“Theme: Not Duchamp, Not Levine”

September 23, 2008 |  Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on “Theme: Not Duchamp, Not Levine”

– Joan Bowlen

Walk into a Dollar Tree or souvenir shop and look around at the multitude of plastic cookware, cheap costume jewelry, generic sweatshirts, and the rack upon rack of universal postcards and posters.  These are objects which, if asked for a first reaction, most people would not say that these objects are beautiful, artistic, or in some cases even useful.  These same people would probably be quite peeved on viewing the plethora of sculptures which have arisen in art galleries since 1917 and the debuting of Marcel Duchamp’s first exhibition of the readymade.  Marcel Duchamp was the first champion of the “found object” or the “ready-made”, as these objects collected from the day-to-day scenes of life have come to be termed.  In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted his now infamous work Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition, from which the piece was denied access due do disputes over the artistic integrity of the work.  The piece consisted solely of a porcelain urinal Duchamp had acquired and signed “R. Mutt, 1917”. At the time, this piece caused outrage and threw the artistic community into a frenzy of debate and artistic fervor from which there could be no unconscious return.  From that point on, artists would fall within a pro-Duchampian or an anti-Duchampian camp of artistic representation.   Interpretations of art work are now forever informed by the historical exhibition of Duchamp’s canon-defying piece.

  Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

            Duchamp had forced the question of artistic definition.  Through this presentation of a work which he was not directly responsible for the physical formation of, Duchamp demanded that the artistic community review the conception of the artist as a unique creator of original work.  He maintained that every work of art stemmed from work that had already preceded it and the piece couldn’t, therefore, be original.  According to Duchamp, art is a direct product of the history surrounding the object.  Even the media used in the formation of the object could be considered a product.  In Duchamp’s own words:

“Let’s say you use a tube of paint; you didn’t make it.  You bought it and used it as a readymade.  Even if you mix two vermilions together, it’s still a mixing of two readymades.  So man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from readymade things like even his own mother and father” (Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Painting at the edge of the World, (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001, pp. 33).

Therefore, Duchamp’s readymades, which he found and arbitrarily designated as his artistic creations, demonstrate the theory that artists do not create new art, they recreate or reconfigure the painted figures, the sculpted forms, and the photographed light particles that had already existed.

In later years, Duchamp expanded this conception of the unoriginal object through the repetition of his own work.  First in his miniature Fountain recreations in 1958 and 1964 and then later in his full-sized reproductions, Duchamp continually emphasized that Fountain was not an original work; each reproduction functioned just as aptly as the first urinal signed “R. Mutt, 1917”.  Through the ambiguity surrounding the signature on the work (Marcel Duchamp submitted this work, yet can it be called “his” since it is signed under another name? Since the object could be found anywhere, is there any way to know that Duchamp is responsible for it? The answer is that we cannot know, but we don’t need an answer because the idea of an individual author fails under the weight of the omnipresent readymade).  When the artistic community accepted and incorporated his idea of the readymade into its canon, the concept of Fountain often suffered from critics and artists attributing the work to Duchamp individually.  Duchamp counteracted this authorship through the continual commodification and repetition of the porcelain urinal image, continually minimizing his name and focusing more on the artistic dialogue that the object represents.

Sherrie Levine’s photographs speak directly of Duchamp’s struggle to eradicate the authorship obsession which pervades the artistic timeline.  Through her reproduction of photographs first attributed to famous modernist photographers, such as her After Walker Evans series or After Edward Weston, Levine began her first photographic repetitions.  Her repetitions are photographs taken of copies of the original photographs taken from books, thereby presenting the viewer with a third-hand image which appears identical in appearance except for slight variation in tonality and grain quality.  These are very slight alterations and exceedingly difficult to notice, making the viewer focus on the similarity of Levine’s photograph to the that of the modernist photographer.  Levine has consciously chosen to copy iconic photographers whose works are easily recognized in order to ensure that the viewer understand that the image is not a new one, that she does not claim it as her own original composition.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, 1980                                                      Sherrie Levine, After Edward Weston, 1980

Levine highlights the derivative nature of her photographs in order to make the viewer want to see the original photo.  This desire to see an object “back” to its original state of being creates a relationship with the past, establishes art history as a readymade in waiting.

Sherrie Levine’s After Edward Weston, 1980 photograph provides an excellent delineation of this kind of timeline which Levine emphasizes.  Levine has appropriated Weston’s photograph Neil, 1925, a photograph of the artist’s son’s torso.  Looking at Levine’s copy of Weston generates the desire to see Weston’s “original” photograph, but Levine would maintain that such a desire couldn’t be satiated simply by Weston’s photo.  The origins of the photo go beyond a print of Weston’s negative, touching on both Neil as human being whose youthful torso was caught on film in 1925 and touching on Neil as a future repetition of the classical Roman sculptural influence that has pervaded Western art.  There is no seeing of the “original” anymore because Neil is no longer in that moment, he has grown out of that photograph and his life has sculpted him into something other than the image that we see.  There is no seeing the original Roman sculpture that influenced Weston because his aesthetic eye was based on the multitudes of painters and sculptures that have used the Roman model since the golden age of Rome.

Levine tips her hat off to this entire network of historical connection, bringing each and every point of history into her blatant photographic appropriation of Weston and Evans.  This incorporation of every influence whittles away at the image of the singular artist as creator and restates Duchamp’s assertion that all art is a product of things that have come before; there can be no spontaneous generation of genius as all images evolve out of the environmental influences surrounding past, present, and future artists.  Levine and Duchamp might take issue with the term “artists,” so perhaps “past, present, and future appropriators of culture” is a more apt title.  Levine’s photographs represent the vanguard of her work in rearticulating Duchamp’s and other modernists’ projects concerning authorship.

Later in her career, Levine turns to sculpture in a variety of mediums in order to perpetuate her artistic conversation with appropriation and we will be looking at some of these works later in our project.


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