Sherrie Levine

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ARTS MAGAZINE - SUMMER 1985

AFTER SHERRIE LEVINE

by JEANNE SIEGEL


A Promethean thief or an immoralist confiscator, Sherrie Levine challenges art at its matrix of model and originality.


For the past eight years Sherrie Levine has dealt with appropriated imagery. Her first confiscations were collages. She cut pictures out of books and magazines and glued them onto mats. Since then she has made copies of photographs after Elliot Porter, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, and Alexander Rodchenko; drawings after Willem de Kooning, Egon Schiele, and Kasimir Malevich; watercolors after Mondrian, Matisse, El Lissitzky, and Léger, to name a few.

After the initial shock of discovering the artist's audacity in quoting and mounting famous artists' works, the question becomes: what then? Does her magnetism rest merely in the paradox of originality through copies? Does she recast the principle of the copy in a new and contemporary light? Why does she choose only male artists to copy? How does she view her own work and the considerable rhetoric that has gathered around it?

Jeanne Siegel: You were educated at the University of Wisconsin. How did this influence your direction, if indeed it did at all?
Sherrie Levine: I think growing up in the Midwest certainly did. I grew up in St. Louis and I went to school in Wisconsin for eight years. I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees there. Having the feeling of somehow being outside of the mainstream of the art world had a lot to do with my feelings about art. Seeing everything through magazines and books- I got a lot of my sense of what art looked like in terms of surface and finish.

JS: One feature that serves as a clue is the way you preserve in the way the faint tints or discolorations that were the result of the photoprinting or reproductive process. This distinguishes it from the original. So you were conscious of the notion of a secondary source from the start.

SL: Yes. It was the Sixties. I was in college and a minimal painter and Minimal art looked even flatter in magazines. I felt that my work was becoming very mannerist and empty for me. I began to use photography as a way of introducing representational imagery into my work.

JS: It seems significant that you received your graduate degree in photo-printmaking.
SL: I was interested in the idea of multiple images and mechanical reproduction. I did a lot of commercial art for money from the time I was in college until very recently.

JS: Do you see that as an influence also?
SL: I think it had a lot to do with it. I was really interested in how they dealt with the idea of originality. If they wanted an image, they'd just take it. It was never an issue of morality; it was always an issuee of utility. There was no sense that images belonged to anybody; all images were in the public domain and as an artist I found that very liberating.

JS: There are specific methods that commercial artists use, for example, tracing.
SL: And the use of copy cameras.

JS: It occurred to me that your process of working from prints is somewhat like the custom popular in the 17th century of copying a painting to make a print. What the print artist did was to remain true to the composition and poses of the figures, but they didn't nessarily hold to the original expression on people's faces. They thought of the print as being slightly original. In other words, it stepped away to become something new.
SL: I think that copies and prints were the main way of distributing images at that time, before photography.

JS: The Caravaggio exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum focuses the idea of copying in another way. An original Caravaggio is mounted next to a copy or to works that have been attributed to Caravaggio. The exhibition reflects the modern need for uniqueness, whereas at that time one commissioned a copy of a master because one loved the painting or because a pious patron might want an image of John the Baptist.

SL: So much of our sense of art history is based on copies, fakes, and forgeries. I just read The Caravaggio Conspiracy, a book about art theft and forgery written by an investigative reporter. While he's looking for a stolen Caravaggio painting, he comes across an incredible amount of forged art. There's always been a lot of it around. Some entire museum collections are forgeries.
JS: My point is that in the 16th century a copy was not necessarily frowned upon. People respected copies.
SL: I think it was a different relationship to history at that time. It was more like an Oriental belief in tradition. You strove to be fully mature in your tradition. Originality was not an issue. I think that's where modernism was a real break.

JS: In the process of copying from an original painting to make a print, the size is reduced. This seems to have some connection to your work.

SL: In most cases it is reduced from the original but maintains the size of the book plate. Maintaining a uniform format has a democratizing effect on the images that I like. The watercolors and drawings are traced out of books onto ll-by-14-inch pieces of paper. The paintings are easel-size on 20-by-24-inch boards.

The pictures I make are really ghosts of ghosts; their relationship to the original images is tertiary, i.e., three or four times removed. By the time a picture becomes a bookplate it's already been rephotographed several times. When I started doing this work, I wanted to make a picture which contradicted itself. I wanted to put a picture on top of a picture so that there are times when both pictures disappear and other times when they're both manifest; that vibration is basically what the work's about for me-that space in the middle where there's no picture.

