Anxiety of Influence, a one act
After Sherrie Levine, a one act
THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE - HEAD ON
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN SHERRIE LEVINE AND JEANNE SIEGEL
A ONE ACT PLAY BY MICHAEL MANDIBERG
Jeanne Siegel: Perhaps itıs an apt moment to consider the consistent threads over time and , what might be more interesting , the shifts in your point of view. Could we also elicit some new insights on individual projects? For example. your collages made in 1979 consisted of silhouettes of presidents - Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy - in profile, cut from photographs of women. The profiles were derived from the faces of coins and framed the images of women cut out of fashion magazines. This suggested that the role of the woman, fashionable and domestic, was determined and experienced through the vision of the man of power. At the time these were shown, it was suggested that these images must be read through each other. Is that what you were after?
Sherrie Levine: I was interested in maximizing the ambiguity so that you thought about power relations. I wasn't necessarily describing a power relation ; I was contemplating the mutability of power.
JS: At the same time, these works represented a break with painting and the direct use of the artist's hand.
SL: I wanted to get my hand out of the work. In 1977 I showed tempera paintings on graph paper and they were very labor intensive. After the show there was a lot of talk about the handiwork aspects of my work and this troubled me. I was becoming aware of other artists who were using representation the way the minimalists used geometry. The use of photography allowed them an extreme economy of means. I was reminded of the way Douglas Sirk dealt with melodrama and iconography in film. I fell that, in contrast, my work lacked clarity. I decided to eliminate the extraneous formal properties. Also, I decided to participate in the rhetoric around the work by reading some of the post-structuralist theory that the writers I knew were reading.
JS: The focus on theory and escalation of the significance of it by the new young critics, in the process of defining Postmodernism, blossomed with your all graphing photographs, particularly Edward Weston and Walker Evans, The rhetoric that attached itself to this work argued that it represented the most extreme example of denial of authorship and denial of originality.
SL: In the beginning, there was a lot of talk about the denial in the work and I certainly corroborated in that reading, but now it's more interesting for me to think about it as an exploration of the notion of authorship. We do believe that there are such things as authorship and ownership. But I think at different times we interpret these words differently. It's the dialectical nature of these terms that now interests me.
JS: What is it exactly that you see as the difference between a photograph and a reproduction of it?
SL: The reproduced one is in some sense two photographs - a photograph on top of another photograph. For me it's a way to create a metaphor by layering two images, instead of putting them side by side. This creates the possibility of an allegorical reading of the work.
JS: You periodically return to rephotographing photographs. Why?
SL: It's one of the things that gives me the most pleasure. Photography is always magical for me and this double-photography is more magical.
JS; After Evans, Weston and Rodchenko , all rather well-known, 'heroic modernists, what drew you to the less famous Blossfeldt's photograpy?
SL: Blossfeldt is quite well-known in Europe. Walter Benjamin wrote the introduction to a very beautiful book of his published photographs. I'm attracted to the erotic anthropomorphic qualities that are similar to the sculpture I've been making.
JS: By 1984, you appropriated other male images. You photographed self-portraits of Egon Schiele first and then traced his drawings from bookplates and watercolors. This was a different process. Your work became more distanced from its source.
SL: It's almost original. I think this kind of dialectic can have as much tension as a more direct borrowing.
JS: At the same time you juxtaposed the eccentric Schiele with the mainstream modernist Malevich. Why?
SL: I think there were several modernisms. I was doing my drawings around the same time and noticed that the originals were also contemporaneous. I found it incredible that these two disparate projects could be going on at the same time in Europe. Now both are considered high modernism.
JS: You mace a perilous decision around 1985 when you began to paint, given the "regressive" associations of painting with originality, nostalgia, return to craft.
SL: Something changed for me. When I arrived in New York in 1975. I was involved with making the most extreme work I could imagine, because I think extreme things are interesting. This extremity was described by some writers as politically correct. Then political correctness became a goal of mine. After awhile this concern began to be inhibiting. A lot of what's important to me in art-making is the way the subconscious functions. Itıs often the most interesting part of the work. A lot of the feelings and impulses I needed to express were not necessarily accommodated by notions of correctness. I began to lose the pleasure I had gotten from making art.
JS: Was it the pleasure of acknowledging the visual that had been repressed?
SL: For me that was a real loss. This kind of hierarchy that privileged written language above all other forms of expression began to seem oppressive and perverse to me.
JS: Did you feel insecure about your skills in painting?
SL: No, I felt I didn't have the right to paint, which was strange because I had painted most of my life.
JS: Why didn't you have the right?
SL: Because I became convinced that the visual seduction of painting was a distraction from the more important things that art could do.
JS: Which was conveying ideas?
SL: Yes. Now I believe that when you experience something viscerally itıs a more profound knowledge than when you know it only cerebrally.
