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March 11, 2009 | Tagged Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, culture, indictment, installation art, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler, Mary Boone Gallery, MOMA, photomontage, second-wave feminism, Sherrie Levine, Women in the City | Comments Off
by Peter Zimmerman
The act of looking at art is usually a fairly peaceful exercise. Rarely is it the sort of mental anguish that has been espoused by often-fanatical art historians of the early 20th Century who believed that disharmonious paintings could provide the catalyst for disease, insanity, or physical harm (abortions, etc). In the 21st Century, art is disseminated in more ways than we could have even imagined a hundred years ago, and because of this many feel that, in some ways, the image has been stripped of much of its sovereign power. Going on MOMA’s website provides a look into the art that makes up the collection, but it’s only a look– only a glance– nothing more than hundreds of pixels by hundreds of others. But we still say that it’s art– that the image on MOMA’s website is still a representation of the real thing, and thus holds some significance. And all the while, we are enjoying the process of sitting at our computer, perusing MOMA’s site to find out more about the recent Míro show.
What is rarely discussed is the web of significance that exists behind every motion of art-looking. The fact is that the ways in which images are disseminated now are all marked by cultural coding. While one may make this claim for the entire history of past art consumption, I feel the advent of the Internet and digital media has forever changed the face(s) of art and the machines through which it is processed and promulgated. In the 21st Century, the gallery, museum and collector compete with the blog, video embeds, digital photographs, social network sites, street art, and avatars to engage the public with what they label art. Interestingly enough, while it appears that there has been a severe democratization of the image, it seems that the hierarchies of high and low still remain incredibly solid.
Barbara Kruger takes issue with the spaces of cultural institutions and networks. Nothing is sacred from her searing gaze (if we can even call it that). Last year, she joined forces with Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler for West of Rome’s “Women in the City” public art exhibition. The show took place across Los Angeles, CA in February 2008, and featured works by these artists on billboards, giant projections, posters, stickers, marquees, jumbotrons, and through the mediums of video, image, and sound. The point of the exhibition was to gather four women who spearheaded the feminist art movement of the 1980s and bring them back to the streets. The press release for the show reads, “One of the fundamental achievements of the historical feminist movement was the appropriation of the streets: thousands of women were invading the cities of the western world fighting for their rights. Now that those rights have been asserted and women have begun to fully permeate and influence politics, culture and the art system, “Women in the City” can showcase the art of women in empowered position.” (http://www.womeninthecity.org) It’s an intriguing concept– bring together four women who have been culturally established and accepted as worthy and re-deploy them in a heightened form of theatricality than was first used for the original works of art (except perhaps Holzer). Cindy Sherman did not bring her “Untitled Film Stills” out in New York City as billboards. Louise Lawler did not broadcast through websites, libraries or big theatres at the end of the 1970s. And lastly, Barbara Kruger did not bring her works out in huge displays during the early 1980s (and important to point out– Kruger’s work for this exhibition were all new works, unlike those of the other three women).
What does theatricality have to do with these artists now? Well, perhaps much more than originally seen or believed. It came into focus through the academic vernacular of Michael Fried in his essay response to Minimalism “Art and Objecthood,” but it also harkens back to artists such as Daguerre, Diego Rivera, and Jackson Pollock, and it calls upon the theoretical frameworks of psychoanalysis (Freud), power dynamics (Foucault/Bourdieu) and image rhetoric (Barthes). Theatricality is not something that can be easily ignored; rather, it is something that has not only haunted the latter half of the twentieth century, it has defined in many ways just that. Land art/Earth works both changed the site of performance from the studio/gallery/museum to the outdoors and questioned the relevance of the viewer. Minimalism shifted focus from the artwork to the experience had by the consumer. Conceptualism challenged the notion that art had to exist in physical form at its most basic level. The shift after Abstract Expressionism was marked by the presence and deployment of theatricality. While it may have been anathema to Michael Fried, it certainly resonated throughout the art world and its publics.
Barbara Kruger is a critical point of analysis and departure for our notion of theatricality in latter 20th Century art history. While she started her career at the young age of twenty-two as art editor for Mademoiselle magazine and had been included in the Whitney biennial in 1973, she did not begin to delve into the issues of space, boundaries, and limitations until her “Pictures/Readings” pictures were self-published in book form in 1978. In this work, Kruger took photographs of the exteriors of buildings and placed them on the left page, and then on the right page included a narrative text describing some relationship, dialogue, dilemma, or dramatic scene. The narrative informed the pictures, and the pictures in turn validated the narrative as having time and space; otherwise, these two elements would seem un-anchored, floating in a conceptual world of abstract data. The “Pictures/Readings” book led to Kruger’s similar work on hospitals in the same year. In this series, Kruger worked with much of the same layout and format, but this time shortened the narrative text segments to quick phrases, like “Go away,” “Not now,” or “Not that.” or lists of succinct explorations into the world of power dynamics, experience, and the human condition, with phrases like “The illumination of the physical,” “The technology of disposability,” “The body as machine” and “The comfort construct.” The “Hospitals” works pushed Kruger more towards the sharp, biting and aggressive phrasing style that would be the defining mark for the red/white/black text/image works that began in 1981. But what must be mentioned about this series is that the “Hospitals” was really the first moment where Kruger began to overtly flirt with the constructs of hegemony, death, and violence, and did so in a way that was theatrical in its juxtapositions and extrapolated confluence of significances.
Coming Alive in Space
The line of influence from 1978 to 1981 in Barbara Kruger’s career is fairly transparent, with the words and images mixing together to eventually create the overlays for which she is so well known. This pattern of art-making continued through the 1980s, but it was not until 1989 that Barbara Kruger’s work seemed to reach a new level of significance and vitality. At this point, Kruger chose to exhibit in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City in ways she had never before– by attacking the interiority of the gallery space and transforming it into site-specific installations of photomontage, image, text, and architectural manipulation. Space, architecture, and the translation of rhetoric have always been forefront in the readings of Barbara Kruger’s work, but in 1989 these concerns became foundations for conveying a distinct message about the operation of space as site of significance and performance.
In the Mary Boone Gallery show from January 1991, Barbara Kruger covered the floors, walls and ceilings with text and then placed images and photomontages across the walls. What had been a scrupulously clean, minimal white cube gallery became an arena of hostility, swathed in black, red and white. While many may claim that the images in Kruger’s juxtapositions inform the text and provide a certain irony yet take a backseat to the message, this sentiment became incredibly apparent during the show. Language was the main medium for these installations, providing the visual and intellectual impetus for meaning and acting as the overwhelming point of communication. The entire floor was bathed in red, making it look like blood stains with white letters shining through. And not only was the visual aspect arresting, but the tone and content of the text was even more blistering. It began with “All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now. All that seemed deaf hears you. All that seemed dumb knows what’s on your mind. All that seemed blind sees through you.” Kruger uses the construct of linguistic opposition– contradiction at its most basic and pure form. But if Kruger is the one who made the art, does that mean she also is the one dictating the words? Is she the one speaking to “you,” the viewer? Where does Kruger end and an omniscient, formless voice begin? I think there is a bit of both, and perhaps this is what allows Kruger the artistic remove while enjoying the full benefits of the cultural indictment. So, when we read “All that seemed beneath you is speaking to you now,” we feel like Barbara Kruger can see right through us– that she is revealing us in a certain way, but we also acknowledge that she is not blameless, that she cannot escape the terrors of cultural retribution; rather, she is both human and artist, and maybe the fusing of the two allows us to realize the impact of the message while not being gripped by utter terror. We can perceive the machine behind the words, but that doesn’t mean that they lose neither their power nor their significance.
