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At what point do the words “revolutionary,” “vanguard,” “innovative” or “progressive” become outdated, mere adjectives resting upon a previously held conviction?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.

Black Newborn (1995)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?


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