by Susan Tallman
One of the most common complaints about the art worldabout museums, galleries, and especially about contemporary artistsis that they have to depend too much on specialized knowledge, knowledge out of the reach of the casual observer. In this country in particular, with its faith in the autodidactic, any works or exhibitions not immediately accessible or self-explanatory are likely to inspire charges of elitism or, conversely, lack of quality. While historically it is true that the enjoyment of good art has always required some degree of cultivation, the question remains open: how much background knowledge is (or should be) necessary to appreciate a work of art?
Prints suffer from this problem particularly, and they have always proved a somewhat rarified taste. Because the method of their production is so indirect, often invisible in the final product, the viewer has little sympathetic sense of the artist at work. In place of the physical empathy inspired by van Gogh's isolated brush strokes, for example, lies the dull question, "How was it done?" It does not help that prints are often small, flat, and black-and-white. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, prints are very often derived from another body of work; paintings, drawings, sculpturesobjects with which the print aficionado will be aware, and which will color his impression and understanding of the familiar image so that it appears to him as a much richer thing than it might to the observer for whom those connections don't exist. For those in the know, the print can be the eloquent distillation of an artist's grander statementsan image reduced in color, mass, and complexity, to the bare minimum of what was essential to the idea.
These issues are brought to mind by a group of woodblock prints called Meltdown1, by Sherrie Levine. The four images, each a pattern of twelve color rectangles, are computer-generated analytical reductions of paintings by four modern masters: Mondrian's Tableau No II, Kirchner's Potsdam Square Berlin, a Monet Rouen Cathedral, and L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa. They come in a pristine poplar box, with a colophon that reads: "The twelve-color woodblock prints in the portfolio Meltdown have been created by Sherrie Levine by entering images, after Duchamp, Monet, Kirchnec, and Mondrian into a computer scanner that spatially quantizes and transforms these images into the minimum number of pixels, thus determining each of the colors in the four prints."
If this explanation seems obscure, imagine a digital approximation of a picture in which the computer interprets a tiny area to be a particular grade of gray or shade of color; the difference between the texture of this digitized image and that of film is that in the former these areas are stiffly rectangular "pixels" rather than blobby chemical grains. Higher resolution is gained by increasing the number of pixels per square inch until, in computer typesetting for example, the individual pixels are invisible to the naked eye. What Levine did was to reduce the number of pixels to twelve, so that large areas of canvasswatches housing multiple colors, complicated forms, occasionally elaborate brushworkare approximated in a single chunk of color, a sort of average of all the chromatic events occurring within the swatch. Working from a computer printout, Levine and her printers, Maurice Sanchez and James Miller, replicated this in the form of inked wooden blocks, bound together in a matrix, and printed them with masterful delicacy onto Korean Kojo paper. There is something undeniably winsome (and perhaps suspiciously cute) in this wedding of state-of-the-art technology to the ancient woodblock, that most Luddite of print media. The prints themselvesserene, abstract, vaguely oriental in texture, harshly contemporary in designdo little to suggest either high tech or their borrowed patrimony, or, for that matter, Levine's other work.
Levine first became known, and is still probably best known, for her appropriation pieces of the early eighties. In the most straightforward of these, she would take photographs of photographs by great photographers, title them simply After Walker Evans, or After Elliot Porter, and present them as her own work. Since the "original" works were photographic, since they shared both image and material with Levine's "Afters," there was no immediately perceptible difference apart from the accompanying label. (For Meltdown, the computer worked not from the actual paintings but from four Levine photographs of 1983: After Marcel Duchamp, After Piet Mondrian, After Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and After Claude Monet.} These works were heralded as the definitive attack onor mockery ofthe modernist cult of "originality." So definitive, so lucid did they seem on this point, that the issue of what constitutes originality and whether it is a necessary component of art seemed dead in the water.
Levine then moved on to paintings on plywood in which the plywood "eyes" would be fitted out with gold, and to paintings of gameboardscheckers and backgammon. Last fall she exhibited sculptural glass realizations of the "bachelors" from Duchamp's The Bride Snipped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.