While the power of the language is certainly a focus of the exhibition, one cannot forget to mention the sheer design of the space. The burst of red upon the greyscale and monochromes of white and black is more savage than one would expect. It covers the ceiling, turns the floor into a sea upon which letters are stamped, and while it is almost anti-painterly in its graphic background nature, it almost seems like it could drip down the sides of the walls. The color acts as the background, but it’s more like a virus, creeping through the moments we perceive as important — those of the textual exposition. And then you have images of screaming children, a giant baby sucking on a seemingly enormously distorted in size bottle of milk, a man with a locked steel door access to his brain, and a naked woman wearing a gas mask propped up on a cross, making her into an S&M flavored 20th Century pornographic Mary Magdalene cum Jesus Christ. The agonizing words, the vitriol of the color red, the brutality of the images, and the paralyzing installation design all overwhelm and cripple the viewer. There really isn’t a way to escape the message Barbara Kruger lays out all around you– you cannot leave Mary Boone Gallery without feeling somewhat violated.
We as art historians like to discuss works as having open hostility and leaving searing imprints on our psyche; however, oftentimes these declarations are merely hyperbolic statements made to intensify the popularity of a certain artist or trend. It’s almost absurd to compare Cindy Sherman’s “Centerfolds” with Barbara Kruger’s 1991 exhibition are Mary Boone. The Sherman works display women in a horizontal position in seemingly vulnerable situations, and they certainly retain a level of fear and a distinct taste of terror in them. But put against an installation like Kruger’s, they pale in effectiveness of social accusation. They lack the caption, the heightened irony, the linguistic signifying presence. They seem almost flattened next to the assault launched by Kruger. How, then, can we ameliorate these as both worthy of our attention? Here is where I caution writers and theorists to leap into sweeping conclusions of the feminist practices of female artists against a hegemonic process, culture or figure; rather, I feel these works need to be viewed through a negotiated lens. We cannot state that one is any less feminist than the other because of the range of implicit violence or “effectiveness.” One of the major points of 1980s feminism was the importance of the breadth of the female experience, and thus we could not put all women in one box– that what one woman experienced could vary greatly from someone else in much the same supposed position. Thus, second-wave feminism granted a wide span of reaction– the status quo could not be necessarily stated monolithically. Because of this extensive scope, we cannot pair works by these women artists next to each other and expect similar reactions. Barbara Kruger’s approach to feminism is obviously going to differ from Cindy Sherman. Her appropriations are going to look wildly divergent from Sherrie Levine’s. This is where the Women in the City exhibition of 2008 succeeded– it presented a small spread of female “80s” artists, but it still was able to convey the multiplicity of feminist meanings through various media and locations. Therefore, it is important to note that while we would all like to make a nice category for feminism, the point of the venture in the 1980s was to develop a vernacular– a language, a code, a paradigm– that was its own and on its own terms. Thus, while we can go on and on about applying certain themes to their work (theatricality, violence, hostility, outrageousness, sharp editing, etc) nothing really captures the extents to which these works of art actually operated, successfully or not.
Below is the text that accompanied our Honors Colloquium presentation from February 18, 2009.
The issue of what is and what isn’t postmodern in art history is a difficult one to distinguish, and even though many claim we have left the postmodern era behind in an effort to embrace what is now dubbed contemporary, the exact limits and boundaries of postmodernism aren’t clear like they in architecture; rather, they constantly shift depending on the sympathies of the writer. Prominent art historians, such as Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Michael Fried, Walter Benn Michaels, and Douglas Crimp have all attempted to provide adequate theories for this period in art, but the problem with non-scientific theories is just that– in the end, they’re just theories. However, we have chosen to embrace the complications and nuances of what constitutes postmodernism, and as is fitting with a synthesis of these arguments, we have decided to address the claim as relating to three distinct things: the fragmentary nature of art after Modernism, a decisive turn against the logic of Modernism, and directing the gaze away from the uniqueness of the object and into a space of contemplation and intellectual struggle.
By engaging the careers of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine, we begin in 1981, which in many ways marked the entrance of these three artists onto the international stage. Even so, 1981 holds special significance in America, as while it marked the beginning of a new decade, it also very clearly and resoundingly ushered in a new era in American cultural history. The years of the Reagan administration were in their infancy, 52 American hostages had just been released in Iran, NASA had its first successful launching of the space shuttle Columbia, and the art world was energized by the pulse of Postmodernism. Four years earlier, curator Douglas Crimp put together a landmark exhibition that would severely alter the course of later twentieth century art history. The show, titled “Pictures,” which was held at Artists Space gallery, brought together works by Sherrie Levine and four other male artists, and sought to establish a connection between different media that would help explain the dilemma of Modernism in the later 1970s. What is interesting about the “Pictures” show is how incorrectly it has been remembered in art history– many believe that the show encompassed the works of Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, James Welling, and most notably Cindy Sherman. The reason for this was the fact that the early 80s marked a significant shift in the content of artists’ output– instead of focusing on the individual genius and quasi-religious nature of art, as was seen by the Modernists, this new wave of photographers, painters, performers, videographers, and sculptors sought to break those associations of artist with genius and object with uniqueness, and thus a full-scale attack on the machine of Modernism was launched.
By the end of this 1981, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger had all generated seminal works that would become major icons within the developing arenas of appropriation, authorship, and feminist rhetoric. Sherrie Levine is most famous for her attempts to destabilize the reverent position of the individual author through appropriating works of well-known artists and recasting them as her own. In her 1981 exhibition at newly opened Metro Pictures Gallery, Levine showed a collection of “rephotographs” titled “After Walker Evans.” In order to produce the content for the show, Levine selected iconic images of Walker Evans’ Depression-era series from previous exhibition catalogs and simply (or not so simply as will be seen in the theoretical implications of her work) re-photographed them, labelled them as “Untitled (After Walker Evans)” and then claimed them as her own work. Through this process of renaming and reclaiming, Levine was in essence undermining the artistic integrity ascribed to these long-standing iconic images of art photography through Modernist rhetoric, thereby questioning the very nature of art history’s declaration of Walker Evans’ originality and artistic genius.
The idea that no one other than Walker Evans could capture the image of Allie May Burrows of Hale County, Alabama in 1936 points to the faulty essentialist motion of Modernism regarding artistic truth. What Sherrie Levine is so convincing in doing is rupturing this argument, deflating the canonization process and subtly making the feminist claim that these images are only recognized as icons because historians like Beaumont Newhall and John Szarkowski said so. She is creating space for the gendered critique of these images, and while her photographs are not blatant in their layering of meaning, they unfold to expose a searing indictment of the hegemonic patriarchal machine of Modern art in the twentieth century.
In 1999, Sherrie Levine collaborated with dutch artist Joost van Oss to recast two seminal works by Modernist architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld– “Divan Table” (1923) and “Berlin Chair” (1923). Shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City, these works not only recast Rietveld’s prototypes but rather offered a multi-layered analysis of their importance and function. Rietveld’s original intention was to create chairs and tables that established an ergonomically harmonious relationship with the human figure through the medium of wood. Levine and van Oss rebuilt the chairs and tables in steel (a material uncomfortable and inorganic), reproduced each work twenty-four times, renamed them and then displayed them in a gallery of international esteem. The assertion of this paper is that these motions are all meant to be attacks, some more subtle than others, on Rietveld and the invisible patriarchal machine that canonized his work.
The first level of attack is via the medium– instead of keeping wood as the material, Levine and van Oss employ steel to both reduce comfort and push the objects closer to the realm of sculpture. The second attack engages the supposed uniqueness of the objects– instead of “Divan Table” and “Berlin Chair” being singular and useable, the repetition of the form twenty-four times makes it inaccessible in terms of function while also highlighting the postmodern assertion of the endless repetition of the image as copy. The third form of attack comes in the process of renaming. Whereas Rietveld made the works unique and personable with his titles, Levine and van Oss reduce the two to an almost-untitled status, calling them simply “Sculpture II” and “Sculpture III”– a title with seemingly no connection to time or place.
