Issue #183
If This Is An Avalanche Make Me A Skier February 10, 2012

Installation view of SHERRIE LEVINE: MAYHEM (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 10, 2011–January 29, 2012)
Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins
Courtesy of the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Long Read: How Do You “Come After” Levine?

by Rachel Cook

Sherrie Levine’s Mayhem, a monographic installation at The Whitney Museum of American Art, is a feat to “come after.” By “come after” I mean both how Levine herself “pursues the object and images,” through titles of works, After Walker Evans: 1-22, and how critics and art historians have titled publications about Levine, Art History, After Sherrie Levine.1 I am “coming after” Levine through examining Mayhem as a monographic exhibition, a curatorial gesture and a series of staging operationsbut with a small detour through a hugely problematic curatorial presentation of Levine. In the 2010 Gwangju Biennial, 10,000 Lives, curator and director Massimiliano Gioni presented what is most likely Levine’s most recognizable work, After Walker Evans: 1-22 alongside Walker Evans’ WPA photographs printed from the Library of Congress. This reductive curatorial approach didn’t do the images justice and colored any viewer’s experience and reading of not only the work itself, but also of Levine’s overall strategies for the rest of her work. Mayhem puts all that reductionism to rest with its concern for objects, images and the spaces they are each carefully organized in.

Mayhem is not constructed as a chronology, but as Levine says a series of “pairs” and “gangs.” Mayhem challenges our understanding (and maybe even wedges itself neatly in-between) of what a historical monographic exhibition and site-specific installation can be. Each room feels like a vessel, or the unfolding of an elusive film. Moreover the sight lines between the various rooms are simply magical. Levine posits a series of paintings entitled, Broad Stripe, as touchstones for the viewer throughout the exhibition. Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s strategy of inserting himself into each of his films, they follow you, haunting your view at every turn.

There are five enclosed rooms in the exhibition—four pockets and one long rectangular room that connects them. The walls have been painted light grey, a reprieve from the stark white cube. In the long room, one of the Whitney’s Breuer windows has been exposed, a device for looking in and out that proves spatially and curatorially effective for the “gang” of La Fortune (After Man Ray), numbered 1 through 4, located directly in front of the window. Sourced from a 1938 Man Ray painting with the same title, La Fourtune… is a series of four exquisite mahogany pool tables with three colored billiard balls placed on them. Their oddly shaped legs resemble a weaving device or some kind of enlarged spinning top, but also appear sensual with their curves. All four tables are placed next to each other, one after the next with just enough space in-between them for viewers to pass. While they are similar to a billiard table they are not such objects as they don’t have the functional capacities and tools that are required to play the game.

On one side of the room you look out of Breuer’s trapezoidal shaped window, and turning in the opposite direction, you are faced with Levine’s After Courbet: 1-18 (2009), which is made out of a repeated postcard of Courbet’s L’Origine Du Monde (1866). The window functions as not only a spatial device that allows you to see out and consider our notions of reality, imagined or representative, but by placing the Courbet opposite it also causes you to think about the origins of our world whether they’re artificially constructed or naturally occurring. Levine draws a direct line between these objects, which points to our understanding of notions of the original and authorship, the architectural and symbolic structure of the museum housing these objects, strategies of repetition, what happens to a two dimensional representation when it gets realized three dimensionally, and how objects contain gender. In the same room are five paintings Red and Grey Check (2000) and one of the Broad Stripe paintings; this cluster of works takes center stage in Mayhem. Furthermore it speaks to Levine’s overall project of shuttling between objects, images and the spaces (be it architectural, conceptual, historical) that surround them.

The left and right roomswhich present you two possible entryways into the exhibitiondisplay Levine’s pairs and gangs of objects beautifully. On one side are Levine’s Crystal and Black Newborn (1993 and 1994), after Brancusi placed on a pair of inverted grand Steinway pianos, an arrangement that comes from a photograph of the interior of a collector’s home where the Brancusi was displayed in the same manner. Thus Levine inverts (black and white, forwards and backwards) and reinserts the arrangement of the Brancusi sculpture in the collector’s home back into the museum, reminding us how art travels in and out of these social and economic contexts.

