When Sherrie Levine debuted her famous series of photographs After Walker Evans at Metro Pictures in 1981, the pieces provoked outrage, confusion, and most importantly, conversation. In the series, Levine rephotographed Walker Evans’ iconic depression-era photographs, raising questions about authorship and context. How are Levine’s artworks distinct from the originals by Evans? Does the new context change their meaning? In 2001, AfterSherrieLevine.com shared digital copies of the After Walker Evans images, reiterating the relevance of Levine’s questions in light of online copying and sharing.
Levine’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum, though titled Mayhem, in fact presents itself as measured and precise. Crystal skulls and bronze casts are displayed, specimen-like, in glass cases perched on thin wooden legs. The rephotographed pieces hang in tight grids on walls painted a refined shade of gray. Careful pacing and repetition of forms force the viewer to consider why the artist chose these works and how her presentations comment on the originals.
A pair of sculptures, Crystal Newborn and Black Newborn, sit atop highly polished black Yamaha pianos at the center of one room. The abstract embryonic-looking sculptures are casts of The Newborn by Constantin Brâncuşi. Levine’s interpretation draws on a photograph of a Brancusi sculpture displayed on a piano in the home of collector H.S. Ede, the casually elegant presentation juxtaposing private art collecting with the context of the public museum.
Gustave Courbet’s closely cropped painting of a woman’s genitals, L’Origine du monde, appears in a grid of identically framed and matted postcard-size reproductions, titled After Courbet 1-18. The original, painted in 1866, was a scandalous and salacious commission for a private collector. In contemporary culture, the image loses its shock value—it is a postcard, reproduced and sold in museum gift shops around the world. In the same room, four full-sized billiard tables mimic the arrangement of billiard balls in Man Ray’s painting La Fortune. Displayed together, the pool hall emphasizes L’Origine du monde’s boys’ club context, the relationship between male artist and male collector. Levine breaks into this male-dominated milieu by incorporating its art historical milestones into her own artwork.
In more recent works, Levine digitally manipulates her sources material. Equivalents (After Stieglitz) averages the tones of areas in Stieglitz’s cloud photographs to create pixellated-looking inkjet prints. Equivalents acknowledges that the appropriation of images has become second nature and shifts the focus towards ways to re-imagine appropriated images.
Behind the restrained vitrines at the Whitney, the mayhem is in the messy questions about authorship, quotation, and art history, questions that have only increased in urgency with the rise of the internet and digital media. The issues Levine began raising thirty years ago have become unavoidable, and her work likewise continues to challenge and provoke.
Mayhem is on view through January 29, 2012.