Finally, the last level of attack is the decisively feminist one, and also the argument that, while nuanced, is most effective. Levine and van Oss question the institutions of High Art and its exhibition space by placing “Sculpture II” and “III” in The Gallery, whereas the original intention was for them to be employed personally in one’s own home. Instead, table and chair now become objects to be admired, esteemed, exalted– not used. How is this a form of attack? Because Levine and van Oss are assuming the role of the hegemonic patriarchy that inscribed Modernism’s brilliance as the result of male genius and put it on view for the entire world. Even though Rietveld may have wanted his works to be consumed in the home, Levine and van Oss thwart his intentions, and by acting like the machine end up destabilizing exactly that– they show the invisible processes of canonization that perpetuate the notion of Modernism as the achievement of remarkable men.
Turning from Sherrie Levine to an artist whose work strives to more blatantly criticize and castrate this canonization of the Modern male genius, Barbara Kruger has pivoted her work around a deconstruction of the act of viewing through the manipulation of commercial advertisement strategies. Kruger accrued these strategies from her time working for fashion magazines in the late 1960s, after going to Parsons School of Design in New York City. Her grasp on the visual culture of the 1960s informed her intuitive rearrangements of image, text, and the visual field, yet it was not until 1981 that she started making her signature image/text juxtapositions in black, white and red for which she has become famous. Images such as “Untitled (Your Comfort Is My Silence)” accost the viewer with a bombastic epitaph of society’s continual marginalization of minority groups, primarily women. Through this usage of text to define her image, Kruger follows Walter Benjamin’s Marxist call for the coming death of authorship’s aura in his 1931 essay “A Short History of Photography.” He writes, “It has been said that ‘not he who is ignorant of writing, but he who is ignorant of photography will be the illiterate of the future.’ But isn’t a photographer who can’t read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate? Will not captions become the essential component of pictures?”
The image “Untitled (Your Comfort is My Silence)” cuts right to the point. There is relatively little mediation between the contention of the image and the technologies it employs to transmit them. The verbal placement of the word “your” expels the viewer from the comfortable role of the patron into that of the perpetrator, thus aligning them with the businessman in the image. They are now the ones actively silencing the implied Other. These messages are not only aggressive– they are hostile, bellicose, violent. They cannot be easily reduced; rather, they explode with meaning upon the moment of their reading. These works can be seen as cultural declarations as much as art, in that they prey upon the supposed impenetrability of social institutions, beliefs, and ethos. Their motion is wholly subversive, and in many ways it becomes virtually impossible to revel in Kruger’s work without feeling some sort of guilt.
“Untitled (Your Comfort Is My Silence),” in conjunction with Kruger’s other images, establishes the nameless, faceless victim as the perspective of second-wave feminism. Through her usage of text in these images, a dichotomous relationship is developed between the “we” of womanhood and the “you” of the cultural male perspective. Declarations such as “Your Manias Become Science,” “Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You?” and ” Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face,” expose and dismantle the polarity of gender as it relates to power, and attempt to restore agency and provide respect for women as social equals. We cannot expect Barbara Kruger to play by the rules, much less rules perceived to be imposed by a dominating male figure. The boldness of these images grab the viewer’s eye, just like a successful advertisement. The words sell the viewer the pitch, though in the case of Barbara Kruger’s work, the viewer rarely finds reassurance or satisfaction in the message received.
Cindy Sherman, since coming onto the scene in 1977, was also no stranger to questioning patriarchal conventions and the male gaze. In 1981, Artforum, the most important trade magazine for the art world, commissioned Sherman to create a series of photographic double spreads for one of their issues. Responding to the magazine’s horizontal format, Sherman dug into the vernacular of men’s magazines, such as Playboy. and constructed images in which she assumed a character appearing in distress, fear, or vulnerability. While all of Cindy Sherman’s images are labeled “Untitled.” this series has commonly been given the name Centerfolds. By engaging the codes of pornography, explicit sexuality and voyeurism, Cindy Sherman upends the scopophilia, the pleasure of looking, and instead inserts an uneasiness within the viewer towards these pictures. As can be seen in “Untitled #93,” the enlarging of the photograph, while narrowing the field of vision, forces exactly this type of confrontation. This experience creates an unobserved intrusion into the individual character’s space, as the viewer is placed in a kind of hovering position, staring down at a woman who appears to be going through a very private and possibly upsetting mediation. As is her wont, Sherman presents minimal amount of props, background, or title information to clue the viewer into the specifics of this scene, thereby leaving the interpretation open. Ingrid Sischy, Artforum’s editor at the time, felt that such vague suggestions left too much to the imagination of the viewer and fearing that the images might actually be mistaken for pornographic layouts, cancelled the project. The commercial art world’s violent reaction to these visually stunning images of crouching or reclining female figures further illustrated the major tensions which Andy Grundberg described in his New York Times review as, “One that pits the determined stylization of [Cindy Sherman's] references to popular imagery against the immediacy of her own presence, and one that pits woman-as-temptress against woman-as-victim.” Just as with her earlier works, Sherman has appropriated the simulacrum of a commercial genre, moving from the look of the B-film to the look of the porno magazine in order to illustrate the pervasive nature of the male voyeur within the everyday act of viewing.
Beginning in 1985, Cindy Sherman began experimenting with image-making in which she removed herself as the main photographic referent, favoring grotesque tableaus that featured scenes of destruction and mayhem. These photographs have been given the title “Disasters” by art critics, and it seems a welcome label. For the first time ever these are images authored by Sherman without Sherman, so the ever-present question of “Where is Cindy?” is, at least on the surface, answered. She’s nowhere but everywhere. Her presence as image dictator, mixed with her absence as object, provide the first moments to delve into the ways in which Cindy Sherman opens up the playing field for meanings that extend beyond the readily-accessible.
“Untitled #168″ is loaded with a certain post-apocalyptic air. The random scraps of paper, broken machinery, tangled wires, blank television screen, clothes and wire netting locate this image within an office context, making it seem like a fantastical representation of the aftermath of an explosion in an office building. However, the lack of Cindy Sherman in the photograph is unrelentingly problematic– if she has been the referent for every single picture up until this series, what does her absence point to? What is she trying to say? These questions are then layered even further upon closer investigation of the role of the women’s clothing in the photograph. It appears that they are arranged as if they were being worn– as if a human almost melted away from them, leaving the shape of a human but without any organic material to fill the clothes. This is what Rosalind Krauss would refer to as the index. Indexicality points to– it indicates– an utterance– a performative action. Therefore, a footprint would be a perfect example of an index, because it inextricably refers one back to the shoe that caused it. It is impossible to have created that footprint without a specific shoe, so the footprint acts as the index for that shoe. Applying the concept of the index to the “Disasters” photographs is both intriguing and compelling. If you look further, there is an imprint in the sand which resembles a human leg. The visual cues of a human index are undeniable– one cannot view this picture without wondering where the body is or why it is no longer visible.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this photograph. First, by manipulating the index within the context of the office, Cindy Sherman makes a gendered argument about the invisibility of women in high-powered executive positions. One could even go so far to claim that the entrance of women into the workplace, as demanded by twentieth century feminism, is the root cause for future disaster. The second conclusion from this photograph would be that Cindy Sherman is not flirting with the idea of removing herself from the photograph to simply diversify her portfolio but is instead for the first time offering the viewer a chance to leave physical existence as such and embrace a multi-dimensional reality that extends beyond time, space and corporeality. When looking at a photograph that deals with the human body, one always wants to be reassured that a human either made it or is present. Thereby, cues to the artist’s hand are valuable and sought after in order to alleviate any tension that may occur from existential ambiguity. In the “Disasters” series, Cindy Sherman suggests that perhaps the figments of our imaginations have the potential to be realities beyond what we may know or see, that there may be moments where humans are merely a cog in a larger machine, without God, without logic, and without rules– a multi-dimensional space of what we code as fantastical or grotesque.
