American Photographer, Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Sherrie Levine
Sherrie Levine's methods of appropriating and citing the works of important 20th century male artists established her as a consequential artist of postmodernism, ushered in during the late 1970s. Levine critiques the core tenets of Modernism, calling into question the role of the romantic, artist-genius. Along with artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, she questions how images are culturally constructed and the effects of their dissemination in a media-saturated age. Levine's work introduces perceptual questions about what exactly one is looking at and asks viewers to consider the reasons why we inherently trust and often fetishize values in art such as authenticity and originality. While Levine sees her work as more of a collaboration with previous artists, in copying and replicating the work of male artists Levine also levels a feminist critique against the ingrained patriarchy of art history and society at large.
- Levine's work, in which she creates almost indistinguishable copies of others' work, emphasizes that authorship is defined by use rather than individual creation and that nothing is inherently or singularly unique. In this way, she echoes the ideas of French theorists such as Roland Barthes who declared the "death of the author" and whose texts became seminal for postmodern theory.
- Levine's use of appropriation - the deliberate borrowing and copying, with little or no alteration, of others' images - has a long history in the 20th century, going back to Pablo Picasso's cubist collages. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Robert Rauschenberg appropriated images and objects to incorporate into their work, but Levine and others of her generation took appropriation to a new level, to the point of infringing on intellectual property rights and arguably - plagiarism.
- Levine's copies and near-copies demand that we consider the relation between repetition and difference and how we look at pieces of art. Levine engages in a deep questioning of how images can be simultaneously familiar yet unfamiliar, original yet facsimiles, recognizable yet ambiguous, present yet absent. Ultimately, her work asks many questions but supplies few definitive answers.
- Levine has said that her work is self-consciously about fetishism. The fetish object is an ordinary object onto which we project our desires, and in turn, the object comes to have a power over us. In psychoanalytic terms, this object stands in for something else and has sexual implications. In Marxist terms, the commodity becomes a fetish when symbolic value is assigned a monetary value, and the commodity is seen as "a magical source of wealth and value," according to historian William Paetz. Levine engages both discourses by making work that is based on the perceived aura of a work of art and the viewer's own desires.
Biography of Sherrie Levine
Sherrie Levine was born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining town, in 1947. She subsequently grew up in a suburb outside of Saint Louis, Missouri, where she frequented the Saint Louis Art Museum with her mother, who loved to paint. Levine recalls that while she frequented the museum, much of her knowledge of art came from seeing reproductions in books and magazines. She attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, receiving her BA in 1969 and her MFA four years later. During college, Levine created Minimalist grid drawings that were met with acclaim from her professors but closely resembled contemporaneous works by Brice Marden. Confronted with this similarity and the feeling that these drawings were an unsuccessful attempt at "reinventing the wheel," Levine turned to photography as a means to break through the impasse. Photography would later become the means by which Levine would return to the very problem of originality that led her to the medium in the first place. Her photographic reproductions of other art works trafficked more straightforwardly and brazenly with the question of copying and originality in art, thus securing her place as a key figure of postmodernism. Levine actively eschews any mythologizing of the artist and so avoids discussing her personal life and relations for the record.
Important Art by Sherrie Levine
In President Collage: 1 we see the familiar silhouette of George Washington that graces the U.S. quarter meticulously cut from a magazine fashion spread featuring a glamorous looking female model. Usually a collage consists of various materials - photographs or pieces of paper - arranged in a composition on a support, but here while there is only one material, the mass-produced fashion ad, there are two images due to the way Levine cut up the magazine page. Art historian Howard Singerman writes that for Levine, collage suggests "an edge between two things that needed to be acknowledged and read."
Levine's series of President collages uses fashion models and stock images of women cropped into the profiles of Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, all of which are found on U.S. currency. With these jarring juxtapositions, Levine draws the viewer's attention to the commodification of female sexuality to sell things and lifestyles as well as patriarchal constraints that expect women to appear and behave in traditional ways. The model represents an idealized female type designed for the male gaze. Presenting the image within the constraints of a president's silhouette not only underscores the commodification of women but also the underlying patriarchic structure that fosters the male gaze. The President Collage series represents one of Levine's first forays into the art of appropriation. She has taken found or readymade images and represented them in a way that transforms their original connotations.
Almost fifty years after Walker Evans took the photo of Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of an Alabama sharecropper, Levine audaciously rephotographed Evans' image. Significantly, she did not shoot the photographic print but a reproduction of the print in a Walker Evans exhibition catalog. After Walker Evans: 4, then, is a copy of a reproduction of the original photograph. Even this description, though, is a bit misleading, as there is no single "original" Evans photograph - multiple prints, all exactly the same, exist. In rephotographing Evans' photograph, Levine lays bear the paradoxes of originality and authenticity inherent in the medium. She also raises questions about how the artistic, or aesthetic, value of a work of art is wrapped up with notions of artistic genius and how that value is then monetized, based on singularity and rarity, in the art market.
Levine's conceptual project, hailed as a hallmark of postmodern art, echoes French philosopher Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author," an essay in which he argued that it was the role of the reader - not the author - to generate and determine meaning. In fact, Levine appropriated Barthes' own words when she wrote, "A painting's meaning lies not in its origin, but in its destination. The birth of the viewer must be at the cost of the painter." By placing so much power in the hands of the viewer, that is, calling upon the viewer to question and interpret, Levine calls into question the romantic notions of the "genius" (usually male) artist who presents authentic reality and suggests instead a scenario in which images are never original and always made from multiple sources that must be parsed by the viewer.
Beginning in 1987, Levine began creating Knot paintings, painting over the naturally occurring knots in plywood. Here, Levine has taken an inexpensive and common construction material, often used for shipping crates to transport works of art, and transformed it into fine art. As in much of her work, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" loom large in interpreting the work. Here, Levine does not appropriate another's work but alters material she has found in the way that Duchamp minimally altered bicycle wheels, bottle holders, postcards, and urinals.
Levine's choice of medium also references Donald Judd's plywood boxes of the early 1970s. He chose plywood because it was a material with no specific connotations within the canon of art history. Levine elected to use plywood, by contrast, largely because of its connotations with Judd, who was one of the most strident voices of Minimalism and who also raised issues of authorship (by having his sculptures manufactured by others) and explored the effects of seriality and repetition. Levine's wry sense of humor, evident in the titular pun on "not paintings," is both straightforward and subversive, poking fun at the seriousness with which the Minimalist sculptors conducted themselves.