this quiet, vexing show


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.

more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.