Whether through the complete absence and negation of authorship, as in Sherrie Levine’s work, the predominant physical presence of Cindy Sherman, or Barbara Kruger’s brilliant interplay of text and image, all three of these women reflected and critiqued America’s male-centric culture, thereby attempting to engage and challenge a reconstruction of the preconceived notions involved in the act of viewing. They sought to open the playing fields of politics, gender, sexuality and representation to include not only a woman’s voice but a woman’s way of seeing– a perspective acting not as a male index but as a conduit into a viable world of their own– a world marked, authored and reproduced by women.
by Peter Zimmerman
I came across this passage by Robert Demachy while reading for the modern/contemporary photography seminar Joan and I are auditing at VCU. It is from 1907, so while the difference in years may seem to bar any real connection to postmodernism, I found it interesting how similar one of his assertions was in respect to Sherrie Levine’s photographic work of the late 1970s.
In the essay “On the Straight Print,” (1907) Demachy responds to an attack on Photorealist photography made by Sadakichi Hartmann in his 1904 essay “A Plea for Straight Photography.” According to Hartmann, the development of the gum bichromate technology and the glycerine process forever changed the medium of photography because they allowed so-called artists the freedom to put true “intention” and “expression” into their work through clear marks of the artists’ hand. An example of this would be Robert Demachy’s work “Struggle.” (1904) Many would have problems calling this work a “photograph;” rather, the sweeping curves, streaks from a brush, and receding away of value into white absence lends itself to be more painterly than any photograph before seen. This introduction of qualities of painting was seen by Hartmann to not only threaten the medium of photography but also push it beyond its limits and therefore collapse the integrity of the art. Thus was born his essay, whose title clearly delineates his affinity for straight photography. As Hartmann writes, “The whole pictorial effect of a photographic print should be gained by photographic technique, pure and simple, and not merely a part of it… Rely on your camera, on your eye, one your good taste and your knowledge of composition, consider every fluctuation of color, light and shade, study lines and values ad space division, patiently wait until the scenre or object of your pictured vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty.”(1) Sadakichi Hartmann was an earlier version of Paul Strand, believing in the power of the artist’s eye and the execution of a photograph as being perfect when eye and good judgment met at the camera’s shutter.
Demachy counters Hartmann three years later with his manifesto for the Pictorial effect as championed by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. One of the main tenets of his support for pictorialism was in the employment of art as a term for individual expression. He writes, “A work of art must be a transcription, not a copy, of nature… In other words, there is not a particle of art in the most beautiful scene of nature. The art is man’s alone, it is subject not objective.”(2) While this may appear at first to echo the beliefs of Hartmann, it is markedly different because of Demachy’s esteem for the introduction of the artist’s hand to the photographic print. Otherwise, at least to the Pictorialists, the picture would clearly hold nothing except a frame, and this was not enough to qualify it to be art. It was only art when it was made, developed, and manipulated by man. And as he claims, the process is not always perfect, but without it art can never be achieved. He states, “Meddling with a gum print may or may not add the vital spark, though without the meddling there will surely be no spark whatsoever.”(3)
So how, then, does Robert Demachy premeditate the early works of Sherrie Levine? It comes later in the essay, when he attempts to tease out the argument in favor of straight photography and therefore expose the glaring problems with this notion. He sets up a scenario in which an artist is accompanied by a terrible amateur, both attempting to make photographs of the same sort of scene. I think it best to let Demachy’s writing stand for its own:
“Choose the man whom you consider the very first landscape artist photographer in the world; suppose he has, thanks to his artistic nature and visual training, chosen the hour and spot, of all others. Imagine him shadowed by some atrocious photographic bounder furnished with the same plates and lens as the master. Imagine this plagiarist setting his tripod in the actual dents left by the artist’s machine and taking the same picture with the same exposure. Now, suppose that both are straight printers? Who will be able later on to tell which is the artist’s and which is the other one’s picture? But figure to yourself the artist printing his negative, selectively, by the gum bichromate or the oil process, or developing his platinotype print with glycerine. Even if the other man has used the same printing method one print will have the artist’s signature all over it from the sky to the ground, the other will be a meaningless muddle. For the man has intervened in both bases. One has made a work of art out of a simply beautiful picture, the other has probably spoiled its beauty and certainly has introduced no art. The moral of this fable is twofold. It shows that a beautiful straight print may be made by a man incapable of producing a work of art, and that a straight print can not possibly be a work of art even when its author is an artist, since it may be identical to that taken by a man who is no artist.”(4)
Demachy seems to have called out Sherrie Levine seventy years before her “After” series of photograhs (Evans, Weston, Porter) would come to fruition. For while Levine did not stand directly next to Walker Evans in 1936 while he made his seminal photographs in Hale County, Alabama, she stood in the footsteps of the viewer when she re-photographed his works out of a catalog. She still identifies with the “atrocious photographic bounder” as created by Demachy, and knowing her deep knowledge of Modern Art rhetoric, I would not be surprised if Levine laughed when reading this section. What seems compelling to ask at this point is whether or not Levine really is just an atrocious photographic bounder, jumping on the bandwagon of the master and parading around with his mask.
What complicates this question are obviously the implications of Demachy’s assertion. His writing is deeply rooted in the ideals of Modernism: the concept of the individual, the genius, the master, and the important of the specific work of art over an endless repetition of copies. After Postmodernism, this type of rhetoric has been welcomed to a half-baked renaissance, but the fact of the matter is one can no longer claim genius status without there being a tremendous amount of red tape to suffer through. And even then, I am not convinced that the assertion is either warranted or deserved.
So, then, we reach the end of this line of questioning: is Sherrie Levine an artist? It seems that this question, though, really is not fair in light of Demachy’s writing, because it is unwilling to imagine the idea of an artist as being anything less than the master/genius. It seems to me that he would not even be able to see the artist-ness within the tableau settings of Jeff Wall or the beyond-intricate scenes of Thomas Demand, but rather claim that they’re softcore Harmann devotees.
How useful, then, is Demachy’s rhetoric? Quite. It opens up the dialogue about authorship and authenticity, and this is the exact playing field where Sherrie Levine steps in to make her own bold assertions. I think one of the most intriguing parts about photography is the implicit dilemmas of the location of the artist within the print– if one uses “straight” photography as advocated by Hartmann and Strand (and later Steichen and Stieglist, interestingly enough), is there a point where the photograph is merely a technical reproduction of a moment in time, rather than acting as a statement about metaphysical ideas and concepts?
I am interested in exploring the ways in which we may allow for the photograph to be meaningless. Perhaps by granting this allowance, meaning is not only permissible but also possible. Through absence, presence.
1 Sadakichi Hartmann, “A Plea for Straight Photography” in A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography 1889-1923 (Peregrine Smith Inc: Salt Lake City, 1980) 150.
2 Robert Demachy, “On the Straight Print” in A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography 1889-1923 (Peregrine Smith Inc: Salt Lake City, 1980) 172.
3 Demachy, 172.
4 Demachy, 173.
January 27, 2009 | Tagged absence, aging, Alfred Stieglitz, art history, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Fountainebleau, future, Jeff Wall, Metro Pictures, painting, Pictorialism, presence, undergraduate | 1 Comment
So, we’re finally entering into the last few months before the thesis is due. We’re shooting to have a rough draft by March 7 (the beginning of spring break). That should give a good amount of time for revision, and then hopefully some time to reflect and look back on what we’ve theorized and proposed. If you’re at all interested in reading any drafts, we’d love any questions, concerns or comments you may have! You can email either of us directly to find out more about how we could work that out.
Another quick announcement– Joan and I will be presenting at the W&M Honors Theses Colloquium sometime in the latter half of February. More specifics about the dates for that will come later.
For now, I’m going to shift a little from Sherrie Levine in offering a review of Cindy Sherman’s latest show of new work in New York City from last fall. Joan and I had the pleasure of attending the opening, where we actually got to meet Cindy Sherman (and David Byrne too!) and see all of the works in person. I am not sure whether or not work from this show will make it into the thesis or not, but even so I thought it was best to finally put down my reflections in person.