Meltdown could be seen as the elegant merger of these three modes; the appropriation of imagery from the canons of great art; the formal, gridded rigor of the gameboard; the homage to and reinterpretation of famous artworks in the form of attractive, independent objects. But Meltdown doesn't reproduce pre-existing images; rather, it creates new ones. It is a work not of appropriation but of interpretation, albeit by interpretation through automation. It is a distillation, accomplished by successive stages of removalfrom the paintings to Levine's reproductions; from the reproductions to the computer; from the computer's output to the woodblock. Each stage is subject to error and variation, intentional and unintentionalcolor, scale, proportion: all may shift. It is very much like the traditional process that has produced prints for centuries; and interestingly, the only time that Levine has employed computerized, quantized reduction was when she created these prints. The idea that they are created from pre-existing images automatically, rather than by human interpretation, allows some of the confusion about "originality" to be maintainedbut, of course, only if one has read the colophon.
There is nothing in the appearance of the prints themselves that suggest such an extraordinary etiology. Separated from the colophon and the press release, they are simply handsome, decorative geometric images banal and unproblematic. Certainly some are more chromatically appealing than others (the Duchamp image features a central stripe the color of Band-Aids) but one would seem off-key in the tasteful corporate office or lounge. There is nothing about them to suggest Monet, or Kirchner, or Duchamp, or Mondrian. There is nothing about them to suggest great art. Which is, of course, the point.
One could argue that the only interest of the prints is circumstantial, or even" experimental" a sort of spreadsheet of color balances in modern painting. And Levine's work has often been interpreted less for its visual presence than for its philosophical function as a sort of aesthetic "proof."
At face value, Levine's method is reminiscent of those old "how-to" reductions of great masterpieces into color formulas, spatial formulas, compositional formulas, and linear formulas. In the 15th and l6th centuries it was the debate between Vasari and Lodovico Dolce over whether form or color was the most significant element of painting. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the methods of Natural Historyrigorous formal analyses of component partsthat were used (unsuccessfully) to determine what constituted great art. The history of art and aesthetics is studded with such fascinating failures to understand the mechanisms by which an art object moves us. In one sense, Levine's computer is just one more inappropriately applied analytical tool, and as with earlier, discarded systems of analysis, is of greatest interest where it fails.
Had her intent been a serious exploration of modernist form, the futility of the exercise could have been predicted from the outset. For one thing, the computer took only one itemcolorinto account, and Lodovico Dolce aside, there is usually more to art than that. For another, there is her very careful selection of paintings: these four were executed within 30 years of one another, but their respective purposes and intents, the nature the elements that contrive to give them meaning, are radically different; as different as the aims and interests of Impressionism, Expressionism, Dada, and de Stijl. Each appealed to a different artistic vision, to a different part of the brain, one might say. Nonetless they were submitted to an identical procedure, a procedure bound to rob them of those differences, and to establish a false equivalencea banality.
In the colophon, Levine describes twelve as the "minimum number of pixels" but it is unclear whether this limitation is a technical or an aesthetic one. Theoretically, one could reduce each of the paintings to one pixel, a single compound average of all the color values displayed on the canvas that would, as anyone who ever melted down their Crayolas knows, probably end up a dull brownish gray. It would be the logical extreme of Levine^ method, but it would have no
the quixotic, clever richness that Meltdown actually suggests. It is easy to see that if reduced far enough, most things come out to the same thing; the atomic particles that make up a great painting are about the same as that make up a bad oneit's not an evocative proof. Twelve, however, is a number just large enough, a situation just complex enough to encourage the idea that some telltale bit of character, some recognizable key, might remain.
What's compelling in Levine's work is her attempt to pin down just what's compelling about art. What is it, if anything, that remains when various, supposedly intirinsic elements are stripped away? In the case of the isolated prints of Meltdown, little but technically competent, moderately appealing abstractions. But a viewer who knew how the prints were produced would have a very different experience of the work- (A further experience would be available to the viewer familiar with the particular paintings in question, though, interestingly, these are not specified anywhere in the documentation surrounding the prints.) In their separation, the images are unspectacular, the idea more a pedantic note than an aesthetic pleasure. In the end, it is neither of these, but rather the rift between them that is the most poignant part of the piece, calling attention to the tenuousness of the links between the appearance of an object and the knowledge that gives it meaning, between what you see and what you get.
1. Sherrie Levine. Meltdown, 1989, a suite of four color woodblock prints, 36.5" x 25". edition of 35 Published by Peter Blum Editions.
Susan Tallman is an artist and writer. Her column on prints and editions appears regularly in Arts.