16 years after her New York debut, this exhibition marks Sherrie Levine's first one-person show in London. Of the artists who initiated Appropriation art, such as Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, Levine is widely considered to be the most radical in conceptual terms, and her debunking of originality as a key myth of Modernism provided her with a founding role in the articulation of Postmodernism. It was the renowned 'After Weston...' series which proved so formative to the theorists. You may remember it all started back in 1983 when Rosalind Krauss and Craig Owens discussed Levine's appropriation of forms as demythologising the Modernist regard for originality, as questioning the transparency of the sign to the signified, and as challenging paternalistic rights of authorship. After years of resistance, many of these texts are now taught in art school 'theory' classes in Britain and America and are widely anthologised. Through strategies which included the rephotographing of works by the likes of Walker Evans and Edward Weston, Levine intended to indicate not a loss of self through excessive saturation by media images, but an excess of identification. This self-identification was soon compared with Nietzsche's remark: 'the unpleasant thing, and one that nags at my modesty, is that at root every name in History is "I"'.
During the last ten years, Levine has been producing not photographic but sculptural appropriations (including the recasting of forms into different materials), which have expanded the consequences and nuances of her initial strategy. These works might be described as an attempt to split Modernism into two camps epitomised by a dystopian Duchamp versus a Utopian Brancusi and then, occasionally, to synthesise them back into a single aesthetic. The current exhibition consists of photographic work from the last three years, and, in effect, marks a sudden return to her practices of the early 80s. In reiterating earlier strategies, Levine can be seen to be appropriating herself as a way of reflecting upon her success and status as a representative of current artistic canons in America. She now seems to be experiencing the reality of a cycle of rejection and acceptance which is still prescribed as the inevitable role of the avant-garde: an extremely transgressive strategy becomes widely accepted until it finally becomes kitsch.
This time around, Levine has rephotographed selected 'masterpieces' of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting from an art history photo-archive. When she first did this with Weston's images, everyone talked about the conceptual theory of appropriation art. Later critics, with Levine's encouragement, have since examined more closely her actual choice of images. With her selection here of nine Cézanne still lifes, nine Monet cathedrals, seven Van Gogh portraits and seven Degas ballet paintings (all early Modernist works considered highly transgressive in their day) Levine considers how these paintings, once taken as compelling symptoms of reality, were so charged with meaning as to make them dangerous and erotic. 100 years later the paintings have become popular kitsch poster icons or coffee-table books aimed at the conservative taste of the too-ardent 'art lover'. The point is that, over time, such fetishes have the effect of reflecting a broad spectrum of desires. Levine enjoys seeing these early Modernist paintings as once again compelling still challenging and full of wit in their consideration of human desire but also as ruminations on the loss of their power as symptoms of reality. To this end, she has selected personal favourites and brought them home to the Edwardian gallery space (and the turf of Roger Fry), arranging them much as if she were composing a Cézanne still life.
Perhaps this show allows one to ask about appropriation not in terms of what it has to say about the past, but what it can indicate for the future. Levine is in a unique position to be able to ask about its future as a strategy, because she can still claim it as her original answer to the question of how to make art. What she has done here, in appropriating her own early work, is to indicate that every name in history is 'I', and always will be, as well as put a finer point on her initial desire for self-identification. Those whose will to understand desire is stronger than their need to assuage it will find that Levine's transgressions transform her into an ethical heroine. Looking into Degas' L'Absinthe repeated 12 times down the wall, we are 'nagged' to remember that the truth (if there is any) born of art or criticism, has already been performed thousands of times in thousands of galleries or texts long before we were born.