Metro Pictures Gallery
November 15 – December 23, 2008
One of the most arresting things about studying art history in college is that the majority of time is spent on work from the past thousand years, spanning from the manuscripts and soaring cathedrals of Medieval Europe to the neo-Byzantine glory of Greece and Eastern Europe, from the bursting forth of rhetoric, painting, architecture and sculpture in the Italian Renaissance to seventeenth century Dutch painting, and lastly rounding into Impressionism and the twentieth century and its major tenet of Modernism. Because of this, most of the works seen have been in transit for years, changing hands from artist to dealer to collector, and then back through the avenues of the art market, usually leading to the museum. Very rarely does one ever touch on work of the living artist, and when the subject is raised the discussion is often obscured with anecdotes of popular culture, politics of the art world, and the personal sensibilities of the artist. Thus, the art history student is usually left to one of two radically different conclusions: first, that of the artist-cum-celebrity, and secondly that the work exists without a concrete human author; rather, the work rests in an ambiguous void, where the idea of the human hand is obscured by the perceived importance of the work. These conclusions are not necessarily the reaction of the consumer of art, but rather the effect of a course of study in the undergraduate Art History track, where interface is relegated to the omnipresent slide and/or digital image.
Thus, I could have never been prepared for the trip to New York City in November to see Metro Pictures Gallery’s exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s latest work from 2008. No matter how many Untitled Film Stills, History Portraits or Centerfolds I studied, I could only fantasize about the content of the show. From the moment I heard about the exhibition, my mind raced with questions of how the works would look, how they would be arranged, and whether they would be continuations of the Clowns series of 2004, the society pictures of the 2000s, or the off-kilter fashion photographs for French Vogue, August 2007. My attempts at calling the gallery for more information failed, as I was told that they were new work but nothing else could be released about them. Therefore, I was left to my imagination, which was running wild with questions, proposed scenarios, and thoughts of what Sherman’s muse was and is in 2008. The anticipation was great, but given the gravity of the project in which I was (and still currently am) entrenched, the results were of deep importance to me– moreso than that of any other artist save Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger. It was like seeing a best friend again after years of separation– I did not know what to expect and thus I was made nervous, but I could not help but wish it came sooner day after day.
A couple of weeks before the show I came across an advertisement for the exhibition in the November issue of Artforum. I was absentmindedly flipping through the first fifty pages of advertisements, noting the occasional show that caught my attention when all of a sudden one of the images from the show, blown up to fit the entire page, burst forward and grabbed my attention. I was stunned– momentarily frozen in a stasis of sheer wonder and rhapsody. Here it was– the first Cindy Sherman photograph of a new work I had ever seen before it was printed elsewhere for me to find. The deep and verdant greens surrounding the subject swirled in my mind as I both was enthralled by and found myself cowering from the harshness and severity of the subject’s gaze. I felt like I had stumbled upon something I should not have seen– a chastisement for my unabashed curiosity and awe. Still, I could not keep my eyes from fixing upon the elements of the photograph– the ways in which the cloth was draped and tied, how the trees intertwined and blocked any major view of the sky, and how the pearls and earrings felt completely in harmony with the character.
As is the case with most, if not all of Cindy Sherman’s pictures of character types, a tension of sorts erupted quickly after first seeing the photograph. There were elements of the layout and portrayal of the character that did not fit into the logic of normalcy. First, the woman appears to be floating in the picture as is caused by the fade between her and the natural setting of the background, thus creating a ghost-like effect in which portraiture is mixed with landscape inseparably. The lushness of the forest recalls the Fontainebleau school of photography mixed with the codes of Western landscape painting, thereby mixing elements of seemingly opposing media into a composition than in and of itself does exactly the same thing– verge towards a potential middle ground between painting and photography without being of a Pictorialist sensibility or a Jeff Wall-like tableau moment. (I do not want to go into this right at this moment, but perhaps this might be a good point to try and apply a Sherrie Levineian approach to artistic conventions via the rhetoric of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, despite its potential failures as a contemporary theory of photographic meaning) So, then, is Cindy Sherman trying to make her photographs more like paintings, or is she saying that with the advent of digital photography we can manipulate the image finally to achieve the goal Stieglitz wanted when the gum bichromate print was so in vogue of introducing the artist’s hand into the print?
Another point of tension, which despite its continual presence in Sherman’s oeuvre was still arresting in the first moments of viewing the photograph, is located in the makeup of the subject. The face is troublesome because for the first time it feels that something is trying to be covered up in the photograph– something hidden that threatens to disrupt the authenticity of the experience of the viewer. The blush seems a little too heavy, the eyebrows too severely arched, the hair much too coiffed and perfectly brushed. However, the result is not a doll-like resemblance; rather, the character just appears to be slightly off– perhaps off in the exactness of the stereotype we have in mind, or perhaps off in the perceived emotional imbalance of the subject. But is not that exactly the sort of tension that Sherman has tried to pull off since the late 1970s? Why should this be any different now?
After seeing the show in New York, it seems to me that all of these same questions are equally viable, despite their thirty-year-long lifespan. Something that really bothered me about the experience of seeing all of the photographs in this new line of work was how drawn I had become to suspending the knowledge that Cindy Sherman was the subject of these photographs in favor of a liminal space where I could entertain the possibility that these characters were more than merely motivations of the artist to capture stereotypes and characterizations of our contemporary society. I wanted to reject that Cindy existed on any level in the photograph, and instead I wanted to adopt the presence of mind to allow for the feasibility of these photographs to be accurate representations of something more than a person, more than a stereotype, more than a reduce-able social demarcation.
However, I must also admit to the opposing force inside me that still relished the omnipresence of Cindy Sherman. I at one moment was forcing myself to violate this by suspending my understanding to allow for a reading of the character beyond the Cindy-ness of the photograph, while then subsequently collapsing that attempt and breathing in the naturalness that the viewing process emitted. I was at some major level gaining satisfaction from knowing that Cindy Sherman– THE Cindy Sherman– was behind all of these photographs.
Perhaps that is exactly what the intention of Cindy Sherman really is, after you sort through what I believe to be the soft reading of the show that reduced Sherman’s explorations to mere comments on the upper echelon of art collectors and society women. Maybe the oscillation between fetishized knowledge of Cindy Sherman as artist/celebrity and the disbelief of any hand of Cindy in the photographs is the strength of the work and what makes them continually viable thirty years later. It seems to me that the Clowns series of 2004 failed to be embraced so wholeheartedly because the Cindy Sherman we, as an art consuming world, know and love seemed so far removed from the photographs– maybe the clowns actually were other people dressed up and posing for the camera rather than all being Cindy Sherman. But then, is this enough? Is it enough for Cindy Sherman to continually, relentlessly, unceasingly ask you: where am I?
This new collection of photographs add a tremendous amount to Sherman’s work of the past decade. Starting with Surrealist approaches to doll parts and sexually infused scenes of mangled body parts and moving through searing indictments of East Coast/West Coast stereotypical women, Clowns, and European inspired fashion outcasts, the 2008 photographs fit in well with the tenor of Sherman’s work while still adding some more meat to the bones of her oeuvre. While it seems that she has touched on the effects of aging in earlier photographs, nowhere is it so clear and present as in these pictures. Command of makeup techniques, fashion decisions and backdrops all open up the discussion of aging of women in society– especially “high” society. But what differs from being just another topic to discuss is that it seems to me that aging is what allows for these photographs to function as both agonizing and pitiful. They allow the viewer to elicit sympathy for the character, even if they cannot empathize with their condition or stature. There seems to be an overwhelming sadness in these characters– a sadness that is cast throughout the collection, despite their sometimes cheery faces or opulent surroundings. It’s not merely the malaise of the rich; rather, there is something deeper– more profound– at work here, which is why I feel these photographs are less about aging than they are the utter gloom of inevitability– of the future. They are the flipside to a Diane Arbus photograph, and to me they are just as unsettling and rattling as Arbus’ subjects.
“Once I dreamed I was on a gorgeous ocean liner. All pale, gilded, encrusted with rococo – like a wedding cake. There was smoke in the air and people were drinking and gambling. I knew the ship was on fire and we were sinking slowly; they knew it, too, but they were very gay and dancing and singing and a little delirious. There was no hope. I was terribly elated. I could photograph anything I wanted.”
