Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld is a monument of modernist architecture. It was built by Mies van der Rohe in 1928 as a private residence. Together with Haus Esters right next door, the two residences are part of the Kunstmuseums Krefeld, and are among the most beautiful exhibition spaces for modern and contemporary art in Germany. Haus Lange is a space that the American artist Sherrie Levine had long dreamt of using. For her solo exhibition in this historically and aesthetically significant building she presented a tailor-fit selection of works, mixing signature pieces with some that might surprise or irritate viewers. Levine is known for her habit of using modernist artworks as a point of departure for her own work. She belongs to the forefront of a generation of artists that became known during the late ’70s and early ’80s under the label of postmodernism. During the first half of the ’80s many American artists based their own work on earlier modernist art — critics described this trend as “appropriation art.” The photo works by Sherrie Levine after Walker Evans, Andreas Feininger, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and other masters of early modern photography are among the most radical works in this context. Her re-photographed images raised questions of originality and even copyright infringement. They are icons of the age of postmodernism.
The concept of postmodern art, as it was put forth by many critics at the time, can be seen today as an attempt to describe a fissure between modernism and the new art. In the view of postmodern critics such as Craig Owens or Hal Foster, modernism was identified with a quest for originality, authenticity and transcendence, whereas the new art was described as a manifestation of disillusionment with these values. It seemed fitting at the time to encounter so many artists preoccupied with questioning the originality of modern vanguard art. But, as most attempts at historical classifications of artistic developments are bound to fail because of their implicit simplification, it became obvious that the fissure between modern and postmodern was not so easy to pin down. Appropriations of earlier works have taken place in almost all periods of artistic creation as well as in many genres, from painting and sculpture to music, poetry and literature, with a variety of motivations ranging from education — copying the master — to homage, and to satire and even plagiarism and forgery. Sherrie Levine has reflected this complex territory from the very beginning of her artistic career. It might be justified to claim today that it is no longer important to attempt a classification of her work as modern or postmodern — it suffices to say that it surely qualifies as an art of outstanding complexity and beauty, stimulating desire as well as philosophical thought.
Levine has worked in a variety of media, ranging from photography to painting and sculpture. Her works are distinguished by a strong sense of perfection with little trace of the human hand — many of her works are manufactured by highly specialized artisans working repetitiously with carefully selected materials. Her paintings are in most cases executed on mahogany panels. Her sculptures are either cast in polished bronze or in black or white frosted glass. She has also crafted the appearance of objects as readymades, presented in rows of seemingly identical pieces such as the billiard tables in her 1991 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, derived from Man Ray’s painting La fortune (1938). Over the years, Levine has extended the panorama of original objects in her work. In addition to modern art she has represented everyday and natural objects such as skulls and animal skeletons. For her exhibition at Haus Lange, she selected works forming pairs or small groups she calls “posses” — an unusual word in this context but nicely alliterative with “pairs.” The presentation was impeccable. In the hall on the first floor of the villa, White Newborn (1993-1994) was presented on a Steinway grand piano; four walls of the building were sparsely and elegantly furnished with several postcard collages; and in the smaller rooms of the house, wooden showcases contained reflective bronze and occasionally black or white glass sculptures. It is unusual that these sculptures are presented as single pieces, making them appear more precious and less “conceptual” than in earlier shows in which the whole edition of a sculpture was exhibited — as for instance in Levine’s solo exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe in 2007, where an impressive row of cattle skulls could be seen, in clear reference to paintings by O’Keeffe. Repetition has been an important aspect of Sherrie Levine’s art, alluding simultaneously to the industrial fabrication of the object and to a psychoanalytic dimension — detachment and desire are present at the same time.
