Sherrie Levine - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer, Painter, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist
Biography of Sherrie Levine
Early Life and Education
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.
During and after college, Levine worked various jobs in commercial art to earn money, and in 1973 Levine moved to Berkeley, California, where she taught art at various venues throughout the Bay Area. After graduate school, she made a short film and other conceptual art pieces before turning to collage and photography exclusively. Needing a change, she moved to New York City in 1975, lived on unemployment benefits, and worked in relative isolation until she met the painter David Salle, who subsequently introduced her to his friends from CalArts, including Jack Goldstein
In 1977, she had her first solo show at 3 Mercer Street at the invitation of Stephen Eins. Here, Levine exhibited 75 children's dress shoes she had found at a thrift store in California and carted with her to New York. Perhaps inspired by the fact that her father was a shoe salesman, Levine simply displayed the found objects on a checkered quilt and advertised them, "2 shoes for $2," turning them into fetish objects. Later that year, curator Douglas Crimp, who lived near the artists David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Robert Longo, included Levine in his seminal exhibition entitled "Pictures," alongside the work of Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, Philip Smith, and Troy Brauntuch. The legendary exhibition explored these artists relationship to representation "not in the familiar guise of realism, which seeks to resemble a prior existence," but as a questioning of how meaning is made through representation. It also provided the nom de guerre for a generation of artists including Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman - dubbed The Pictures Generation. Crimp selected one of Levine's early series, entitled Sons and Lovers (1976-77), for the exhibition. The work presented varying configurations of the silhouette profiles of five former U.S. presidents including Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy. Levine returned to the motif of presidential profiles in 1979, this time utilizing images excerpted fashion magazines, for the series Presidential Collages.
According to Douglas Eklund from the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Sherrie Levine shot over the shoulders of photography's founding fathers ... in order to create something akin to musical overtones - a buzzing in the space between their 'original' and her 'copy' that effaced the distance between objective document and subjective desire." This indeterminacy in Levine's work is controversial because it closely resembles plagiarism, but also serves a different, perhaps more important function: to collapse the authority and status given to the notion of originality, and its presumed conflation with artistic value.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Levine further pushed her strategies of appropriation by re-shooting iconic works by celebrated (and exclusively male) photographers, including Eliot Porter, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston, and in the early 1980s she also exhibited color reproductions of paintings by Claude Monet, Fernand Leger and Vincent van Gogh, among others, which she claimed as her own. In 1983, Levine also began to painstakingly recreate printed reproductions of works by modernist masters such as Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and Edgar Degas in a variety of media, including ink, watercolor and photolithography.
Arguably her most well-known series of photographs, After Walker Evans, in which she presented photographic reproductions of the photographs, was exhibited at Metro Pictures Gallery in 1982. The Estate of Walker Evans interpreted the series as copyright infringement, threatened a lawsuit, and then bought all of the photographs to limit their distribution. In 1994, the estate gifted them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Subsequently, Levine largely avoided copyrighted images.
Throughout the 1990s, Levine created abstract paintings loaded with art historical references as well as sculptural works which reproduced iconic artworks and modernist motifs, such as the ever-present grid. She also made a series of prints, called the Meltdown Series, after woodcuts by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Piet Mondrian, and Claude Monet during this period. To create the works, Levine photographed a reproduction of each artwork, which was then converted into twelve pixels using a computer program. The resulting image consists of a color grid loosely derived from the palette of the original work. Levine also created a number of sculptures during the 1990s, including a bronze rendition of Duchamp's famous urinal and cast aluminum tricycle that recalls one of William Eggleston's most celebrated photographs.
Levine's recent work has included cast bronze sculptures of taxidermied animals, glass skulls, and African masks. While these subjects appear to have few commonalities, they reference important leitmotifs in the art historical canon. An antelope skull cast in bronze cites Georgia O'Keeffe, and a traditional Lega mask from Cameroon rendered in bronze offers vastly different connotations than the rough-hewn and pockmarked wood of its referent, an object with myriad exemplars and deep context in Euro-American modern art from Picasso to Modigliani.
The Legacy of Sherrie Levine
Sherrie Levine, along with Richard Prince, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and a small cadre of other artists came to define "The Pictures Generation." Their collective efforts wrestled with age-old questions surrounding authorship, citation, and originality in art. Her acts of artistic appropriation drastically renegotiated what was permissible both creatively and legally in an unprecedented way.
Levine's interests are especially focused on the intersection of gender politics and artistic representation, exploring the biases inherent to art history and the art market that historically favors white, heteronormative males from Western countries. Consequently, her work has inspired newer generations of artists who are concerned both with issues of authorship and identity politics. Artists who have been marginalized to some extent because of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity have found inspiration in Levine's reclamation of objects from the power structures to which they belonged.
Her capacity to radically alter the "aura" of an object by placing it in a different context resonates in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who similarly employed found objects in his practice. Levine's cynicism surrounding the business machinations of the art world appears very much alive in Darren Bader's work. Alex Da Corte's Die Hexe exhibition at the Manhattan gallery Luxembourg & Dayan featured all white copies or "ghost replicas" of other artist's work, including Haim Steinbach, Robert Gober, and Bjarne Melgaard.