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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.

But for all its postmodernly recombinants, Levine's installation -- indeed, her passive/aggressive strategies -- ultimately irritates rather than seduces. Striving for the intelligent and subtle, Levine's "Newborn" is caught up in purchasing power and hit-'em-over-the-head visuals. Levine's objects are intentionally provocative in the way they implicate the viewer and label his or her viewing a self-conscious and ideological act, but Levine's obvious pleasure in objects and commodities made more sense when I saw "Newborn" at Marion Goodman Gallery in New York last spring. Situated in an expansive space just a short sprint from Trump Tower and Cartier, the installation gave a stronger sense of the complicit nature between production and desire. At the Menil, however, Levine edges closely to aesthetic territory occupied by artists such as Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, who gained notoriety in the '80s for glamorously kitsch displays of consumer items. Packaged neatly in a compressed gallery, Levine's "Newborn" looks expensive, exquisitely graded, even effete. One gets the feeling that Levine might have to up the ante to stay in the game. Having begun with transgressive forays that virtually encircled a work of art by questioning issues of patrimony, authorship and originality, Levine this time rehashes old news of high and low, class and flash.

Unlike late modernist paintings, Levine has said her work will not "give you that kind of satisfaction; the closure, balance, harmony. They are about death in a way: the uneasy death of modernism." Although Levine acknowledges this anxiety, she has also attempted to move beyond it. She has stated, "There is a long modernist tradition of endgame art ... and a lot of artists have made the last painting ever to be made. It's a no man's land that a lot of us enjoy moving around in, and the thing is not to lose your sense of humor, because it's only art." The question here is whether Levine's new works signal her own endgame. At the Menil, "Newborn" looks more like a tomb than a nursery, the pianos like coffins rather than bassinets.

If Levine's swank replicas paradoxically call up the perfect surfaces of things in the '90s, then Richard Tuttle's works at Texas Gallery have a grubby look -- as though someone found them in a garbage pail. They are also as close to "non-art" as they could possibly be without crossing the line. Tuttle, who had his first show of painted wood objects in 1965, is part of a generation of artists that dramatically challenged accepted sculptural norms, dissolving boundaries through the use of nontraditional processes, materials and forms. The works of these postminimalists were quickly recognized as distinct expansions on strict reductivism. It was a radical movement in a radical era.

Sculpture could be a pile of stuff in a corner, hanging off a wall or lying around the floor. The point, which has been utterly lost in today's treasures-obsessed art culture, had to do with the conviction that being an artist could be the most important thing in someone's universe. It's a notion that Tuttle began to nurture three decades ago when he insinuated a strange new fever into geometric abstraction. Lithe, if piquantly beautiful, his works have always seemed at first glance simple and offhand -- a bleeding squiggle of green line on a sheet of cardboard, meandering wire, a black triangular shape with concave sides and lopped off points -- but their creaky, homemade look belies a kind of ordering and representation that is canny, and deliberately complex.

The Texas Gallery show -- his first in Houston in more than 20 years -- demonstrates that Tuttle's abilities to define by contour and color what is fleeting and seemingly inexpressible are matchless. The 13 works are composed of two series -- five mixed-media works from "Turnaround" (1987) and eight acrylic on insulbead works from his recent "Space is the Frame for the Other" -- that are hung at various specific heights as if to accommodate two levels of time.

All of the works are lean and abstract, vulnerable and self-effacing, yet strangely compelling and intense. As always, they seem to hover between painting, drawing and sculpture -- their ephemeral materials appear ready to undo themselves at a moment's notice. Yet all exude a formidable presence, as well as a clarity of construction that simply vibrates with natural, Zen-like grace.

In Turnaround V, wires with beads of glue dripping off their tips lead the eye to a series of paper hatchet shapes, creamy leather ties and "floating" maroon forms evocative of some scaly creature. Turnaround I is a sprightly, olive green plywood construction, tree-like in its configuration, that single-handedly holds an expanse of blank wall with unexpected concentration.

Tuttle is a sly master at carefully suspending his inventions within the empty space of the gallery. Despite their small scale and oddly infantlike thrust, one gets the feeling that these poetic, if slightly zany, statements are held there as if gravity had brought them to rest. Tuttle, however, deals with the sensuousness of thought rather than the sensuality of materials. The positioning of any one of the "Turnarounds" on the wall, for example, is an intrinsic part of the work. The individual piece may be turned or rotated from installation to installation, depending on Tuttle's sense of place in relation to the work. And one of the most remarkable things in "watching" any one of the works is the seemingly endless transmogrification of volume, line, surface, edge and shadow.

The perceptual elusiveness of Tuttle's work is heightened by the fact that its playful combinations of wire, wood, found materials and now insulbead (like Styrofoam) remain difficult to classify, so consistently has Tuttle been a creator of things graceful and lyrical, clumsy and unlovely. The "Turnarounds" seemingly unfold in time, and the viewer must mentally deconstruct them to grasp the interplay of their individual elements.

Tuttle's forms have always been close to Arp's reliefs or to Miro's flat-edged asterisks. These days, however, Tuttle's investigations are more attuned to Paul Klee's similarly skewed but accurate sense of observation and humor. In any case, it's wonderful to see an exhibition of subtle art that seems to be withstanding the test of time very nicely. Taken as a whole, these works continue to embody a form of art which Tuttle has made distinctly his own, eliminating the possibility of imitation by others.

"Newborn" by Sherrie Levine will show through January 15 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

Richard Tuttle's works will show through January 14 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, 524-1593.

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