"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 muscum-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 Lcvinc'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." Else-where, 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 Duchampj, 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. …