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It’s Payback Time

November 11, 2011

Sherrie Levine’s retrospective turns a very cold eye on the gender dynamics of the art world.

From top, “La Fortune (After Man Ray)” (1990); “Red and Grey Check: 7-12” (2000).

(Photo: Danny Kim)

Imagine it’s 1981. You’re an artist, in love with art, smitten with art history. You’re also a woman, with almost no mentors to look to; art history just isn’t that into you. Any woman approaching art history in the early eighties was attempting to enter an almost foreign country, a restricted and exclusionary domain that spoke a private language. Merely the act of creating art while female, in this atmosphere, was insurrectionary. How to love art without killing yourself or acquiescing to the rules of the game? How to get around, burrow under, enter, or blow up those apparently impervious walls? The late painter Elizabeth Murray rightly observed, “Seeing historically belongs to the guys … The greatest part about being a woman … is that I’m not really a part of [that art history]. I can do whatever I want.”

Sherrie Levine’s tightly controlled, academically stringent, sometimes stultifying survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art shows how one artist from this generation cross-examined art history, reveled in it, and smashed it against the windshield of her anger. Levine’s subtle Swiftian thrashing of and love affair with the patriarchal canon are everywhere in this show. Her strategy was simple and not entirely novel. At the time, in the wake of Warhol, Pop, and conceptual art, numerous artists were investigating appropriation and representing culture, critically, satirically, and otherwise. It was an ism that quickly ran rampant. However, instead of rummaging through movies and magazines, as her far more lauded, much higher-priced colleague Richard Prince did (and still does), Levine tunneled into the storehouse of modern-art history, making obvious copies—bigger, smaller, in different materials—of work by Courbet, Mondrian, Brancusi, Léger, and many others. In doing so, she helped scramble the access codes so thoroughly that today, men are almost as flummoxed at art history’s gates as women. At the same time, Levine also helped destroy any fantasy of equal access to canonical fame and wealth. The boys still own the art world, now as then, and she and others made that pungently evident. I love and admire them for it.

Yet I’m not a fan of Levine’s work itself. Those remakes of other artwork are insular, speaking only to the tribe, and I often think she’s blandly grandiose or on academic autopilot. Her survey, with its overinflated title, “Mayhem,” seems at first a pas de deux of entre nous—a game of she knows we know she knows we know. With its tasteful lighting, elegantly organized spaces, and gray color-coordinated interior, “Mayhem” can feel like a posh Tiffany’s display arranged by purity police or an aesthetic house of the dead—a place where the spirit is drained from art and forlorn carcasses lay in state. Which may be the point.

There’s an ultra-deluxe installation of four full-size billiard tables, each with three balls in identical configurations. This ensemble is titled La Fortune (After Man Ray) and apes a 1938 Man Ray painting of (you guessed it) a billiard table with (right again) three balls in this exact arrangement. “I get it,” you think, if you are the kind of person who gets it. Otherwise, you probably just think you’ve wandered into an exclusive men’s club. Which may be the point.

Read more at: Saltz on Sherrie Levine

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