- Diane Arbus
January 24, 2009 | Tagged Abigail Solomon-Godeau, authenticity, Authorship, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Martha Rosler, Postmodernism, retrospective, Richard Prince, Rosalind Krauss, Sherrie Levine | Comments Off
by Peter Zimmerman
“This in turn suggests that art practices predicated on the production of signature styles rather than constantly modified interventions may be especially vulnerable to neutralization of their purported critique. The history of postmodernist photography overall would appear to confirm this analysis. As various theorists have argued, a position of resistance can never be established once and for all, but must be perpetually refashioned and renewed to address adequately those shifting conditions and circumstances that are its ground.”
– Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aesthetics” in Photography at the Dock : Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) 146.
At what point do the words “revolutionary,” “vanguard,” “innovative” or “progressive” become outdated, mere adjectives resting upon a previously held conviction? If art is to be thought of as a constantly shifting, breathing, amorphous cultural being, can catalysts for change be anything more than simply the spark needed to further nuance the view, marking a slight revision in rhetoric and alteration to perspective? And lastly, does art need to be progressive in order to be worthy of veneration within the milieu?
These fundamental questions are not asked, but rather implied in Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay from 1987, “Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aesthetics.” The focus of the essay is appropriation art from the late 1970s/early 1980s in which artists such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler attempted to question the practices of a Modernist aesthetic hinging on the values of authorship, originality and authenticity. In motions to upset this framework, these artists used the tactics of appropriation, such as (re)copying, pastiche, and recontextualization, to deconstruct and deflate the tenets of the established mechanics of Modernism. Whereas in architecture and literature Postmodernism held a defined code, Postmodern visual art emerged more as a critique and manifestation of frustration with the neutered nature of the 1970s’ rhetoric: essentialism in feminism, de-radicalization of the gay rights movement, among others. But while Solomon-Godeau, within the ranks of prominent art critics of the 1980s (Krauss, Buchloh, Crimp, etc.), does not question whether or not appropriation can be actually deemed Art, the question of whether or not it is viable for longer than a short period of time remains.
Because the focus of this thesis is the work of Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger, I will not at this point address Rosler, Prince and Lawler; however, their contributions to the realm of Postmodern art cannot be neither denied nor diminished. Also, because Solomon-Godeau uses Levine as her main example for the essay, I also would like to trace out the extents of theoretical practice and art historical meaning for Levine’s oeuvre as the thrust of this essay.
Rosalind Krauss theorized that Postmodernism in visual art engaged the “myth of the avant-garde,” in that art had constantly endorsed the importance of the avant-garde, or innovative, and thus postmodernism, being a reaction and critique of such, exploded the notions of the avant-garde as being necessary and vital to progress. Rather, works of artists like Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine (and much more so of the latter) functioned to replace the hierarchies of Modern art with simulacra– endless permutations of the already-seen, thereby resulting in the valuation of the copy rather than the original. Krauss’ theory complicates the process of specifically defining the word postmodernism in the paradigm of visual art, because it is an end in and of itself– the catalyst of change is removed as necessary, or even important. But is not this definition a contradiction also, an essentialist, although oppositional, take on an already essential argument of authenticity and the significance of the artist?
I sense a seeming inconsistency between the words of Krauss and Solomon-Godeau on the nature of postmodernism and the future it holds for the art world. Whereas Krauss examines the “myth of the avant-garde,” Solomon-Godeau is careful to engage the continued relevance of postmodernism to the process of re-evaluating society and thought. In her essay “Photography after Art Photography,” she links postmodernism more with the methodology of thought, and thus politics, than with the perhaps insular realm of art and art alone. She writes,
“Thus, if one of the major claims of modernist art theory was the insistence on the self-sufficiency and purity of the work of art, postmodern practice hinges on the assertion of contingency and the primacy of cultural codes. It follows that a significant proportion of postmodern art based on photographic usages is animated by a critical, or, if one prefers, deconstructive impulse. The intention of such work is less about provoking feeling than about provoking thought.” (113)
The resulting question is thus: if postmodernism is marked by the presence of the critical eye, yet is deconstructive, is it a means to its own end? Is Solomon-Godeau skirting around the issue of art’s future viability by employing the role of context– a seeming deus ex machina of sorts?
Perhaps this is why Postmodernism is so difficult a concept and period to ascertain. In “Living with Contradictions,” Solomon-Godeau offers the definition given by some that Postmodern is a style. For a moment, style seems to be a certainly adequate definition– a mere stopping point– a look– along the continuum of art history. But then, where does that put us now? Have we effectively recovered from the pause of Postmodernism? And if not, then where are we?
Sherrie Levine’s work is troublesome with regard to this last question, because its main focus (and perhaps its only strong focus) is on the remapping of canonical Modern works by male masters of the past century. The overwhelming majority of her oeuvre is predicated on the works of others, either directly, as in the case of “Fountain” (1987), or indirectly, as seen in the “Bachelors” series. In discussing one of the approaches of postmodern photography, Solomon-Godeau describes Levine as working from the inside out. She writes,
“Unlike other contemporaneous critical practices that positioned themselves outside the art world and sought different audiences… postmodern photography for the most part operated wholly within the parameters of high-art institutions. As the photographic work of Sherrie Levine clearly demonstrates, the critical specificity of such practice is only operative, can only be mobilized, within a particular context. Its instrumentality, in other words, is a consequence of its engagement with dominant (aesthetic) discourses whose constituent terms (and hidden agendas) are then made visible as prerequisites for analysis and critique. As circumstances change (for example, with the assimilation of appropriation into the culture at large), so too does the position of the artwork alter.” (146)
While it is important to note Sherrie Levine’s tactic of engaging institutions in order to critique and potentially undermine them, it appears that no one is questioning the long-term viability of Levine’s approach. Because her work, and as Solomon-Godeau sees it postmodernist photography as well, is injected only through a specific context, when the context is removed, does the work remain important? Vital? And if what was once progressive is no longer, is it still art as thought of by the current perspective?
I wonder what Sherrie Levine would do with Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami or William Eggleston. Would they warrant a recast, a rephotograph, a reapplication? Is this untenable because of size (Murakami’s “Oval Buddy” from 2007), public knowledge, or contemporary presence? I feel that only the latter is the adequate answer to the question, for Levine has targeted Marcel Duchamp, Walker Evans and Edward Weston, all well-known Modern masters. Then is she afraid to recast Koons’ balloon animals for fear of revealing the potentially out-dated motion of postmodern pastiche? And if it is done to a contemporary subject, can is still be postmodern? Perhaps if the answer is yes, then the understanding that the motion is outdated is already implicit in the response.
In response to a small retrospective of Levine’s work at the Simon Lee Gallery in 2007, Johanna Burton, Martin Herbert and Ellen Mara de Wachter all reviewed the show and restated that Levine’s work is still important and compelling, despite the thirty year gap in some of them. However, the reasons for such an assertion are rarely given– in Burton’s case it is based on the aura of the works’ physicality and the arrangement within the gallery, and for others it is the constant questioning of Modernist aesthetics and masters. Burton even questions the fact that Levine, while being the center of much critical discussion, has never had a grand-scale retrospective at any major American art museum, despite the fact that many own works of hers in their permanent collection. Perhaps this is because once you get the pastiche movement in the “Afters” series, there is not much more. Sure, it’s feminist, definitely it is critical of the canonization process, and most certainly it addresses the aims and limits of second-wave feminism and an ostensible patriarchal hegemony, but what else? What does it say about the artist? Who is Sherrie Levine, and where is her voice? Is it in Concept? Is it in the bronze she uses to recast Duchamp’s “Fountain”? Is it in the repetition of the Judd-esque Rietveld chairs and tables?