On the other side is a gang of Crystal Skull(s): 1-12 (2010), which are placed in elegant mahogany display cases. Materially these rooms are linked, and conceptually they contribute to the arch of Levine’s work, but the rooms can also be seen as linked conceptually in human terms ofbirth and death, newborn and skull. The Crystal Skull(s), laid out in two rows of six, are morbidly gorgeous objects. They create a single unit, each identical “individuals” placed together in a group. Here is where Levine’s strategy of grappling with repetition and difference as points of contention is something to consider; can a room filled with a series of the same objects actually remind us of our differences?

In both rooms a similar operation occurs. The centerpiece becomes a device to draw the viewer into the room, while the two-dimensional worksKnot paintings, Broad Stripe, Gottsch-Schleisner Orchids: 1-10, Equivalents (After Stieglitz): 1 -18appear as abstractions or organic shapes in the background. But these two-dimensional works are deceptively complex; anchored to the organic shapes and abstract forms they contain. Take the five Knot paintings for instance, literally a series of punsmade from various pieces of plywood where the “knots” in the wood are covered with metallic or oil paint obscuring the shape of the knot entirely (a practice sometimes used to help the wood from splitting), and the title when spoken out loud sounds like “not painting.” This negating of the object while simultaneously consuming it is what makes Levine’s work so rich and troubling.

If each Knot painting reminds us of the history of painting while throwing into question what constitutes our definition of a painting than Levine’s work skillfully inhabits this space of contradiction, while allowing it to manifest itself within a material form. Just reading the wall label shows that the works are made of the same materials as a typical painting, however they also could appear as a makeshift wall or the side of a shipping create used to transport a painting. By placing the wood panels side by side, the Knot paintings appear as a portion of reconstruction project the way wood panels are placed over shop windows for protection or remodeling. Levine’s layers of meaning and double meanings within titles (Broad Stripe could mean both the adjective wide or a noun female, or both), allows viewers to consider how their own perception is constructed, and how we construct meaning around an object and history.

Levine speaks about wanting to create a “different relationship to identity” and that she is interested “in the tension between the original and (her) work,” as well as being “interested in as many layers of meaning as possible.”2 In Mayhem the installation of each room has a shuttling back and forth effect, between Levine’s own history of works and art history at large. Rather than reducing her operations to a “copying” strategy, consider what a “copy” or “original” actually is. Does a work of art become original because it formally appears to represent something that you have not seen before? If something formally “looks like” something else does that necessarily mean it is a copy? Just for a moment consider literature, film, or theatre and how the text is treated as original, copy, and representation. Next think of the Post-Modern/Structuralist notions of plurality, the idea of de-centering authorities of thought, rubbing up against monolithic binaries, or reactions to the singular formalist approach of Modernism. It is out of this heritage and history of thought that Levine’s work gains traction and comes into clear view.

All of these twist and turns of thought are what make Levine’s decisively simple objects lush and rich conceptual works. This deceptive operation is one that manifests in Mayhem ‘coming after’ two-dimensional object and realizing them in three-dimensions, distilling images we have of a history objects into repeated gestures, reminding us how artists not only borrow or are influenced by culture at large, but by their own practice and lines of inquiry. And yet Mayhem as a curatorial gesture allows you to glide through Levine’s practice in a single motion, each room is carefully constructed as a series of frames and windows. The exhibition re-performs operations that exist in the works themselves, creating difference among the rooms while pointing to a similar line of questioning of the creation of meaning within objects and images. The ability to stand in one corner of the room and gaze into the next to see one of the Broad Stripe paintings along with a set of images or objects perfectly placed within the doorway creates anticipation and desire for engaging with the objects more closely. In Mayhem, a further consideration is how artistic practice’s that poke at the idea of a closed system or narrative can be curatorially realized. The exhibition demonstrates how these practices can be challenged for the viewer in time and space without dismantling the operations embedded in the individual works themselves. Through Mayhem, our understanding of Levine and what a historical monographic exhibition and a solo site-specific installation can be is broadened curatorially, and hopefully historically.

A native of Houston, Texas, Rachel Cook is currently a Master's candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

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1. I am taking this idea from Johanna Burton’s essay in the catalogue from the exhibition, “Sherrie Levine, Beside Herself,” and from Howard Singerman’s new book “Art History, After Sherrie Levine,” (Berkeley: University of California Press) 2012.

2. Constance Lewallen, “Sherrie Levine,” Journal of Contemporary Art 6 (Winter 1993), 81-82.

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