JS: Can you elaborate on what originality means to you?
SL; It's not that I don't think that the word originality means anything or has no meaning. I just think it's gotten a very narrow meaning lately. What I think about in terms of my work is broadening the definitions of the word "original." I think of originality as a trope. There is no such thing as an ahistorical activity (I mean history in terms of one's personal history, too).

JS: What about the idea behind the introduction of your hand? This came about when you stopped copying photographs and began to draw "de Koonings."

SL: A lot of the most sophisticated psychoanalytic and feminist critiques about art and film posit the supremacy of the visual over all our other senses in a patriarchal society. I think a lot of what's alienating and oppressive about our media culture is its voyeuristic aspect. It's ironic that most of this theory that is applied to art has been mainly in support of photographic work. There seems to be a denial of the rest of the body- In art, the hand becomes the metonymical symbol for the body.

JS: There is something in the work that suggests that you thoroughly enjoy this hand work. It's visceral on occasion.
SL: Oh yes. There's no other reason to do it. For me, art's basically about pleasure. I'm not saying there's no pleasure in making or looking at photography, but there are definitely some different kinds of pleasure in making and looking at painting.

JS: Can you see this process of copying from a print as a manifestation of the recent revival of craft?

SL: I wouldn't want to deny that. I think a lot of people see this evidence of the body as antidotal to an overmechanized culture.
JS: Do you concentrate on matching? Do you investigate and reconstruct the original colors?

SL: I give it a couple of shots if necessary. I stop when the color works with what I've already got on my page. I don't make it a photo-realist activity because that's mechanistic again and then I'm back where I started. I'm trying not to be tyrannized by the original jmage. What I'm really interested in is constructing my relationship to the image.

JS: Does your choice of artist or particular work of that artist have any relation to this question of craft?

SL: Painting very complex images would become drudgery for me, and I have no interest in that.

JS; In titling your works After Kasimir Malevich or After Egon Schiele you are alluding to an accepted earlier convention in art- one which flowered in the Baroque period and continued into the 19th century. Viewed historically, you could say that during the Renaissance Vasari established a canon of greatness which was adhered to by later generations. Is there a parallel to this pattern in that you chose the so-called heroes from earlier Modernism?
SL: There is. I think about it a lot in psychological terms. I mean, in an Oedipal way, about the authority of the father and the authority of the father's desire. My work is so much about desire and its triangular nature. Desire is always mediated through someone else's desire.

JS: And this is why the someone else that you appropriate is always
male?
SL: A lot of what my work has been about since the beginning has been realizing the difficulties of situating myself in the art world as a woman, because the art world is so much an arena for the celebration of male desire.
JS: So his desire becomes yours in order to make this explicit? Then
it's in the nature of a critique, really.
SL; I prefer the word "analysis." Somebody recently referred to my watercolors as position papers. One thing I'd like to make clear is that I make the things I want to make. The language and the rhet- oric come afterward when I attempt to describe to myself and to other people what I've done, but I'm not making the art to make a point or to illustrate a theory. I'm making the picture I want to look at which is what I think everybody does. The desire comes first,
JS: Egon Schiele could be considered a possible exception to your choices of "greats." How did that come about?
SL: I haven't done this just in relationship to the history books, although obviously they form everybody's ideas about what's important. It's also been about my own personal relationship to this work, and Schiele is somebody who's been important to me.
JS: Why?

SL: There is something in his eroticism that strikes a chord. Partly it's the self-conscious representation of his own narcissism. I don't want to say too much on this topic. A girl's gotta keep some secrets.
JS: There seems to exist a kind of contradiction. Does your attitude have something in common with Lichtenstein's? Although he parodied the Abstract-Expressionist brushstroke, he said he liked it.
SL: It's a dialectical relationship, I think, which is the kind of relationship one has to authority. That's where the irony in the work is located. But the parody is not in relationship to the original; it's in how I perceive the original.

JS: In discussing the history of the changing approach to the object in the 20th century, particularly in relation to its uniqueness and originality, Suzi Gablik {Has Modernism Failed?) mentions your duplications of photographs of famous photographers. This follows a discussion of Rauschenberg's Erased Drawing of de Kooning's. It seemed to me that in a way you are doing the reverse of what Rauschenberg did: whereas he wipes it out, you are putting it back, albeit in another form.