Krauss and others would, I presume, claim that it doesn’t really matter where Sherrie Levine is or was; rather, all that matters is that the veil is lifted, and the game is up. And if the endgame is announced and rejected, does that mean that Postmodernism has failed and we’ve retreated to a Modernist aesthetic? Yes and no. It is not a huge stretch to say that the foundations of postmodern ethos were already shaky because they were wholly contingent. Now that Modernism is over, and has been for years and years, are we also done with Postmodernism? So what’s the next casting of the readymade? If Duchamp did the first Fountain, followed by Sherrie Levine, what is the next permutation?
January 9, 2009 | Tagged Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Gagosian, ICP, Metro Pictures, Metropolitan Museum, MOCA, MOMA, Paula Cooper, Sherrie Levine, Simon Lee, Skarstedt, Tate Modern, West of Rome, Whitney | Comments Off
2009 Upcoming Exhibitions:
Sherrie Levine, New Work 2009
Simon Lee Gallery
The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984
(Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY
April 12 – August 2, 2009
2008 Previous Exhibitions:
Cindy Sherman, New Work
Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, NY
November 15 – December 23, 2008
Review: The New Yorker, Vince Aletti
Review: Village Voice
Review: New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz
Review: The Huffington Post, Patricia Zohn
Untitled (Vicarious) (Cindy Sherman)
Madison Avenue, New York, NY
September 23 – December 20, 2008
Metro Pictures Group Exhibition (Cindy Sherman)
Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, NY
June 14 – July 31, 2008
Street and Studio: An Urban History of Photography
Tate Modern, London, England
May 22 – August 31, 2008
Highlights From the Permanent Collection 1980 – 2005
(Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger)
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA
May 19 – August 11, 2008
Photography on Photography: Reflections on the Medium Since 1960 (Sherrie Levine)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
April 8 – October 19, 2008
Depth of Field: Modern Photography at the Metropolitan
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
September 25, 2007 – March 23, 2008
Prefab (Sherrie Levine)
Madison Avenue, New York, NY
February 26 – May 17, 2008
Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art
International Center of Photography, New York, NY
January 18 – May 4, 2008
1. Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #3″ (1977)
2. Cindy Sherman, “Untitled” (2008)
3. Sherrie Levine, “Dada” (2008)
4. Sherrie Levine, “Salubra” (2007)
5. Installation view, 2008
by Peter Zimmerman
Catherine Ingraham’s essay that accompanies the 1999 Sherrie Levine / Joost van Oss collaborative exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City highlights three major facets of their collaborative works of appropriation. However, instead of being merely commentaries on the originals by Gerrit Rietveld, Levine and Oss re-write, and thereby historically modify, and recreate the works. Thus, they attack three central themes of the original works’ materiality, function, and historical placement, and in doing so open up the playing field for critiques of representation and further complicate the search for meaning in the postmodern activity of art.
The first level, as theorized by Ingraham, is the ways in which Levine and van Oss, working in the late twentieth century, recover an experimental project of the earlier twentieth century (as begun by Rietveld). She writes, “What appears to be happening is the recovery of an earlier experiment, through serialization, of the symmetry that each individual piece forgoes: a symmetry, two halves, mirror image, reinstituted at the level of the collective.” (1) To explain this claim one must understand the method of presentation employed by Levine and van Oss. They chose to replicate two works by Rietveld– “Divan Table” (1923) and “Berlin Chair” (1923)– copy them each twenty-four times, and then exhibit each of them arranged in a 4 x 6 grid, thereby imposing symmetry through directed order. Forty-eight works in total, divided into two sets by the difference of object. These sets were then titled “Sculpture II” and “Sculpture III” by the artists. Consequently, one of their “works” was in fact a combination of twenty-four copies of the original work (done by Rietveld).
There are two primary moments of intrigue that derive from Ingraham’s first mention of active commentary on the part of the artists. First, the utility of Rietveld’s design (and its implicit physical manifestation through industrial production) is thwarted both by the action of placing it within the discourse of fine art and through the process of serialization. Instead of mimicking a Carl Andre-esque motion of veiling fine art in the disguise of public penetrability (works that look and act like a tile floor), which would therefore enable participation (indeed even promote such an idea), Levine and van Oss chose to present “Sculpture II” and “III” in a reified, and perhaps even exalted, space– the art gallery. By engaging cultural codes of social conditioning, they not only prohibit audience involvement, but they actively dismiss such an idea, thereby placing a value judgment on even the simplest of ideas regarding participation.
The serial operation enacted by Levine and van Oss disallows the initial purpose of the works in their immediate utility, and instead recast them as both mere organization and an impenetrable field. In order to clarify the latter point, one must accept that even if the shroud of reified object of fine art were lifted, the shear fact that twenty-three replicas of the one necessary chair or table, whose function would be limited to the desired effect of utility, exist together would impel the subject (hoping to exert their ability to obtain the effect) to have qualms about using the chair or table for function. Thus, the methods of reification, simulated deification, and serialization of the object as art foil the original intent of Gerrit Rietveld and instead renegotiate the intrinsic terms of their perceived materiality and function.
Another site of necessary analysis regarding Ingraham’s first delineation of Levine and van Oss’ intentions is in the semantic use of the word “recover.” Perhaps this only exists as a situation of needed investigation because of Sherrie Levine’s oeuvre; however, while this consideration can certainly be targeted as the initial locus of importance, it appears that there is a deeper and more significant discourse enacted through the implementation of this word. First, at this point in time Levine had already been identified as a postmodern appropriation artist. Douglas Crimp used her artwork from the later 1970s in his seminal exhibition “Pictures” at Artists Space in New York City, and the corresponding catalogue essay claimed her as one of the progenitors of a radically innovative theory and response to art in the face of Modernism. Her early photographs mixing Presidential profile silhouettes (Lincoln, Washington, and Kennedy) with cutouts from fashion magazines questioned one’s ability to see images without ideology. They also implicitly proposed that images were no longer unique and instead were merely permutations of a catalogue of images that exist in culture (an idea initially promulgated by Marcel Duchamp in the early twentieth century).
Then, Levine began in the late 1970s to blatantly re-photograph the works of renowned male photographic masters from the earlier part of the century, such as Walker Evans, Elliot Porter and Edward Weston. These works more closely resembled the motion enacted by Duchamp in the creation of his groundbreaking sculpture “Fountain” from 1917, in that they appropriated originals and simply inscribed a signature through physically reframing the photographs and presenting them as original Sherrie Levine works. Therefore, one could claim that Levine has effectually been “recover-ing” works for years before 1999, and thus the usage of the word in Ingraham’s essay is both boldly factual and playful. Perhaps Ingraham’s employment of the verb is meant to announce Levine’s characteristic idiosyncrasy; however, the nature of the analysis seem too intent on uncovering the essential qualities of Levine’s and van Oss’ intentions, and thus an investigation into this third layer of meaning is necessary for apprehending both the artist’s and critic’s intentions.
The verb “recover” immediately declares the expected Levinian tactic. The second function it holds within Ingraham’s essay is to assert the reclamation of Rietveld’s design and aims by Levine and van Oss, despite the anachronism of time. However, one could also read a third layer of meaning beyond these claims– one that is coded in aggression and antagonism. This certainly extends beyond the exact usage of the word for Ingraham, but that is justified by the fact that her analysis stops short of confronting the potential aggressiveness of the works. Perhaps Ingraham did not see this in “Sculpture II” and “III,” or maybe she did not agree to its existence; however, this motion seems conceivably the most nuanced and pointed of all in reading the multiplicity of meanings behind the Levine/van Oss collaboration.
