'I intend that my work contaminate history," says artist Sherrie Levine, who accomplishes exactly that by borrowing any bit of history that strikes her fancy for use in her own work.
A key and controversial figure in the post-Conceptualist Appropriationist school that coalesced in the '80s, the New York-based artist makes works that seem at a glance to be nothing more than blatant knockoffs of Modernist masterpieces. Levine, the subject of an exhibition that just opened at the Margo Leavin Gallery, has "remade" her own subtly altered versions of everything from photographs by Edward Weston and Walker Evans to Dada master Marcel Duchamp's infamous found urinal, which Duchamp transformed into a sculpture in 1917 simply by inscribing it with the signature of fictional artist R. Mutt.
"My art comes out of the Dada tradition," says Levine, whose entire body of work pivots on ideas introduced by Duchamp, particularly his idea of the "readymade." A man-made, found object that is usually mass-produced, a readymade is something created without artistic consideration that is chosen by an artist to be displayed as having aesthetic significance; Levine's twist on Duchamp's strategy is to use found art as her readymade.
"Duchamp's great contribution was his profound sense of irony, and it's hard to conceive of a readymade he doesn't inhabit to a degree," the 48-year-old Levine says during an interview at a Santa Monica hotel.
"In talking about readymades, however, I'd begin by pointing out there's no such thing as a neutral material that's devoid of association. Readymades are particularly loaded with association, though, so choice becomes the central creative gesture when you're working this way. As to how I choose, just as a landscape painter might be awed by a particular landscape, it's a gut-level response--and because I love art, many things trigger that response in me.
"I've always been interested in 20th century industrial forms, for instance, because they're anthropomorphic and geometric at the same time--and the urinal is a classic example of that," adds Levine, whose interpretation of Duchamp's urinal--her version is cast in bronze--is included in the current show.
"Another parameter is that I only appropriate work by deceased, white male artists," says Levine, who uses a lawyer to negotiate with the estates of artists whose works she wants to employ (she has occasionally been refused permission to proceed).
"Initially that wasn't a conscious intention, but when I noticed that pattern developing I realized it was part of the subject matter. In retrospect, I think I chose them because they have the authority, and one of my intentions is to subvert authority in the realm of the symbolic."
There's a good deal of back story in her art, and to grasp its nuances, the viewer must have a knowledge of art history and of Levine's history in particular.
"I'm not much of a populist when it comes to art appreciation, and I'm more interested in affecting a few people deeply," says Levine, who also has an exhibition of photographs of works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet and Van Gogh currently touring Europe. "I intend the work to be a slow read and want it to be discomforting."
Levine was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in suburban St. Louis. Of her early interest in art, she recalls:
"My mother loved painting, so we spent a lot of time at the St. Louis Art Museum, which owns one of Monet's 'Waterlilies' that's just beautiful. I remember seeing it for the first time when I was 8 years old and being very impressed. I was one of those kids who was always drawing, so my mother wanted me to be an artist from the time I was very young, but I had other interests and didn't commit myself to art until I was in my 20s.
"My mother was a big fan of the films of Douglas Sirk," she says, referring to the master of kitsch melodrama, "and my father loved Jerry Lewis, so those movies were a big part of my world when I was growing up, and I think they played a crucial role in shaping my sensibility as an artist. The meaning in those films is imploded, and they're intensely iconographic, flat and overdetermined--and all those qualities are very much present in my work."
After graduating from high school in 1965, Levine enrolled as a liberal arts major at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in 1969 and a master of fine arts in 1973.
"The late '60s was an exciting time to be a college student, particularly in Madison, which was as active as Berkeley in the antiwar movement," she says. "I'd been taking art classes all along, but somewhere around my third year I decided I wanted a career in art.
"I've always seen reductivism as the trajectory of Modernism, and at the time I was interested in Minimalism. I like art that packs a lot of meaning into a simple image so I loved the reductivism of Minimalism, and in the late '60s I began making paintings that looked a lot like the work of Brice Marden--who I knew nothing about at the time. When I finally saw his work I realized I was reinventing the wheel, so I started looking for another direction to take.
"From the time I began making art, I felt my work was never authored exclusively by me and was always acutely aware of the presence of other artists in everything I made. Initially I considered that a problem, but at a certain point I embraced it as unavoidable--and in a sense that was the beginning for me."
Having earned her master's degree, Levine landed a teaching job in Berkeley, where she remained for two years. Longing for a change, she moved again, this time to New York in 1975.
"When I got to Manhattan, New Image painting was the dominant developing trend," she says, referring to a movement that marked the beginnings of a figurative revival. "I lived on unemployment I got from having been a teacher and worked pretty much in isolation for a couple of years. Then I met Tom Lawson and David Salle, and David introduced us to all the artists he'd gone to school with at CalArts. Meeting them was important for me because they were focused and sophisticated, and knowing them helped me focus my ideas."
In 1977, Levine was included in "Pictures," a groundbreaking exhibition that explored the theme of representation and was curated by Helene Winer and Douglas Crimp for Artist's Space in New York.
That same year, Levine mounted her first solo show at a storefront at 3 Mercer St. run by Stefan Eins; the exhibition, titled "Shoe Sale," was a display of 75 identical pairs of shoes that she had bought at a San Jose thrift store.
"When I was in school I made some films using found figurines, so that was probably the first use of readymades," she says, "but my ideas really began to coalesce with 'Shoe Sale.' My father's job [as a shoe salesman] is what gave me the idea for the piece, so it was a more blatantly autobiographical work than I usually make. But the piece wasn't just about me, it was about things that are central to all my work--representation, repetition, identity and authenticity.
"We all search for authenticity, for the real thing, in every aspect of our life because we intuit that it exists, but it's very hard to find. The idea of originality has a lot of heat around it, and we hunger for the new as a way of denying how attached we are to the old. I tend to go back to things, though, and believe we all have a compulsion to repeat, and that repetition is essentially what our lives are.
"It's a popular misconception that originality is an absolute and enduring value in art," she says. "In fact, its importance tends to wax and wane. Still, the pressure to be original obstructs the progress of many artists. That's unfortunate and unnecessary, because I think it's impossible to be anything but original--even though my work questions whether any art is truly original."
SHERRIE LEVINE, Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. Dates: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Through Jan. 4. Phone: (310) 273-0603.