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.”