There are many points of evidence for substantiating this claim. The previous discussion of Levine’s and van Oss’ serial realization of Rietvald’s two works and their decisive placement within the fine art gallery proclaim inaccessibility and a newly developed aloofness. It breaks down the initial aims for “Divan Table” and “Berlin Chair,” and instead compels a heightened impenetrability that extends considerably beyond the simple cold nature of Modernist aesthetic. The next two levels of Ingraham’s conception of their “recovery of the experiment” are the choice of steel as physical medium and the restriction of color in their presentation. Rietvald’s design was focused on flexibility of motion and presentation as aesthetic foundation and implementation. Ingraham writes, “Chairs, according to Rietveld’s treatise, should be made of flexile material — tubular metal (not rolled steel, which is the material Levine and van Oss are using), wood, cane, leather, plush– in order to accommodate the constantly mobile posture of a seated human body.” (1) Thus, Rietveld’s conception of “Berlin Chair” was that the materiality of its presence would reinforce the design, whose intention was to oblige the continual motion of the human body (despite the idea that when humans sit they do so in one fashion). In face of this, Levine and van Oss decided to recast “Berlin Chair” in rolled steel– a medium known for its unyielding physicality, slick surface, and rejection of richness and comfort. Ingraham denotes the way in which this recasting method works as an anti-homage to Rietveld; however, this term only somewhat conveys a negative reading because she refuses to elaborate on the function of anti-homage to Levine. Regardless, their recasting of “Berlin Chair” seems most decisively even more than an anti-homage; rather, the new version exerts a less-than-hidden aggression to the original through employment of medium.
The third level of “recovery” rests in the rejection of color as differentiating technique. Ingraham writes, “Each piece was painted experimentally [by Rietveld] in contrasting colors in order to elide, or at least suggestively mark, the moment that the chair and table begin to lose a certain furniture-like autonomy and slide into the more general category of ‘spatial object.’” (1) While the recasts are done in steel, and thus have some shade of color, they verge on the monochromatic, or at least act in this way. This decision is surely intentional, in that it both reiterates the serialization tactic and rewrites the physical presentation of the two works. While Levine can be pegged for oscillating between furniture, object, photograph, and architecture in her works, the motion to render Rietveld’s works as monochromatic is decisive in its intention to dismantle differentiation and thus further complicate the ambiguity of distinction (furniture/architecture), function and appearance.
Up to this point, evidence for the aggressive nature of Levine’s and van Oss’ “Sculpture II” and “III” has been rooted in Catherine Ingraham’s rhetoric; however, her analysis of their combined tactics (although it seems more predominantly a Levinian maneuvering) continues to stop short of further interpretations. The next point to substantiate this explanation of the fundamental aggressiveness of Levine and van Oss uses Ingraham, but extends beyond her reading. In the conclusion of her article, she invokes the capacity of curiosity, as intelligence, to undermine complacency, acquiescence, and acculturation. She writes, “‘Curiosity,’ in spite of its reputation as a passive form of intelligence, has always possessed the potential for subverting the chilling effects of habituation. One might say that Levine/van Oss’ installation is still curious about the aftermath of the before/after problematic; still curious, even about questions of comfort, beauty, the body, copies.” (3) While curiosity, coded as intelligence, can certainly be passive, in Levine/van Oss’ work it appears to reject this distinction and instead act in both an active probing and aggressive way.
Throughout Ingraham’s essay there is neither mention of feminist rhetoric nor feminist interpretation of Levine’s oeuvre. Instead, she discusses the roles of Modernism, architecture, curiosity, appropriation, and the history of art, but she does so without any reference to the history of women in art and their artistic output. It seems that in this situation such a reading would be exemplary for facilitating the distinction between original and copy. The feminist interpretation of “Sculpture II” and “III” elucidates clearly its aggressive character.
Curiosity in Sherrie Levine’s work acts in two ways. First, curiosity encourages the viewer to not only engage Levine’s art and the original, but it also entreats one to review and reevaluate the history of Modernism. When looking at the re-photographs, it becomes virtually impossible to extract the depths of meaning without understanding the cultural significance of the “original” image. So, “After Walker Evans” is merely a veil placed over “Hale County Alabama” (1936). When this artifice is unravelled, the original image becomes emblazoned in one’s mind, and this act forces the viewer to confront the social context that is intrinsic in the image. Therefore, one cannot see Evans’ 1936 photographs without reflecting on the Great Depression. This reaction is the most immediate that propelled by Levine’s appropriations; however, the curiosity encouraged by her work, on a deeper level, slowly begins to reveal the discourse of the male/female dynamic. The fact is that Levine chooses iconic images produced by the “Modern masters,” who all just so happen to be male! This is no mistake. Also, the continual reference and recasting of male Modernist works shows that the gender is absolutely essential for Levine’s consideration. Thus, one could claim that curiosity becomes gendered.
The questions that arise from the awareness of gender politics in Levine’s work are not in and of themselves aggressive; rather, the implications of the answers are decisively so. Levine’s collection of fashion/president juxtapositions are inescapable in their evaluation of what it means culturally to be a beautiful woman. Instead of Richard Prince’s “Untitled (three women looking in the same direction)” (1980), which seems to numb the effects of fashion photography as ideology through the process of serialization, Sherrie Levine’s juxtapositions are collages of only two images, and this singularity of the object thrust the discussion into the political. While Levine’s recasting of Duchamp, Judd and, in this case Rietveld, do not immediately announced their gendered being, the eventual realization of this dynamic makes the works unrecognizable in a way. There is no route to de-gender the objects; rather, they are indelibly stamped as commentary on the canonization of Modernism as belonging solely to the male. Thus, the subtlety of Levine’s recasting is at first subtle, but in the end they are heavily charged with a decisively feminist perspective.
How, then, does the feminist rhetoric of “Sculpture II” and “III” translate into aggression? This is perhaps the most difficult question to address; however, it seems to also be a key factor, if not the exact one itself, in discovering the deeper meaning of the collaboration. It is easy to decipher the feminist attack on patriarchy, ideology, and culture in many of Levine’s contemporaries. Barbara Kruger, although slightly later in the 1980s, clearly and belligerently announces the power differential in society, and does so in a way that is openly hostile to the dominant order. Cindy Sherman in 1983 accepted commissions from French fashion houses to create photographs exhibiting their clothing. In response, Sherman produced works that highlight an instability among the series’ characters. The blatant disregard of codes surrounding fashion photography and the subversive motion of making the subjects visibly ugly and socially unacceptable calls into question the conventions of beauty and the role of women in contemporary culture. Francesca Woodman addresses the role of the female nude body in her investigation of space, specifically “Space2” and in doing so presents it open for the male gaze, but concurrently rejects the fetishized erotic look by refusing the impulse to glamorize the body. How, then, can Levine be as aggressive as these women artists if she is not willing to put her body or some other woman’s on display as lure for ideology?
Perhaps the reason Levine is able to be just as effective as Sherman, Kruger and Woodman, although subtly, is because she is the only one of the group to specifically address the historicization impulse of art history to inscribe Modernism as belonging to the male gender. Therefore, Levine structures her postmodernism around a determined reevaluation of history, which thus addresses the current ideology as well as that of the past century. While Sherman confronts fashion, Kruger deals with male hegemony in contemporary culture, and Woodman affronts the male gaze, Levine straddles the contemporary and the recent histories of art. Therefore, curiosity leads to understanding of the intrinsic gendered notion of her recastings, and this impulse opens up the representation/mis-representation/lack of representation of women in the history of art.
Thus, by casting Rietveld’s “Berlin Chair” and “Divan Tabe” in steel, placing them in the fine art gallery, and creating a series of twenty-four of them aligned in a symmetrical fashion, Levine debunks the main tenets of Rietveld’s design. The asymmetry of the originals is lost through the serialization process. The colored exterior is removed, blurring the distinction between furniture and architecture, and thereby obscuring Rietveld’s conception of these spheres. His desire for the design to exhibit a flexibility that was thought impossible in so much of Modern architecture and furniture is thwarted by casting the two works in steel. And lastly, Levine places Rietveld in her oeuvre that quietly yet decisively attacks the process of canonization in art history throughout its entire lifetime as a discipline. What seems at first to be an homage might be that for the first few moments, showing an appreciation at least for the innovative nature of the two works; however, “Sculpture II” and “III” are inextricably an anti-homage, perhaps even a full-on rejection of Rietveld’s intentions, his placement in the history of art and design, and the process of deifying the male “Modern masters.”