NOT PAINTING: THE NEW WORK OF SHERRIE LEVINE
Stephen W. Melville
These things that are not paintings frame themselves framing themselves with only an absence, a not, at the centerwhich is to say that there is a center, and it is marked and remarked, traced and represented, not wholly absent, a painting after all, knot painting.
Is there anything to say about Sherrie Levine's knot paintings at Baskerville + Watson that is not obvious? They seem Duchampian objects, assisted ready-mades wrapped in a pun, and we are now living rather late a history of such gestures. What can such an action do now that has not already been done?
These questions edge on to the turf long occupied by Levine, that of repetition. This has frequently enough been taken to mark a problematic of exhaustion; all our gestures are worn out by or appropriated to our media and our history; authority, originality, capital-A Art, are all no longer possible for us. But Levine's work has been ever more explicitly oriented not to exhaustion but to desire and its historical situation. If the early appropriations of photographs seemed unproblematically described and titled as, e.g., After Edward Weston, the series of Schiele pictures, the masturbatory content of which is rendered essential by titles like Self-Portrait after Egon Schiele, made the question of artistic desire central, shifting the ground of Levine's work irretrievably away from any univocal critique and into the difficult double-binds of a modernism so late as to involute itself into its own post-. Her production now operates explicitly within the knot of this double-bind, and her paintings-that-are-not become powerful explicators of this place.
We may see in the bare wood of these things an allusion to the Arte Povera impulse to find a margin in which art can still work (Levine has offered this connection in conversation); the gold paint on that wood may put us in mind of icons, recalling us to the critique of the status of art that is now a precondition of any work's gaining an audience; and the shallow glass-fronted boxes these works are may recall Joseph Comell, while their emptiness might lead us to note that wood is the material of frames as gilt is the stuff of ornament. Both of these are what Kant calls "parerga," accompaniments of works, "erga," rather than works themselves. We may feel invited to place these things, along with their accompanying striped generic abstractions, beside Allan McCollum's generic paintings and frame-heavy simulacra, but Levine means these objects to count nonetheless as works and not simply as allusions to works. These things that are not paintings frame themselves framing themselves with only an absence, a not, at their centerwhich is to say that there is a center, and it is a marked and remarked, traced and represented, not wholly absent, a painting after all, knot painting.
The Dadaist gesture thus eventuates in a work. The can-opener is used against itself, opening a way into artor, more precisely, showing that once one avows the knot of one's desire it will have neither outside nor any simple inside, framing a world. Kant's parerga become ever more internal to the work they would simply delimit, so that in the history that followsKant's text we find Duchamp displaying for us the institutional logic of the frame even as Martin Heidegger is unpacking and insisting upon its ontological import, a different shape of the support. If we can no longer be very comfortable with the sometimes mystifying rhetoric of Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art" we cannot for all that step free of his claims for the radical training and framedness of works.1 Heidegger and Duchamp are tangled together in Levine's Gold Knotslaced in the logic Jacques Derrida calls parergonal. In this entanglement flashes the complex, partial fractal of our world, neither folly literal not simply rhetorical, neither without art nor apart from society.2
There is no such thing as not painting except outside of that Scene of Instruction that has lodged in one the desire to paint (or has lodged one in the desire to paint, as if desire were not simply personal but something more like a place in a world). It may be that inhabiting, or being inhabited by, this desire means that one can own that desire only as a desire to overcome the very painting which is its source and root,'but also its block or denial; and one's desire might then be driven to reform itself as a desire not to paint and finally to acknowledge itself as a desire to not-paint. The term "Scene of Instruction" is Harold Bloom's,3 and his explorations of the intertwining of influence and desire, defense and appropriation seem peculiarly apt to the work of this most patient explorer of that moment at which the artist is captured or forged by the desire of art.
But if Levine's work unfolds within a deep awareness of the centrality of influence, it does not wholly embrace Bloom's schemas of Oedipal agonism and violence. Rather, it demands that we take an interest in an older vocabulary of artistic formation: copy, imitation, forgery, are essential to the experience of her work, as is a sense for the distinctions that hold these terms together and apart. The Stripes shown with the Gold Knots deploy themselves uncannily between imitation and forgery, refusing what is nonetheless their originality, displaying their vulnerability to influence, die fact of their (perhaps mere) following. They would stand on no ground more powerful or autonomous than that (they refuse genius). The automatisms of desire examined here cut far deeper than the strategies of geometry and chance that give rise to the two series. These strategies seemed themselves at one time in our recent history adequate safeguards against ingrained automatisms of taste, but for Levine there is no way out of the school of desireno way that matters in any case. We are enrolled there before we know it.
Levine has mentioned Blinky Palermo in connection with these works. The most obvious link is between the plywood of the Gold Knots and that of his Happier Than the Morning Sun or his untitled trapezoid, but one can also say that the stripe paintings, however much they may bring Marden to mind when taken individually, are built as a series on principles similar to those of Palermo's late work (Himmelsrichtungen, e.g.). Those more familiar with Palermo will probably find more to say, but I want simply to stress the way in which Levine's realtion to Palermo in this work is not caught by any notion of "appropriation." It must be posed in terms of influence or imitation; and, given the fragmentary nature of Palermo's oeuvre, it is tempting to appeal Bloom's notions of "clinamen" and "tessera," limitation and completion, to gloss the particularity of this moment.
