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.