-Peter Zimmerman

So much time is spent discussing the role of photography in Sherrie Levine’s early work from the later 1970s/early 1980s; however, her movement into sculpture raises much of the same questions, but pushes the arguments even further. In photographic works like the “After Walk Evans” series or the President/Fashion portraits, Levine simultaneously presents paradigmatic examples of 20th Century American images while exploding their functions within and without society. So, the seminal work by Walker Evans in Hale County, Alabama, which had significant cultural capital within both the Art Historical world and the classic “American” experience (as the photographs were seen as brilliant examples of the United States during the Great Depression) are now merely shadows after Levine’s appropriation. The beginning and ending of the Evans photographs is muddled, and instead Levine has inserted an inextricable skepticism and subversive shade to the artwork. She has, perhaps, debunked the myth of the untouchable canon.

Upon first glance, Sherrie Levine’s sculptures seem modest, calm, and uncomplicated. Sherrie Levine, “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” (1991)Works like “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” (1991) are striking in their visual presentation; however, they soon become, like the “After Walker Evans” series, muddled with potentially disparate concepts of art and its function. The confusion stems from two key places of origin: the title and the shape of the work. If one is familiar with Levine’s work in any way, the questions of authorship and authenticity remain paramount in the evaluation of any work past 1975. Therefore, when one examines a sculpture such as “Fountain,” the uninitiated may be taken by the formal beauty of the work– the bronze plating casts pleasant reflections of light– but the initiated would recognize right away the more “real” action of the bronze plating as adding a new dimension to an icon– that of Duchamp’s revolutionary “Fountain” from 1917. Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain” (1917) In discussing Duchamp’s works, with specific emphasis on the readymades, Jerry Saltz writes,

“Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to “de-deify” the artist. The readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. They represent a Copernican shift in art. Fountain is what’s called an “acheropoietoi,” [sic] an image not shaped by the hands of an artist. Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up strong.”

Saltz’s interpretation is particularly engaging, despite the difference in almost ninety years from the original date of production. Duchamp’s appropriation tactics alter somewhat from that of Sherrie Levine’s, in that he simply bought the urinal used for “Fountain” at J. L. Mott Iron Works at 118 Fifth Avenue in New York City, took it to his studio, shifted its orientation and signed it “R.Mutt 1917.” How, then, does Sherrie Levine either repeat or shift the process of authorship in the face of Duchamp? She casts over it.

If we apply the rhetorical process of authorial investigation presented by Duchamp in “Fountain” to Sherrie Levine’s photographs, the evaluation is not as tight. While one may make the argument that Duchamp’s sculpture is loaded with phallus-centered significance (which film critic Chris Straayer labels as being the center of cultural power), it seems to me that perhaps the “male-ness” of the sculpture is implicit because of the art world’s pre-occupation with male artistic hegemony of the pre World War One era. As feminist Linda Robinson would claim, masculinity at this point was “invisible,” in that it was perceived as the apotheosis of Modernist ideals. Therefore, while there is certainly a level of gender politics at workin Duchamp’s “Fountain,” I believe Levine’s photographs are much more loaded with problems surrounding gender. Perhaps because her photographs serve as both indexical and iconic references to the works of Modernist male masters, they both recognize gender and reveal it, and therefore the investigative work displays the ways in which gender is dually present and absent in these canonical images.

When Sherrie Levine re-photographs the images from Walker Evans and Edward Weston, the question remains: where is author? Where is the point of origin? Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, 1980Because Levine’s images come from photographs reproduced in books, the final presetation is made through translation– it is an object three times re-made. Can Levine’s work, therefore, be seen as a readymade in itself? Because the images existed before, as is evidenced in their photographic production and reproduction in catalogs, are they readymades only in their original form, or when reproduced by Levine? And if so, can a photograph exist as an object, so as to be able to occupy the intellectual space devoted to the concept of “readymade?”

This relates back to Levine’s work “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” in that the same sort of question is raised after she recast the fountain in bronze. Is the sculpture any longer a “readymade?” The material aspects of it have been fundamentally altered; however, the shape remains the same and the mounting appears similar. It is easily readable as “Fountain,” but intellectually it is not as easy to read as readymade. By casting OVER the sculpture, Levine explodes the function of the readymade as coming directly from the modes of production of society, and instead employs an artistic mark. However, couldn’t one argue that Duchamp effectively did this by adding a signature? Could the bronze cast act as Levine’s signature? No, because although Levine doesn’t have a definitive written signature, it is irrelevant, because the readymade’s concept is inextricably tied to its presence in everyday society. Instead, Levine adds another layer of cultural meaning to Duchamp’s “Fountain,” by using bronze– a material that denotes one of the most fundamental shifts in cultural progression. The introduction of bronze revolutionized agricultural practices, and therefore thrust humans into a new level of production, and hence way of living. So, when Levine employs bronze as a cast material, she evokes the history of cultural progression and the motion towards aesthetics (due to the luster of bronze). She adds another layer to Duchamp’s idea of the readymade as indicative of that fact that every image comes from another image in society, in that Levine shows the wholeness of human progression in her choice of casting material.

It is impossible to remove the art historical aspect to Sherrie Levine’s art. She works within the space of art historical discourse and dialogue, in attempts to add new perspectives on art by actually appropriating and reproducing them in novel ways. So much of the importance of her works derives from the fact that these works are recognizable within the general American public, but more importantly in the art historical canon. As mentioned before, her photographs are steeped in the rhetoric of 20th Century American male modernist masters, and her sculptures are equally so. Using Duchamp, Donald Judd, Brancusi, Dada, etc. as her material, Levine attempts to recast these sculptures in attempts to represent them yet refine them– she adds new layers of meaning to them through adding new layers of physical material.


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  1. » Theme: Inextricable Art History in Sherrie Levine’s Photography … »Digital Photography on October 9, 2008 11:45 am

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