But it is also of interest to note the continuity between Palermo's concern with permeability and Levine's; this would suggest that Levine wants to find a way to think about influencethat is, a way to be influenced that does not turn on defense and aversion but on a certain openness, a willingness to admit belatedness. On Bloom's account such openness condemns one to weak or minor art; I think it is difficult now to say whether Levine's bet is that this is not so or that a certain minority is just what matters now. Either way, we are asked what we make of strength nowhow we make that out.
Like her parergonal frames, Levine's imitations take us back to Kant and the transition, not fully achieved in his text,4 from an aesthetics of the school to one of genius. Kant's text may stage the primal scene of a certain modernist formalism, a scene whose ambiguities we have acted out over and over again but rarely placed under close analysis. Sherrie Levine's enchantment with modernism can return us to Kant's textnot to illustrate, because its complexities lie beyond illustrationbut in order that we might read it, might reinstruct ourselves or reinscribe ourselves within it, perhaps altering our destination. This we can call her deconstruction of the modernist frame; it is not quite what we would mean if we were to speak of a demystification of the frame with all that would promise of deliverance from it.
The genitive in the desire of art is ambiguous, at once generative and disabling. Duchamp's work can seem torn by these ambiguities, unfolding with equal radicality toward the idealism of the Large Glass and the materiality of the ready-mades, toward the extraordinary closure and literalism of Etant donne... and the transcendent topicality of The Bride..-.. To see Levine's Knot paintings in this waketo read them as if entitled "after Duchamp" or "Not Painting after Duchamp"is to see them as they struggle with and against that legacy, reinventing art out of what we have (perhaps too easily) taken as its undoing; inevitably in that act they reinvent Duchamp as well, making a new issue of the unity of that oeuvre, knotting Levine's desire indissolubly with Duchamp's (call this art history).
This work is not what one would call "site-specific" but I find it difficult to keep from reading its showing at Baskerville + Watsonon lower Broadway, between the ironies and confidences of SoHo and the more exuberant cynicisms and brashnesses of the East Villageas emblematic of the situation in which she undertakes this exploration of the difficulty of making art now"after modernism," in a phrase whose exact inflection seems caught in permanent oscillation. I am reminded of her remarks to the Village Voiceremarks that are only on their surface not about the announced topic of the politics of art:
|... artists worry about the power of the past and its representations. ... Finding a new way to express this old concern is a task fraught with contradiction. We are accused of irony when the concern is expressed and nostalgia when it is denied.... I feel my pieces are most successful when they function as membranes permeable from both sides so that there is an easy flow between an imaginary past and an imaginary future, between my history and yours.
Membranes. Not paintings. Would-paintings, Knot paintings. Works that step outside of negation within its knotspassant en dehors de negation dans ses noeuds. Passing into French, the work becomes feminist,bworking within and against the phallus, le noeud, as it works in and against what is not, declining mastery and eliding or evading Bloom's Oedipalism. In the scene of instruction an audience is engendered, formed, and transformed; in and across these membranes the criteria of strength are placed in question and perhaps revised. Art goes on, gets done, does not end; repetition beyond exhaustion.
1. For example: "The strife that is brought into the rift and thus set back into the earth and thus fixed in place is figure, shape, Gestalt. Createdness of the work means: truth's being fixed in place in the figure. Figure is the structure in whose shape the rift composes and submits itself. This composed rift is the fitting or joining of the shining of truth. What is here called figure, Gestalt, is always to be thought in terms of the particular placing (Stellen) and framing or framework (Ge-setll) as which the work occurs when it sets itself up and sets itself forth" (Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans, Albert Hofstadter [New York: Harper & Row, 1&71], p. 64).
Or again: "The conflict is not a rift (Riss) as a mere cleft is ripped open; rather, it is the intimacy with which opponents belong to each other. This rift carries the opponents into the source of their unity by virtue of their common ground. It is a basic design, an outline sketch, that draws the basic features of the rise of the lighting of beings. This rift does not let the opponents break apart; it brings the opposition of measure and boundary into their common outline... The rift-design is the drawing together into a unity, of sketch and basic design, breach and outline."
Part of the difficulty of taking this kind of thing to apply to work like Levine's lies in its transparent participation in the rhetoric of sublimity; but this should also be part of its interest, since Kant's analysis of the sublime Is source of much of what is most powerfully disruptive of the formalism enunciated in his analytic of taste (thus, for example, Heidegger's description of the "rift-design" as at once outline and breach captures much of the structure and logic Derrida reads in the pareregon).
2. Heidegger's aesthetic concerns take on a social and implicitly political dimension through his diagnosis of the essence of technology as framing (Ge-stell) in such essays as "The Age of the World Picture," "The Question Concerning Technology," and "The Turning." I suspect that the most powerful approach to the politicality of contemporary art will come through the articulation of this material with more recent French work.
3. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Publishing