Feature

Exhibit of the week: Sherrie Levine: Mayhem

The Whitney Museum surveys the work of Sherrie Levine, whose appropriation of Walker Evans' photographs into a work of her own initiated a series of pieces that take aim at the patriarchal canon. 

Whitney Museum of American ArtThrough Jan. 29

For women artists in the early 1980s, “merely the act of creating art was insurrectionary,” said Jerry Saltz in New York. Any woman back then who wished to make art that addressed art’s history had to figure out how to scale or tear down the walls of a centuries-old boys club. Sherrie Levine found her solution in 1981, when she exhibited After Walker Evans, a grouped series of 21 photographs that meticulously reproduced many of the Depression-era photographer’s best-known works. That scandalous act of appropriation raised troublesome questions about originality and the significance of context, and the survey of Levine’s work now at the Whitney teems with such attacks on the patriarchal canon. Capping them all is a tweak on Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal—the “ultimate men-only signifier.” Levine’s urinal, cast in a shiny bronze, “turns an idol of high modernism” into a “degraded golden calf.” I’ve always found Levine’s work too insular, meaningful only to art aficionados. But “Mayhem” makes plain that “Levine’s is a conversation that still needs to happen.”

Only if you’re into “elegant retellings” of the “same dumb joke,” said Richard B. Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. The way Levine appropriated Evans’s photos took real gumption: “It’s certainly a mind-bending act—both narcissistic and self-denying—to assert one’s identity by absorbing another’s.” But the trick tires quickly. Levine’s subsequent recontextualizing of Degas, Man Ray, Brancusi, and others “betrays a dwindling of ideas.” She’s become a “high-concept taxidermist”: She has a “deadening” effect on every piece of art she regurgitates. Worse, even her new work feels dated. Her winking knockoffs may have been “catnip for feminists” or students drunk on French theory back in the day, but “whatever anti-establishment tartness her work once had is gone.”

Yet to see the work is to appreciate that Levine’s appropriations are more than “clever one-liners,” said Blake Gopnik in TheDailyBeast.com. An original Walker Evans won’t set you to thinking “about how art and the world intersect, about how most art is consumed in copies,” or how “pictures change in meaning over time.” Levine manages to do all that while also providing “almost every drop of vintage pleasure an Evans itself can.” If anything, Levine is more relevant than ever, said Amanda Ryan in Artlog.com. Questions surrounding the ethics of reproduction, which Levine first raised 30 years ago, have only “increased in urgency” in the digital age. Not only does Levine seem positively prescient by raising them, her work “continues to challenge and provoke.”

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