JS: Youıre moving toward Jackson Pollock.
SL: I grew up in the fifties and Abstract Expressionism and the rhetoric around it was something I was very aware of.
JS: And to which you were reacting?
SL: I felt excluded from it. Itıs not that I decided not to paint expressionistically;
I just couldn't. I couldn't make that activity feel authentic for myself. Everything I did looked derivative to me.
JS: But it wasn't only the fact that you were making paintings in 1985 - it was what you painted: stripe paintings, checks and chevrons. Rather than referring to a single artist, these were generic, attacking the high modernist aesthetic. They were serial works raising questions of repetition, sameness, variation and fragmentation.
SL: In fact, these paintings you mention, were very similar to ones I made in college that embarrassed me. Eventually I decided to embrace the qualities of derivation that the works had.
JS: At the same time you were making the Gold Knots, which verge dangerously on originality and aren't appropriations at all. They aren't "after" anything specific. Still, their primary originality lies in the possibility that they're, as Stephen Melville called them, "not paintings ... paintings-that-are-not." They focus on the power of the frame rather than the power of the paint. In these works, you foreground the function of the pun to suspend meaning and make physical some of the most advanced concepts of criticism addressing late Modernism at that moment. You also seem to have given a spin to a specific type of pun based on the double negative - the 'not not" which parallels the double bind articulated by Melville.
SL: I'm interested in the way that negation implies its own affirmation.
JS: Some of the serial paintings referred to games and gameboards such as checkers and backgammon, where repetition is identified both with optionality and the potentiality of play on the one hand and the impersonality of mass production on the other. You seem to have an ongoing and deeper involvement with games and clay.
SL: For me, it's often more useful to think of artmaking as play rather than work. Fantasies of aggression and control have an interesting place there, I think that's one of the reasons that I've been so attracted to games as subject matter. Artists say we are working, because it's more adult and we want to get paid. But I often feel as if I'm playing.
JS: Play is essentially about socialization. Itıs a means to harness and control the expression of aggression.
SL: I can explore fantasies of control and transgression that I donıt live out in my daily life. Iım in total control over my art production in a way that I canıt control anything else. That makes the activity very seductive.
JS: What about the actual surface patterns of gameboards?
SL: I've always been attracted to grids. The Dadaists and Surrealists were very interested in games, I think for the same reasons I am. And they were also very interested in the language around play. The chessboard was a classic icon for them, and so that was another thing that attracted me.
JS: It is interesting to me that, in addition to Duchamp, whose importance as a gameplayer is obvious, you have reentered the world of specific games with a billiard table derived from Man Ray, who may have been even more playful than his friend Marcel.
SL: They promoted a brand of infantilism that has a great deal of charm, a lightness of spirit. I like to pay homage to that attitude.
JS: That represents one side of your stance - the side of the homage. The other side speaks to the critique of it.
SL: What I'm interested in is the historical transmogrification of work - often the work of art becomes so reified through repetition and reverence that its meaning becomes quite turgid. This phenomenon is particularly ironic in reference to art that was originally about lightness and transgression.
JS: The circulation of influences between high and low culture has been a topic of debate for some time. With George Herrimans comics, Krazy Kat, Ignatz and Mr. Austridge, you tackled so-called "low art."
SL: Artists have always been very interested in Herriman. Like many cartoonists, he carried the notion of repetition to a truly absurd level. I was hoping to borrow some of his humor and pathos. I'm always amused by the absurdist aspects of my own work, but this time I wanted to make something overtly funny.
JS: In The Bachelors, you adapted six of the Malic Molds from Duchamp's Large Glass and cast each one into 3-dimensions. These pieces have the aura of originals.
SL: I like to think that all my work has some sort of aura of originality. Are these more original? I don't know. What I was interested in, in the earlier work and what I continue to be interested in, is what it means to be original. It's not that I don't think there is such a thing as originality. I'm interested in sameness .what does it mean for two things to be identical, or not. Obviously, my Bachelors are not identical to Duchamps , at least not in the same way that my photographs after Karl Blossfeldt might be the same as his.
JS: Sameness, as it implicates originality, has been used tacitly in your work to circumvent the question of identity, but adapting Duchamp was a daring gesture on your part. He's the most revered of twentieth century artists, the foundation of one major thread of Postmodernism, you've never been as explicitly irreverent.
SL: Because Duchamp's practice has been my model? To take on my model seems a more irreverent act?
JS: Perhaps it has more to do with the way you took on the model. You shifted The Bachelors from the mechanical to the organic, separating them and turning them into concrete body parts.
SL: My Bachelors are more visually isolated and vulnerable than they are grouped together as The Bachelor Machine in The Large Glass. You can think of The Large Glass as a diagram of Suzanna and the Elders. What I like to imagine I'm doing, in the realm of the symbolic, of course, is dismantling the bachelor machine.