The four postcard collages in the exhibition consist of repeated images: Postcard Collage and Postcard Collage #2 (both 2000) showing picturesque landscapes while Detail from the Wall of the Ishtar Gate (c. 550 B.C.) — Striding Bull, 1-18 and Striding Dragon, 1-18 (both 2007) depict two motives from Assyrian culture. Together with the 14 sculptures they present an unusual aspect of serieality in Levine’s work: they should primarily be regarded as individual works of art, and the issue of repetition is addressed within the works themselves. The “pairs” presented here — Black and White Bottle (1992), Avant-Garde and Kitsch (2002), and Repetition and Difference (2002) reflect most clearly on the subjects of authenticity, originality and aesthetics. The two bottles are utterly neutral, even banal in their appearance, but it is disturbing that they are solid and not hollow, as proper bottles should be. These are three-dimensional images of bottles, and as such they are bland but perfect — philosophical archetypes of bottles. Pairs of gnomes confront one another — one a branded Walt Disney figure, the other a generic, anonymous, kitschy garden gnome that could be found in an ordinary household — with oblique references to Old World (a European garden gnome) and New World (an American dwarf fashioned and branded by Disney). Levine’s sculptures transform their source imagery, as usual, in either bronze or glass. The two odd couples are titled after two weighty and ambitious essays written by an American and a European writer: Clement Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch from 1939 and Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition from 1968 (the title was reversed by the artist, as well as by Deleuze himself in the first chapter of his book). In his excellent essay for the accompanying catalogue, art historian Howard Singerman elaborates on the philosophical premises of Levine’s work and sums up the contradictory relations in these two pairs: “The gnomes do not correspond one-to-one to their titles, nor to one another. They are not held in thrall, forsaking all others, but contingently joined, roughly cut from different series, from different bundles and networks. […] The two works are comprised of casts from three different figurines; the pickaxe-bearing Disney dwarf that appears in crystal in Avant-Garde and Kitsch appears in Repetition and Difference cast in black glass; their bronze dwarf partners are different from one another — they belong to different series — although they are related in their folkloristic simplicity. The repetition and displacement in Levine’s pairings suggests a sort of serial monogamy, a stuttering substitution of stand-ins for a lost original. Perhaps there is in the end a law Levine’s figures obey, that once again of Freud’s Oedipal family.”1
Two “posses” are shown in Krefeld: The Three Furies (2007) and The Three Muses (2006). These consist of three figures each; the Furies are cast from folkloristic sculptures made of twigs that resemble small, ghostlike creatures, whereas the Muses are cast from three piggy banks. The two groups lend themselves easily to an Oedipal reading, which Singerman supplies in his essay. They can be seen as representing little families with father, mother and child, the basic setting for the Oedipal drama as described by Freud. The only singular figures are anatomically fragmented or misshaped. False God (2007) was cast from the skeleton of a calf with two vertebral columns and two heads — a disturbing image made beautiful and even more disorienting by its transformation into shining metal. The Khmer Torso (2010) was cast from a fragmented image of a Buddhist sculpture from Cambodia, and is one of several sculptures Levine has made from works of art by non-Western cultures (she has also used masks from the Makonde in Tanzania and the Bwa in the Northern Congo as sources for her work). Using polished bronze as one of her signature materials, she is no longer restricted to any particular culture or period in her selection of sources. She is consistent, however, in her sense of the uncanny as characterized by Surrealism in the first half of the 20th century, and her deep involvement with the work of artists like Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp has left traces not only visible in the source materials she uses, but in the psychological disposition of many of her later works as well. Today, her sculptures can be experienced as a vital part of art history, and her voice is just as original and authentic as those of her predecessors. Her contribution has developed during a time when questions of authorship and authenticity were posed perhaps with greater force and urgency, but these questions are not crucial for an assessment of her art. More important is the conscious mixture of formal clarity and psychological precipitousness. In an essay entitled “Sherrie Levine: Rules of the game,” David Deitcher maintained that: “Levine suggests that ‘death of the author’ never meant a prohibition against creative work. It means that in spite of the crushing precedent of past masters, in spite of the cacophony of other voices, an artist is free to make art that expresses this dilemma. The ‘always-already-written’ introduced new rules to an old game in which artists and spectators had always shared — in the ambivalent situation of being inquisitive, desiring subjects with many more questions than answers.”2 Sherrie Levine has continued to pursue this line of inquiry with consequence and audacity.