Cast a Cold Eye

John Haber
in New York City

Sherrie Levine and Crazy Lady

Remember when a museum was a loved and fearsome place? Sherrie Levine surely felt it as one, and she is still getting over her love and her fear. In her museum retrospective, she wants others to get over it as well. She is smart enough to know that it will take some doing. And she hardly minds if it means that others will not exactly love or fear her art. Still, is outsmarting them enough? For better or worse, Levine makes protest cool and elegant.

One has to be a little mad to be an artist—to be a woman artist, perhaps totally mad. It is not just that the odds are against you, although the odds are astronomical. No, the "the madwoman in the attic" comes with the territory, because it captures a whole range of stereotypes. It combines the helpless victim, the annoying ex-girlfriend, and the threat of sexual desires unleashed. As feminism goes, it is so "first wave" that it is downright quaint. "Crazy Lady," a group show from already a generation after Levine, embraces it. Sherrie Levine's Fountain (Madonna) (courtesy of Simon Lee gallery/Paula Cooper, private collection, 1991)

The museum as showroom

I wonder if the division between uptown and downtown was ever starker than in the 1970s. The Village had long changed, where Jackson Pollock had once exhibited and where Willem de Kooning had painted and drank. MoMA had set the canon, and an artist could go to the Met alone to discover his (and almost always his) favorite paintings. Minimalism had refused to make anything that could hang on their walls—and earthworks had promised the ultimate escape. The cracks, though, were showing, and they led not just to Soho and East Village art, but also to commerce. What André Malraux had long ago called the "imaginary museum," of a national or western heritage, had begun to find a very real public.

Sherrie Levine might have heard that story on coming east with her MFA from Wisconsin, and it is the story she tells to this day. It helps explain why "MAYHEM" both is and is not a retrospective—and is and is not mayhem. It opens with a wall of reproductions or, as she helped redefine them, rephotography. She exhibited her photographs of Depression-era photographs as her own, and the complete set after Walker Evans from 1981 is still, ironically enough, her signature work. Beyond it, she displays a full career, but hardly in chronological order. In fact, it looks like nothing so much as a high-end showroom.

It is the showroom of her imagination, where art, money, and death are always in the air. It has ample room for her latest work—twelve crystal skulls, each in its own display case—and one may not walk among them. They leave no doubt how one is to see two abstract heads from 1993 and 1994, each on a baby-grand piano. They leave no doubt, too, how one must see half a dozen more abstract casts from 1991. One can see them in False God of 2008, a golden calf reduced to a cast bronze skeleton. One can see them in the hush surrounding four mahogany pool tables from 1990, identical down to the positions of their three billiard balls.

Levine is ever the skeptic with no room for doubts. The skepticism turns first and foremost on men, starting with Evans. The more cryptic fragments in their "vitrines" look like body armor, and Levine calls them Bachelors. She adds subtitles in French after suitably masculine occupations, from an undertaker's assistant to the police as "guardians of the peace." Gilded urinals from 1991, too, are wrenched from a man's world—or at least from a room that women cannot enter. Figures after Krazy Kat slink off into that world in shame.

It is a proud world all the same, in which the cartoons are casein on fine wood, and the one called Black Spattered is anything but. Women appear as the fantasy of a spread crotch on eighteen postcards, from 2009, or an absinthe drinker, rephotographed in 1995. The man beside her is never quite a clown, a vice, or a companion, much like the absinthe. They appear over the years in the idealized nature of photographed orchids. Most of all, though, women appear as the artist, who has banished this world once and for all in order to make it her own. Evans was working toward Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with James Agee, and she has praise in mind for another gender entirely.

Of course, she has cast her cold eye on art along the men who made it. Paintings, or their simulacra, line the walls. For years she has simulated elegance in cheap plywood with its knots replaced. Other paintings, from the 1980s, have stripes after Brice Marden. Later ones have tones based on Piet Mondrian, Claude Monet, and Alfred Stieglitz—or patterns like chessboards, on which Marcel Duchamp might once have played. That, though, is just the showroom decor, and it leaves the appropriation.

History lessons

Obviously the urinal preserves Duchamp's Fountain. Less obviously, Bachelors copies the Cubist architecture of his Nude Descending a Staircase. The title alone strips the brides and the nakedness from Duchamp's "large glass," The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. Each postcard crotch appropriates Gustave Courbet, each absinthe drinker Edgar Degas. The pool tables play off Man Ray, from a painting in the Whitney's "Real/Surreal" right downstairs. The black pianos mimic a collector's display of Constantin Brancusi.

And if you did not know all that, go immediately to the rear of the class. If you did not catch the links between them, masculinity, and wealth, learn your lesson now. Levine will not remind you of your favorite teacher, and that, too, is part of the lesson. One cannot come for praise or encouragement, because too much is already on a pedestal. One cannot meet with her after class, one on one, because simulacra have no place for one. That would accept the idea of ownership.

