Sherrie Levine’s “Mayhem,” a survey of her work since 1980 at the Whitney Museum, might have read differently a year ago. The nihilism of her postmodern ethos was appropriate in a world where the economy had crashed, and there was nothing you could do about it. What has happened since is a massive shift in consciousness, prompted by the worldwide Occupy movement. Now, almost any time of day, you can walk into Deutsche Bank’s atrium at 60 Wall Street and see half a dozen groups using the General Assembly model to discuss how to change society one microcosm at a time.
Levine’s generation of artists—she was born in 1947—experienced a similar disruption. Raised in the postwar ’50s and thrust into the roiling ’60s, they were confronted with a series of quandaries. For instance, what if you grew up with television and mass-produced objects and actually loved them, but now you were told to renounce these and make “unique” ones? And for women: What if all the art you grew up with—virtually the entire Western canon—was male, and now feminism was telling you to reject it?
Appropriation rose out of this desire to have it both ways, to keep what you loved—or at least knew intimately—and still make art. It was a great solution. But it was born in the 1970s, following the burnout of the ’60s, and it has run aground in recent years. Not only have artists like Levine, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince been dragged through the legal system for their cultural borrowing, but the postmodern irony and cynicism on which Appropriation was founded also feel outmoded in the Occupy Age.
It’s important to remember, however, when you encounter After Walker Evans, a grid of 22 black-and-white gelatin silver prints Levine photographed from a book of Evans’s famous 1930s photographs, that this was a radical gesture in 1981. When co-curator Johanna Burton asserts in the catalog that Levine changed our thinking about authorship, so that some of us see a Walker Evans and think “Sherrie Levine,” she’s right. This wasn’t just feminism: It was arm-wrestling with history, literally occupying images from the past and making them your own.
Levine’s conversation with modern male masters—Courbet, Degas, Mondrian, Malevich, Brancusi, and particularly Marcel Duchamp—continues throughout the Whitney show. There are recast Brancusi heads resting on grand pianos and a bronze remake of Duchamp’s famous 1917 urinal christened The Fountain; monochrome paintings made by averaging the colors in Kirchner or Monet paintings; and billiard tables “after” a painting by Man Ray.
The show would be better, though, if it stuck closer to Appropriation’s strong point: photography. Levine’s photos “after” Edward Weston aren’t here, and she returned to Evans at other times in her career. Instead there’s an emphasis on hard, cold sculpture in which Levine attempts, with mixed results, to appropriate and fuse modernism with minimalism, the reigning (patriarchal) movement of the ’60s.
What’s missing is the pleasure you find in many of her early sources, and this is too bad, since one of Levine’s touchstones is Roland Barthes, who championed the “pleasure of the text,” as well as the “death of the author.” “Mayhem” skews heavilytoward Duchamp, who also espoused pleasure. But Levine’s gestures feel like shrewd chess moves in which the game has become convoluted. What does it mean if your strategy was to upend art history—and then you became a canonized figure yourself, enshrined in the museum?
One of Levine’s early champions, the critic Douglas Crimp, predicted the museum’s demise in On the Museum’s Ruins (1993). While his musings were slightly premature, museums’ exhaustion rather than their vitality seems underscored by this show. The whole system is cracking: the canon, proposed initially by writers based in early capitalist epicenters; and American museums founded on robber-baron fortunes and controlled, nowadays, by the 1 percent.
Levine has covered a lot of ground in 30 years. But the display here feels sterile, and by the time you reach Crystal Skull (2010), a series of cast crystal skulls displayed in vitrines, you’re a long way from the Steal-This-Book radicalism of After Walker Evans. Instead, the skulls emphasize Adorno’s edict of the museum as mausoleum and link it with the death spiral of capitalism rather than the euphoric regeneration of the Occupy movement.