JS: I begin to think that rather than denying the possibility of authorship, you are expanding it to include a wider range of activities, endorsing what might be called an authorship without the authority of domination, of lordship. What is particularly weighted here, with The Bachelors, is that you were not only making a work after a famous male, but you were using the male sex organ as the subject.
SL: I've always been interested in the fetishistic nature of the work of art. It's true that these sculptures are more literally "part-objects" than some other things that I've done. But it's always been my intention to stress the over-cathected aspect of the art work. In these sculptures the meaning is very over-determined, imploded.
JS: The connection between the Surrealists and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory on identifying with the desire of the Other seems strikingly applicable here. I assume the desire of the father subliminally expressed goes right back to the early rhetoric of your work. And with your polished bronze urinal, Fountain, you chose the most notorious Readymade of Ducharnp, the quintessential father figure, and turned it into your Readymade aide
SL: Casting the urinal in high-polish bronze turned it into a very precious commodity, a transformation that was similar to what happened when The Bachelors were put in the cherrywood vitrines.
JS: Perhaps this piece is your most intense highlighting of the aestheticization of a commodity, which we think of as Duchamp's contribution, despite his claim to indifference.
SL: The high polish on the cast urinal makes it an incredibly hot object. I was interested in making references to Brancusi and Arp as well as to Duchamp.
JS: And you turned it into a sculpture.
SL: Duchamp turned it into a sculpture.
JS: Yes, by recontextualizing it. But you turned it into a sculpture the way Johns turned an ale can into a sculpture - by casting it in bronze.
SL: Yes, that's a good analogy. I liked it as an object because it's an object that has a function so closely identified with men, but the form is so feminine. So vessel-like. By the way, my urinal is not the exact same model as Duchamps; it's the same year and manufacturer, but a slightly different style.
JS: To carry this one step further, nobody outside of Duchamp's immediate circle has seen the original; we only know it from a photograph because it was lost or destroyed. And to further distance it from the original, in your cast, you omitted Duchamp's pseudonym, R Mutt. Denial of authorship already denied. In your latest work, La Fortune (After Man Ray), unlike all of your previous appropriated works, with the possible exception of Krazy Kat and The Bachelors, rather than lifting the original source whole, you have borrowed just a motif from a painting. This action has a long and respectable history, particularly in European art. It wasn't considered derivative. What about your choice of a billiard table?
SL: After The Bachelors, which were small, I wanted to try to make something monumental in scale and yet ambivalent toward monumentality.
JS: And you had six of them fabricated. That's a traditional sculptural edition. What is unusual and startling, however, is that you exhibited all the works of an edition simultaneously as an installation.
SL: I like the repeatability of sculpture. There's the obvious reference to the industrially reproduced commodity. But you can also think of it in terms of psychoanalysis and the compulsion to repeat. I thought to repeat something very big would be very disturbing. What I really like about the installation of all six tables is the way the balls line up. You get this incredibly oppressive sense of stillness, that's very uncanny, unsettling.
JS: Mallarme's "A throw of the dice does not abolish chance" seems disproved here, where repetition suppresses the accidental.
SL: I wanted to make it very literal: the tables read the way a Judd installation would. You read it as a series.
JS: The leg of Man Rayıs table must have attracted you.
SL: Like the urinal, there is an erotic and feminine quality to the form. In that way they are similar to The Bachelors, which are both geometric, and geometric and anthropomorphic.
JS: Despite your differences, you do share a great deal with "your" male artists. For example, Man Ray, in his way, questioned the valuing of only originals. He moved from one medium to another with alacrity. He made three variations of La Fortune, the second one painted from a photograph of the first. La Fortune was a dream image, following the dictates of Breton. You also followed a suggestion of Breton's that "objects seen in dreams should be manufactured."
Finally, we haven't talked about the Melt Downs where you had a computer assist you in "melting down," scanning some of the great masters of modernism like Monet, and averaging out the color information within them to yield a series of prints and then paintings. This was a complex process. What inspired it?
SL: I wanted to distill these others paintings. I love monochrome paintings. I think monochrome paintings are the apex of modernist painting. For years I've been trying to figure out how to make a monochrome painting that made sense in the context of my work and I was very pleased when I came upon this solution.
JS: I think we could apply to your work in general what John Caldwell of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art noted about the Melt Down paintings. "In creating such paintings, Levine pays homage to these artists while at the same time asserting that their work is available for use by other artists in whatever manner they choose."
SL: I do see my work as a head-on confrontation with the anxiety of influence.
JS: Now that we are in the 90s, there have been a great many attempts to summarize the 80s : to write the history. "Appropriationist" work has been criticized for lack of conviction. In other words, the works did not feel compelled to convince. Do you accept this?
SL. Yes, but I see doubt as a virtue.