Copy Cats

Sherrie Levine at Paula Cooper is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: Her "appropriations" of August Sander throw a spanner in art's works.

This is one image from a 2012 series made by the conceptual artist Sherrie Levine that involves near-perfect duplicates of photos taken by the great German photographer August Sander in the 1920s and 30s, for his “People of the 20th Century” project. Both Levine’s versions and Sander’s are now on view at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.

Levine’s best works all duplicate (or, more correctly, appropriate) works by other artists, which makes her the most derivative creator ever – and by that token, one of the most innovative. The visual impact of source and copy may be similar, but their social and intellectual impact are utterly different.

Proof of that lies in the extraordinarily complex caption I’ve been asked to run with this image:

Sherrie Levine.After August Sander (detail), 2012.18 Lambda prints in artist frames.each: 9 5/8 x 6 7/8 in. overall dimensions variable.August Sander: Rural Bride, ca. 1925-30 © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archive, Cologne; ARS, New York, 2013.Courtesy Sherrie Levine, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and Galerie Priska Pasquer, Cologne.

That involved caption, and the copyright issues it confronts, makes clear the spanner that Levine throws into art’s works, and the little crises that she spawns in the aesthetic-industrial complex. The caption is almost a definitive statement of her work’s meaning and excellence. (Complicating things further is what it omits: That the “original” images were in fact chosen and printed by August’s son Gunther and editioned by his own son Gerd, so that “by August Sander” is a vexed and involved concept.) What many observers may not realize, however, is that August Sander’s magnum opus is almost as complex a conceptual piece as Levine’s. As I’ve argued elsewhere, its avowed aim of cataloging humans by type (and its obvious failure to do so) may in fact be intended as proof that such a catalog – and therefore such typologies – cannot exist, and should not be attempted.

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