Magazine article Artforum International

Not the Last Word: Reflections on Sherrie Levine's "After Walker Evans Negative"

Magazine article Artforum International

Not the Last Word: Reflections on Sherrie Levine's "After Walker Evans Negative"

Article excerpt

THE TERM APPROPRIATION often seems too simple to describe Sherrie Levine's practice--or at least renders her operations too static. For if the artist's reuse of objects, images, and words (now often her "own") is a common thread throughout her oeuvre, it's important to remember that such a through line also reveals the complexity of the changing contexts it traverses. This is certainly the case in Levine's project for Artforum, in which the source to which she returns is her "Untitled (After Walker Evans)" series--twenty-two images selected and rephotographed from the hundreds of pictures Evans produced for the Farm Security Administration between 1935 and 1938. Levine's works premiered in 1981, in the artist's first and only solo show at Metro Pictures gallery in New York; the initial reaction was a mixture of excitement and outrage, leaving behind a feeling of anxiety that I would argue has not been entirely dispelled. Though for many the series has become the example of postmodernist dismantling of authorship and originality, for others it is too willfully ambiguous, refusing to settle into distanced, well-behaved critique. In other words, despite the bald way in which Levine simply took Evans's images, there seems to be something added to them: desire or antagonism--or, better, desire and antagonism. But what has been adjoined cannot be quantified, much less seen, and so it tends to productively bother its viewers, even after so much time.

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While making "Untitled (After Walker Evans)," Levine began conceiving another version of the photographs. But it was not until 1990 that she produced her series of "negative" images based on the first, quite literally taking the black-and-white pictures she had previously chosen from Evans's oeuvre and printing them on reversal paper. Rarely (perhaps never) exhibited, the images--though merely featuring white where black had been and vice versa--bring out the eeriness already at the heart of Evans's pictures and crucial to Levine's attraction to them. Discussing the strangely surprising effect, Levine describes them as having a kind of outdated yet futuristic look, that of old-fashioned science fiction. Now, nearly three decades after "Untitled (After Walker Evans)" and two after "After Walker Evans Negative," she returns to Evans's images once again. In her project for these pages, the artist picked seven of her earlier pictures and redid them once more in the vein of negativity, albeit using different procedures.

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The images you see here are neither reproduced from Levine's own work nor even reshot again from Evans's. Instead, Levine has opted to mine the creative commons, the gates to which her work is so often discussed as opening. Acknowledging the profound shift that has occurred in conceptions of the archive, she harvests from this shapeshifting, virtual space, whose newfound parameters have changed the way we think about knowledge. Using digital means, the artist then "inverts" the images and places them in gray green grounds, thus turning to modes of reproduction and manipulation other than those born with modernism (in fact, to modes very much of our present moment). In a sense, then, these are not proper negative images at all: The effect is the same, or at least appears the same, but the language and implications are different enough to mention. For these pictures--unpeopled yet achingly evocative (the interiors and exteriors of public buildings and humble abodes; the graves of two children, bulging and rough-hewn)--represent far more than just the artist's shifting relationship to Evans over time. …

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