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Original Art?

Works at the Menil and Texas Gallery suggest artists can still be unique -- even in imitation

Sherrie Levine, who has an installation currently on display at the Menil, is probably the seminal artist of today's generation involved with appropriating preexisting images. She has had as much to do with altering and expanding the way we regard contemporary art's relationship with art history and the marketplace as any artist during the last decade. Levine recycles existing images as her own. In this way, she is able to rule out personal style or expression and activate the cultural mechanisms that permit a work to be a copy and an original at the same time. Thus, she establishes the idea that a work may exist primarily as an authorial sign -- that is, as a "Levine."

Significantly, Levine formulated new questions for the 1980s just as Andy Warhol posed them in the '70s. Whereas Warhol celebrated banality by obliterating the distinction between high art and popular culture, Levine attacked the sacrosanct notions of originality, autonomy, ownership and gender. She took Warhol's appropriation one step further by expropriating specific works of art as well as generic styles. For Levine, all images are in the public domain and, therefore, usable. Her early works juxtaposed silhouettes of presidents Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy with the silhouettes of anonymous faces from ads, thereby presenting the iconic and commonplace as interchangeable. But she received critical notice -- and notoriety -- in 1981 with her series "After Edward Weston" in which she photographed Weston's photographs and exhibited them as her own (causing threats of lawsuits). Although artists have traditionally made reference to or copies of the work of other artists, Levine's actions gave the whole enterprise a provocative thrust.

Inasmuch as Weston's photographs of the nude torso of his son bear a striking resemblance to Greek kouroi, Levine's photographs "copied" Weston as he had "copied" the Greek sculpture. That tension between direct piracy versus aesthetic "influence" became her overriding subject.

Levine's theoretical point was that "originals" are unacknowledged appropriations of old models and lurking structures, which acknowledged appropriations can expose.

More than a decade after Levine's Weston photos, appropriation couldn't be older news. Still, Levine has followed no agenda but her own, orchestrating her work so that each series reinforms everything that precedes it. Now Levine is the cheerful purveyor of objects that, like her early appropriations, deal with locating a work conceptually and materially through the history of art as well as the world in which they are made. For the most part, Levine's objects examine that area where the commodity meets the sublime.

With the work on display at the Menil, she has done something similar by appropriating "Newborn," the renowned sculpture by Mr. Modernism himself, Constantin Brancusi. Brancusi's "Newborn" appears at first glance to be an exercise in abstract construction -- an ovoid shape deftly cut by two flat planes. But it is both that and the head of a bawling child with a wide open mouth. When this latter image becomes clear, we realize that Brancusi was concerned with an extreme situation: the moment of birth. At the same time, the piece is wonderfully humorous.

Levine's "Newborn"-inspired installation is quite simple: six identical, black, cast-glass reproductions of Brancusi's marble egg-shaped head sitting upon six black baby grand pianos. In multiplying Brancusi's head and situating them on the pianos -- an idea she says she got from a photograph in an art magazine that showed a Brancusi head displayed on a piano in the home of English author H.S. Ede -- she establishes a complex dialogue not only with Brancusi's belief in the purification of experience, but with Duchamp's notion of the ready-made. In this case, the piano is rich with metaphorical implications, referring to its role as emblem of culture as well as platform for family photos and knickknacks. Hollywood movies have long played with the piano's aura of elegance, using it to supply glamour and romance. Conversely, the pianos might be read to lend the aura of spirituality common to high modernism. With the lids closed, the keys covered, they bring to Levine's installation the conspicuous element of silence -- an ideal held by modernists such as Brancusi to be the condition of aesthetic purity. Thus, Levine draws a skewed parallel between personal sentimentality and the pretensions of high art.

One of those pretensions can be seen in the idea of "originality." Even as Brancusi was obsessed with the idea of originality, he made several versions of his works in bronze and stainless steel, insisting that they were all "originals." Levine, however, aims to duplicate the classic Brancusi head in a way that it will take on its own Sherrie Levine aura. Accordingly, Levine is betting that her restatement may be more elegant than Brancusi's original marble. What's more, she steps up the sensuous frisson of the original by making "Newborn" a multiple. Levine seems to ask: What would it be like to cast a Brancusi head in glass? What would it look like? What would it mean to have six of them in a room together? Purposefully creating a conundrum, the objects allude to modernism, idealism, purity and form just as they remind us of Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1935. Overall, the installation is bathed in light that both enhances and vulgarizes its beauty.

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