SL: A lot of people do see my work as an erasure. I think the people it offends most imagine it's an erasure,
JS: In what sense?

SL: In the sense that it's a screen memory-a memory that blocks a more primal memory.

JS: What was your reaction to Gablik's analysis of your intentions and her conclusions? I quote: "Levine lays no claim to traditional notions of 'creativity.' By willfully refusing to acknowledge any difference between the originals and her own reproductions, she is addressing her work in a subversive way to the current mass cult for collecting photographs, and their absorption into the art market as one more expensive commodity. Obviously ideas like these are successful as a negation of commodity-oriented culture. Only until commodity culture succeeds in accommodating even these 'pirated' creations and turning them into yet another saleable item within the framework of institutionalized art-world distribution ... at which point they become more parasitic than critical, feeding on the very system they are meant to criticize."
SL: My works were never intended to be anything but commodities. It's taken a while for the work to sell but it has always been my hope that it would, and that it would wind up in collections and in museums. You know, money talks but it don't sing.
The work is in a dialectical relationship to the notion of originality. Originality was always something I was thinking about, but there's also the idea of ownership and property. Lawrence Weiner has this nice quote about wanting to make. a art that makes us think about our relationship to the material world. That's something that I feel very close to. It's not that I'm trying to deny that people own things. That isn't even the point. The point isthat people want to own things, which is more interesting to me. What does it mean to own something, and, stranger still, what does it mean to own n an image?

JS: Do you believe that viewers outeide of the inner circle of the art world know what it is?

SL: There's a lot of irony in this problem because when I first started making this work I thought that anybody could understand it. It didn't seem elitist to me at all. Any thoughtful person could understand that a picture of a picture was a strange object. I still think it's true that anybody can understand the work- Some people think they're not understanding it, that there's something that they don't know about, and that's when they feel deceiyed or betrayed. A picture of a picture is a strange thing and it brings up lots of contradictions; it seems to me that anybody can understand that. Obviously not everybody likes it.

JS: Some of the people who look at it might not even know the original, so they don't have a basis of comparison.
SL. I don't mind that. People enjoy or don't enjoy the pictures that I make. My pictures have other relationships than their relationship to me. I like to think that it's complex work and it can be appreciated on a lot of levels, or not appreciated on a lot of levels. For one thing, I think this work is very funny. I'm always surprised when people apologize to me for thinking it's funny. I want the work to be funny, but that doesn't mean I'm not serious.

JS: The practice of copying another existing artwork is often identified with the formative years of an artist. Are you connected to that or is it just coincidental?

SL: No; I've thought about it a lot, especially when I think of what I want to do next. I realize that this was something that I needed to do. It's interesting to me because I never consciously thought of myself as a student or apprentice, but I realize that it's a step that I wanted to take. I'm not in any way demeaning the work or saying that it's immature. But the irony to me is that people were so worried about what I would do next and it's been so generative for me.

JS: Could you discuss some of those developments generated by the use of the copy? For example, in the 1917 show (Nature Morte Gallery, October 1984), you coupled works by two artists that gave them a meaning beyond their showing separately.

SL; My appropriated images have been dealing with the Modernists and their ideas, a lot of which were Utopian. This summer when I was doing drawings by both Malevich and Schiele, I started to realize that the dates all circulated around 1917. It was amazing to me that these two extremely radical and yet seemingly mutually ex- clusive activities could be going on at the same time. I thought it might make sense to show Schiele's erotic drawings with Malevich's Suprematist works. [This was discussed earlier in an unpublished interview with Cindy Carr.]

JS: So this represented a comment on your part on the naive optimism in art's capacity to change political systems?

SL: When I began this work I was thinking about my relationship to the Utopian ideas expressed by the Modernists. We no longer have the naive optimism in art's capacity to change political systems- an aspiration that many Modernist projects shared. As Post-Modernists we find that simple faith very moving, but our relationship to that
simplicity is necessarily complex.

JS: In the more recent Repetitions show (Hunter College Art Gallery, March 1985), you used another strategy. You repeated six pencil drawings of an identical composition by Malevich.

SL: When Maurice Berger, the curator, told me he was doing a show called Repetitions and wanted me to be in it, I was very excited because I had been thinking about doing a piece where an image was repeated several times. Repetition's implied in the work anyway (i.e., if you can make one copy, then you can make any number of them). So I thought this was a perfect opportunity to repeat an image six times.