The museum as showroom hardly permits wall labels for remedial students either. Johanna Burton and Carrie Springer, the curators along with Elizabeth Sussman, offer a delightfully thorough handout all the same. They play up the reverence beside the anger. They want to convey not just Levine's greatest hits—and her hits at male art. They want also her greatest loves. They want to think that, all along, she is debunking her own fears as well.

Could that explain her obsession and her explicitness? Those lessons leave nothing to chance. The artist even subtitles her version of Duchamp's urinals Madonna or Buddha, just in case you missed his transformation of them into sculptural niches. Alternatively, could the museum be desperate to welcome Levine into its enclave—and could she have become the insider herself? The show seems awfully spare for a career and awfully posh for the old East Village. Then again, that may serve as a lesson, too.

Walker Evans's (for real) Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife (University of Texas, Austin, 1936)Levine does not easily run out of lessons, and the 1980s were full of them—all, like my opening story, at least partly a fiction. She came up with the "Pictures" generation, but without the heat of Barbara Kruger, the swagger of Richard Prince, or the humor of either one. One might place her between Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman. Lawler photographed art as private collection and commodity, while Sherman reinvented tradition as a woman's anonymous self. Rosalind E. Krauss, Arthur C. Danto, and John Berger (after Walter Benjamin) had all found copies liberating, as a blow against the avant-garde. Levine knows that, on a Web page like this one, her Walker Evans is indiscernible from the original.

For all that, she underestimates Modernism's true mayhem, the explosion of the art market ever since, and her viewers. Even before the 1970s, Thomas Hoving had created the blockbuster, but in part to democratize the museum and to overcome fears, and Evans collected postcards. Malraux did write that "the art museum is one of the places that give us the highest idea of man," in 1951, but his "imaginary museum" was all about copies. Levine never really tolerated mayhem anyway. She was always way too smart for her own good, and she is smart enough to know it, too. Some days I have had enough of the art scene and the mayhem myself, but this once I would just as soon learn my lesson on my own.

The madwoman in the gallery

The seven artists in "Crazy Lady," curated by Jane Harris, are third wave after all. For one thing, they include a man, Richard Beck, and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, perhaps another species entirely. From a cult rock musician in England, P-Orridge has been changing gender one small operation at a time, in tandem with his (or her) significant other. One can see the changes as brave, transgressive, obscure, pointlessly repulsive, or an act of love. For another thing, the show is mostly funny, allusive, and, now and again, downright sexy. They know that even MoMA is changing, and galleries are doing better still.

Naturally the man brings the bad news and quotes the textbook. Beck displays what he labels as patient drawings, with figure numbers. They look like expressionism under sedation. Typed captions isolate the odd images from real people while evaluating them in terms of a patient's progress. The clinical voice gives new meaning to art about art. Elsewhere, progress is more in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is almost always the patient.

Stephanie Snider goes back to a classic literary example, with printed curtains that give reality to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 "The Yellow Wallpaper." All but transparent, they divide the gallery without calling attention to themselves. The subject's very invisibility is at issue, and you may wonder at first why they are there. Other patients, however, will not vanish without a fight. This being art, not to mention art about women, the fight also has much to do with keeping up appearances. It is also about failing.

Kathe Burkhart sure gives it a go, with a painting that screams Kiss My Ass. She suits its poster style to its subject, Liz Taylor, but the circular shape may imply a mirror. Lizzi Bougatsos's photographs fall somewhere between self-portrait and fashion display, too, give or take the cracked glass and overlay of metal teeth caps. Daniella Dooling gets still more confessional, clinical, or both. Her Camisol amounts to a strait-jacket of false fingernails. In Thorazine Rebel, insects creep closer and closer to a wide-open eye—sometimes floating, sometimes merging into skin like a tattoo.

P-Orridge seems relaxed for a change, with riffs on transformation that include false teeth and Hitler mustaches. One remembers, too, that self-mutilation is part of a madwoman's threat—the threat of losing physical attractiveness along with physical control. Lisa Levy sure feels the threat, as in portraits a bit like Cindy Sherman of The Women I'm Turning Into. One of them, on video, appears to be suing in the People's Court to recover her dog. I hope you catch her signed postcards of a much prettier young face, from "the looney bin." If not, write imahomemaker@yahoo.com, for it is "time to order more."

Unlike Jane Eyre's Rochester, the second-floor gallery does not have an attic, but it does have a back room. There Lordan Bunch exhibits small paintings of hysterics, based on a late nineteenth-century Iconographie Photographique de la Salpètriere. They could not have had the benefit of Levy's cabinet of Prozac bottles, but they look drugged all the same—especially as one wall's studies fade into hospital beds and into black and white. Saltpeter may have one thinking less of a sham cure than of witchcraft. Has anything in the iconography changed in all that time? Maybe or maybe not, but it has become more fun to challenge it.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Sherrie Levine: MAYHEM" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through January 29, 2012, "Crazy Lady" at Schroeder Romero & Shredder through October 8, 2011.

 

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