A lot of questions are asked. … of Duchamp’s urinal ... but gold-plating it so we’ll think that it’s not.
John Baldessari is referring to the urinal that preceded this one here by Sherrie Levine. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary bathroom fixture, placed it an art gallery, and called it “Fountain.” This moment changed the course of art history. It tested the limits of art, and also highlighted the importance of context. At the time, Fountain was met with outrage. Duchamp said:
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
Sherrie Levine’s contribution is using the form of a urinal a second time. Like a metaphorical quotation. Casting it in bronze and giving it a reflective patina…
Again, John Baldessari.
So, that she’s trying to make something more art that’s art already… or isn’t art already.
Or ... so then she might be trying to make something that’s not art art, or making something that’s art art, or making something that’s not art, not art.
It’s complicated. (PAUSE) In the title of her work, Levine even goes so far as to point out the Buddha-shaped shadow created inside the upside-down urinal. Enlightenment can be found in unexpected places.
A lot of questions are asked…
Sherrie Levine is often labeled as part of the pictures generation. Coined by critic Douglas Crimp in 1977, the title defined how the concerns of photography fed into and informed painting and sculpture. Levine’s work was central to Crimp’s claims, especially her use of editions and copies to undermine long-held beliefs of originality in art. Levine copied famous artworks directly, reprinting photography and remaking sculptures. The pioneer of art appropriation was Marcel Duchamp, whose seminal work Fountain, 1917, a standard urinal put on display in an art exhibition, bluntly demanded to be approved as “art.” Fountain (Buddha) is Levine’s homage to Duchamp’s renowned readymade. Adding to Duchamp’s audacious move, Levine turns his gesture back into an “art object” by elevating its materiality and finish. As a feminist artist, Levine remakes works specifically by male artists who commandeered patriarchal dominance in art history.
Sherrie Levine reinvents famous images and objects by removing (or appropriating) them from their original contexts and placing them into new, meaningful positions. During the early 1980s, Levine followed a theoretical framework of art making led by the rise of post-structuralist criticism as well as historical reassessments of surrealism and Marcel Duchamp. The crux of the criticism focused on originality and the strategy of appropriation. In her works Untitled (after Walker Evans: negative) #8, 1989, and Untitled (after Walker Evans: negative) #9, 1989, Levine rephotographs well-known Walker Evans images. Explaining her project, Levine said, “I hope that in my photographs of photographs an uneasy peace will be made between my attraction to the ideals these pictures exemplify and my desire to have no ideals or fetters whatsoever.” By removing herself from the original artwork through conceptual distance, Levine creates a new theory, a new situation for understanding.
Double Checks #6, 1988, features the famous chessboard image pervasive in Dadaist work. In this piece, Levine both references the notions of strategy and gaming and the mass reproduction of images. For Levine, art making can be likened to chess, a set of preset rules reproduced infinitely through the situations and minds brought to it. Toward the end of the 1980s, Levine’s focus turned to what were historically considered low art forms such as comics. Untitled (Mr. Austridge: 1), 1989, takes a character from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon and reproduces it in a straightforward, unembellished way in casein on wood. As with the chessboards and photographs of photographs, the image is rearranged and resituated, moving the popular cartoon into the hermetic avenues of conceptualism.
Untitled (The Bachelors: “Larbin”), 1989, is a reinterpretation of Duchamp’s famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915–23. The original Duchamp piece presents a bachelor machine set in relationship to a hovering bride image at the top of a glass surface. The work is an allegory of erotic relationships, which Levine sees as an interpretation of the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, where two men attempt to blackmail Susanna into sexual intercourse. In order to destroy the power of the male suitors working together for sexual deception, Levine separates each bachelor from the machine, isolating them in separate vitrines. Using the relationship to Duchamp’s work, Levine sets a series of reflections into motion, including originality and sexual desire, changing the power structure presented in both Duchamp’s piece and the original story.