JS: Also, you now seem to be anxious to keep works together in a group that previously you showed singly. This is true of the works in the current Whitney Biennial.

SL: People have been loathe to discuss the work iconographically for some reason. Last month I was talking to the writer Howard Singerman who lives in Los Angeles; he was saying that people tend to look at the work as if it starts at the frame and goes out, as opposed to looking at the picture from the frame in. What he meant was that we've become so sensitized to context that we sometimes just see the picture as a hole in the wall. In fact, they are pictures.
They're very complicated pictures, but they can be read iconographically. The images in the 1917 show are crosses and people masturbating. Most people who have written about the work have either ignored or denied the iconographic content.

I think a lot of people seem to get lost in the gap and think that there's no picture there, when in fact there are two pictures there.

JS: Coming back to appropriation again, how do you feel that you differ, for example, from Andy Warhol, to whom you have expressed an affinity?

SL: There's an emptiness in Warhol's work that's always been very interesting to me because of that vibration I was talking about. There are three spaces: the original image, his image, and then a space in between, a sort of Zen emptiness- an oblivion in his work that's always been very interesting for me.

JS: Your choices of images are quite different from his.
SL: Yes, although I often think that Warhol chooses images that loves, which is what makes the work much less nasty than it might be, and that's important to me, too.
JS: A few months ago you were invited to show in an exhibition Production Re: Production, which dealt explicitly with appropition and you refused to participate. Why?
SL: I never aspired to belong to a school of appropriators. "Appropriation" is a label that makes me cringe because it's come to signify a polemic; as an artist, I don't like to think of myself as a polemicist.

I think I've softened a lot since I first started talking about this work. I should make it clear that I don't think art should be any one thing- my work only has meaning in relationship to everyone else's project. It has no meaning in isolation, and on the level of desire everyone's project is different. I believe that one of the most important advances that feminist artists and writers have made has in establishing the possibility of difference, the possibility of a plurality of voices and gazes. It's important to me that my work be situated in the totality of contemporary artmaking. I'm not trying to supplant anything; my work is in addition. The idea is to broaden the discussion, not to narrow it.
JS: In the process of becoming recognized, you have been grouped with certain artists referred to as "deconstructors." In what way do you separate yourself from them?

SL: I may have a more traditional relationship to art. I grew in St. Louis which has a very beautiful museum that I loved going to as a child. Although I have a conflicted relationship to art world institutions and culture industries, I do love art and modernist art in particular.
JS: Your work has triggered a good deal of rhetoric. I am interested in your response to some of the ideas that have been articulated. One, which we have already touched on briefly, is the role of the Oedipus complex as stated by Lacan. In an article on Lacan and Freud (The Massachusetts Review, Summer, 1979), Neal H. Bruss says: "For Lacan,'it is the resolution of the Oedipus complex which reduces the infinitude of potential desires and linguistic choices to a manageable system; it does so by initiating the child into a third order, the 'Symbolic,' the code of language and custom by which, the larger community operates. Lacan takes the Oedipal resolution as a parable like the mirror stage, justified by Freud's own recognition that it could be reached without the child having actually witnessed a primal scene. Lacan's parablistic reading of the Oedipal complex for example, does not exclude female children from the Oedipal role. ..."

SL: That's why I've been so interested in critiques of Freud and Lacan by feminists like Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell, because they show us a way to have ideas about feminine desire. They talk about how culture creates an indivisible bond between gender and sexuality, a bond which becomes a yoke, a bond which is even more complex in the case of femininity.

JS: You have expressed interest in Jean Baudrillard's critiques. According to Craig Owens (Art & Social Change, U.S.A., April, 1983), Baudrillard argued that power is no longer exercised exclusively or even primarily through control of the means of production, but through control of the means of representation: the code. What was needed, then, was a critique of representation, but one free from a productivist bias. Owens concludes, "It was such a critique that new group of artists set out to provide." As you were included included in this group, please comment.
SL: This writing exposed the indignity of speaking for others. Like most women, I'd gotten pretty tired of being depicted and represented by men.

JS; A year ago, when asked whether you anticipated a change in your work away from working "after" other artists, you responded by saying that this was really your desire at the moment. "I'm making the pictures I want to look at," you said, which implied that were not thinking about any change. How do you feel now?
SL: I'm in a transitional period right now. I'm thinking of making more kinds of choices ... I guess I'm reluctant to speak about it too much yet.

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