some of which replicate much larger compositions, the painstaking, almost ritualistic manual effort might imply a form of mourning (as in After Matisse, 1983). The prevailing notion of postmodernism as detached whimsy – given that in art, too, “everything was already old hat” and all that was left was adept quotation or even repetition as affirmation of the permanent status quo – would thus merely take a melancholic turn. Although it should be said that that was more of a European than an American version of the zeitgeist in the ten or fifteen years leading up to 1989.

Having considered some of the dark motifs in Levine’s work, we should also – not surprisingly – discuss the gleaming radiance, the astoundingly precise, immaculate finish of some of her works: the photographs (presented with great care, in the classic manner and obeying all the rules of art), the mostly highly-polished, highly-reflective bronzes, the fine, frosted glass objects, and the paintings, where nothing is left to chance with regard to specially selected paint grounds and substances. The care and effort that goes into these calls to mind hand-made luxury items – thus casting a critical light on the socio-economic status of works of art in the context of global capitalism. Even aside from that, the splendor of these objects is not in contradiction to Levine’s dark motifs; this is simply the other side of the coin. There are echoes here of art from the past, where the seductively beautiful surfaces of objects in a still life in fact pointed to their own transience. Or, without wishing to make too direct a comparison with Levine’s work, the perfection of their surfaces both entices and fends off the viewer. It sets these objects and their meanings apart, turning them into hermetic entities, still, and dead. Their radiance defies empathy.

If we bring Levine’s non-representational paintings into play, we might initially come to a similar conclusion. In the Melt-Down monochromes after artists such as Claude Monet, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Piet Mondrian, and Yves Klein (Melt Down: After Klein: Rose, Gold, Pink, 1991) and in the prints in the series of Equivalents: (After Stieglitz): 1–18 (2006), the colors and forms of these classic works “melt down.” If the title is taken literally, the allusion to a nuclear core melt-down could be read as a comment on modernism and its supposed final, catastrophic end. But that would take account only of the title, not of the picture itself. If the reproduction of historic photographs and paintings can be read not just as an exposé of cultural mechanisms but also as a – sometimes elegiac – homage and continuation, then it could be said that the Melt-Down paintings and the Equivalents do something similar, albeit with a different trajectory, involving concentration rather than repetition, extreme compression rather than expansion. Even if the colors of the original merge or the forms of cloud pictures are pixilated to the point of unrecognizability, nothing has been irrevocably lost. The pictorial material still exists, just in a different aggregate state. The fact that this is not just a materialistic thought process is seen from the surfaces of Levine’s monochrome paintings, which all have their own sensuality, which still contain the wealth of colors – now transformed and sublimated ­– of the original, and which are painted by hand – not the products of a mechanized process. Something similar can be said of the Equivalents, which do not abstract Stieglitz’s cloud formations so that they could be reconstructed, as in a comparison test, but rather use their material to trigger a new interaction of correspondences and equivalents.

In the case of the stripes paintings and the chess-board paintings (for instance Untitled [Two Inch Stripes #7], 1986, and Large Check: 1–6, 1999) there are no originals as such. These pictorial motifs do not derive from individual authors but draw freely on the collective, historical repertoire of abstract art. They revisit a widespread attitude to the reality of pictures that had been developed seventy years earlier, went down a multitude of different avenues, and is here laid out for re-vision. These paintings could not be mistaken for their predecessors. The trained eye will date them to the late twentieth century, to a period after the main “achievements” of modern, abstract art. The clues are not least in the materials (for instance lead as a picture ground) and all the more so in the colors, which do not deny the cultural environment of that time. Similarly, in the multipart piece Salubra 5 (2007), Levine draws on the color scheme, used by the architect Le Corbusier in his 1931 wallpaper collection of the same name, and displays it on the wall like a collection of samples. Only now the individual samples are done in oil paint on mahogany. Levine thus takes a modernist concept, which had a supporting role in Le Corbusier’s work, and redirects it into the field of autonomous art. The viewer now only has a faint sense of her point of departure.

 

In the abstract paintings Levine thus enjoys great freedom compared to the constraints inherent in the reproduction of existing art, or, to be precise: in the abstracts she is operating at the outer limits of the notion of reproduction. These works appear to be as far as is humanly possible from the aspects of her work that can be simplistically summarized as dealing with vanitas or mourning. And even if the only just perceptible link to reproduction somewhat constrains the appearance of the abstract paintings, they make great strides toward a quasi-optimistic, even mutedly utopian delight in the inexhaustible possibilities of abstract configurations. It is almost as though the modernist concepts subjected to re-vision had also been revitalized in some way. This is of course not to say that what is past simply returns, nor that it is seamlessly continued. For despite Levine’s abstract paintings operating very freely in the areas opened up by modernism, it is still as though they are in parentheses. The (largely invisible) interpolations talk of historical conditions under which art has been made since the “end of grand narratives” (Jean-François Lyotard). The “parentheses” point to a humbler, but far from faint-hearted attitude toward painting, which is now grappling with variation, fleshing out, bringing together, and gradual alteration.

 

Neither the discussion of more or less traditional vanitas compositions, references to the uncanny and allusions to metaphysical dimension, nor the suggestion that the practice of reproduction could very well be connected with mourning are intended to – nor could they – take the interpretation of the work of Sherrie Levine in a completely new direction. This would immediately be countered by other works, particularly her abstract pieces, which, at least in terms of their motifs, are entirely free of any such connotations. And yet the proliferation of these motifs is striking. At the very least it is hard to play them down and to see them as no more than random instances of reproduction and appropriation. Without wishing to stake a clearly defined claim for the “dark” iconography in Levine’s œuvre, it does nevertheless seem to provide something of a sotto voce ground bass to the “ritualistic” exploration of reproduction. In view of the openness, that is to say, the impossibility of conclusively discerning identity, ownership, and appropriation in a constantly expanding, reproducing pictorial world, reserve and self-restraint make perfect sense. Yet this awareness is in no sense expressed cautiously or meekly in the making of these works. On the contrary these works appear to recognize and to work with the status quo of postmodernism with great self-confidence.

 

A few years ago Sherrie Levine hinted at an interconnective arc in the development of her art. It emerged over the course of three quotes of her own that she placed at the beginning of the catalogue of her 2011 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 1979 she declared her interest in authenticity, identity, and property – by now central issues in the wider reception of her work. Eighteen years later she spoke out against a rigorous, static view of culture and pointed to the importance of the many conscious, subconscious, contradictory voices within it. Very cautiously, she suggested that “something almost new” could be created in collaboration with those voices. The passage from 2010 cited a joke, with which she retreated, without further comment, to the absurd and the burlesque. The selection and chronological sequence of the three quotes seem to point to an increasing, intentional openness in her artistic interests and a leaning toward poeticization as opposed to close concentration on specific concepts. These quotes are juxtaposed with a film still of a darkly dramatic sunset. This epitome of a thoroughly hackneyed motif adds a fitting, ironic countermelody, which prevents the quotes from becoming all too readily accessible.


Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott


(2016)