It’s Payback Time

From top, “La Fortune (After Man Ray)” (1990); “Red and Grey Check: 7-12” (2000).Photo: Danny Kim

Imagine it’s 1981. You’re an artist, in love with art, smitten with art history. You’re also a woman, with almost no mentors to look to; art history just isn’t that into you. Any woman approaching art history in the early eighties was attempting to enter an almost foreign country, a restricted and exclusionary domain that spoke a private language. Merely the act of creating art while female, in this atmosphere, was insurrectionary. How to love art without killing yourself or acquiescing to the rules of the game? How to get around, burrow under, enter, or blow up those apparently impervious walls? The late painter Elizabeth Murray rightly observed, “Seeing historically belongs to the guys … The greatest part about being a woman … is that I’m not really a part of [that art history]. I can do whatever I want.”

Sherrie Levine’s tightly controlled, academically stringent, sometimes stultifying survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art shows how one artist from this generation cross-examined art history, reveled in it, and smashed it against the windshield of her anger. Levine’s subtle Swiftian thrashing of and love affair with the patriarchal canon are everywhere in this show. Her strategy was simple and not entirely novel. At the time, in the wake of Warhol, Pop, and conceptual art, numerous artists were investigating appropriation and representing culture, critically, satirically, and otherwise. It was an ism that quickly ran rampant. However, instead of rummaging through movies and magazines, as her far more lauded, much higher-priced colleague Richard Prince did (and still does), Levine tunneled into the storehouse of modern-art history, making obvious copies—bigger, smaller, in different materials—of work by Courbet, Mondrian, Brancusi, Léger, and many others. In doing so, she helped scramble the access codes so thoroughly that today, men are almost as flummoxed at art history’s gates as women. At the same time, Levine also helped destroy any fantasy of equal access to canonical fame and wealth. The boys still own the art world, now as then, and she and others made that pungently evident. I love and admire them for it.

Yet I’m not a fan of Levine’s work itself. Those remakes of other artwork are insular, speaking only to the tribe, and I often think she’s blandly grandiose or on academic autopilot. Her survey, with its overinflated title, “Mayhem,” seems at first a pas de deux of entre nous—a game of she knows we know she knows we know. With its tasteful lighting, elegantly organized spaces, and gray color-coordinated interior, “Mayhem” can feel like a posh Tiffany’s display arranged by purity police or an aesthetic house of the dead—a place where the spirit is drained from art and forlorn carcasses lay in state. Which may be the point.

There’s an ultra-deluxe installation of four full-size billiard tables, each with three balls in identical configurations. This ensemble is titled La Fortune (After Man Ray) and apes a 1938 Man Ray painting of (you guessed it) a billiard table with (right again) three balls in this exact arrangement. “I get it,” you think, if you are the kind of person who gets it. Otherwise, you probably just think you’ve wandered into an exclusive men’s club. Which may be the point.

There’s a reference—just about unavoidable among artists who make reference to art history—to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. This one is a golden-colored bronze 1996 rendition titled Fountain (Buddha). Her recent work involves skulls, which are almost as obligatory these days. Here we get eight smallish cast-crystal ones, each resting in its own spiffy vitrine. The cases are arranged in a regular grid because in the art world, grid is good. If you’re in-the-know enough, you’ll spot a further Duchamp reference in the second installation of six gridded vitrines, each containing a shiny cast-bronze shape derived from Duchamp’s Large Glass. Then there are two shiny black grand pianos, each displaying a small egg shape, one black, the other translucent. Insiders will instantly recognize the form of Brancusi’s early-twentieth-century abstracted head, Newborn. The rest of you will likely think it looks stillborn. Which may be Levine’s point.

Levine’s sadistic level of artistic control, her relentless dominion over what’s being seen and said, and the visual vacuum she intentionally produces all create an uncanny alchemical inversion. The show becomes cryptically beautiful. In this gloomy airless temple, I began to see the highly calibrated hall-of-mirrors appeal Levine has for her fans. “Mayhem,” I think, is a sociopathic time machine that transports us back 30 years. But instead of letting us go and do what we want when we arrive, this demented machine forces us to remain there, like her a perennial outsider.

That’s when her desperation, incredulity, and fury start to become apparent. Prince once addressed the way he approached culture by saying “I brung the sheriff, and I shot him.” Levine, instead, echoes Valerie Solanas’s “I shot Andy Warhol.” Her shiny urinal turns an idol of high modernism into an obviously false, self-reflecting, degraded golden calf. (After all, it’s the ultimate men-only signifier.) The silky seduction of her generic paintings of generic paintings—stripes and squares, subtle surfaces, come-on color—coaxes you to love something old in new ways and experience new things in perverse ways.

Levine once said her work is just “questions—that’s all.” But they’re not asked passively or compassionately: They operate in blind spots, are aggressive, roguishly discursive, buffeting. Hers is an art of enigmatic exile, memory traces of things that might be, withdrawal. At the Whitney is a bronze sculpture of what looks like a calf’s skeleton—but look close and you’ll see it has two spines and two heads. That’s what I see here: Things spontaneously self-replicate, split, fissure, fracture, and multiply into beings in one body with more than one mind, organizing themselves to survive.

I admire the Whitney for putting on this quiet, vexing show. It’s guaranteed to give it a minuscule audience share of around 0.5 percent. But Levine’s is a conversation that still needs to happen, no matter who does and doesn’t get it or who does or doesn’t like it. All those groups include me. Which may be the point.

Sherrie Levine: Mayhem
Whitney Museum of American Art.
Through January 29.

It’s Payback Time