New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 12 March 13 to 19, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

An Uneven Match
Sherrie Levine and August Sander
Installation view, After August Sander 1-18  by Sherrie Levine. Source: paulacoopergallery.com
Sherrie Levine, Installation view, "After August Sander 1-18" 2012

Sherrie Levine gets the top billing in her match-up with August Sander at the Paula Cooper Gallery, but it turns out to be quite an uneven game. Putting 18 of Ms. Levine’s images appropriated from August Sander in the same room as twice that of the original Sanders (more on this later) might be an act of bravado, but turns out to be a walkover for the Teuton.

August Sander’s (1876 –1964) great project was his inventory of portraits, meant to be a cross section of the German people. The prints shown in this show include some of his best known images (and a few that were new to this viewer, although they have all been published.) Set into two groups, 18 men and 18 women, they document a wide range of ‘types’, Sander’s hook for taking pictures of interesting looking people. Worried looking unemployed men stand next to self satisfied industrial tycoons, slightly bored looking usherettes and intense butchers, an ‘artist’s wife’, a very soignée High School student, a Communist organizer, and a Hitler SS officer, all co–exist in this society. (Sanders himself was persecuted by the Nazis and lived in internal exile during the war, much of his earlier work destroyed.)

Sherrie Levine earned her niche in the history of 20th century art with a few singular images, namely photographs of well known photographs by Walker Evans, which she then presented with her own name attached. This ‘appropriation’ art was much discussed, although the exact details about signs and symbols, post-structuralism and semiotics have become lost in the mists of time. Sadly, the prominence given to Levine’s work did not free the artist to develop in significantly new directions. Today we see her newest work: re-photographing the images of another prominent photographer, then putting her name to it. Meh, haven’t I heard this story before?

The ‘original’ aspect of a photograph was one of the many ironies that prompted Sherrie Levine’s appropriation work in the first place. The Sander prints on display are not ‘originals’ in the sense that they were not printed by the artist himself. They were produced by Sander’s son Gunther in the early 1980’s in connection with the definitive version of ‘People of the the 20th Century,’ Sander’s magnum opus of more than 600 portraits.

My Wife in Joy and Sorrow by August Sander. Source: tate.org
August Sander, "My Wife in Joy and Sorrow"

But what a difference in the prints of the two photographers! Produced when the art of silver-gelatin printing was at its apogee, the highest quality paper and chemicals put to good use by the most experienced dark-room technicians, the Sander prints are beautiful to look at––crisp, clear, with sweeping tonal values. As exemplars of the fetishization and commercialization of the photographic art object, these are the very qualities spurned by the young ‘Pictures Generation’. Levine’s much more recent prints show how the much the fetishizing of the print has migrated to the other extreme. Her new prints are harsh, high contrast images that are frankly (and perhaps deliberately) hard to look at for more than a few seconds. They scream out ‘Art’, circa 1985 as loudly as any Ansel Adams or Bill Brandt print screamed out ‘Art’, circa 1960. (Sander himself came from an even earlier tradition, and it is not clear if he was even concerned with photography as art.)

Placing Sander’s and Levine’s work in the same room highlights a major schism in contemporary photography. In the case of Sander, the photograph is clearly analogous to a window. He is deeply concerned with the content of his images; the photographer and the intervention are made as transparent as possible. In Levine’s work, the photograph is, if not a simple mirror reflecting the photographer, a billboard that points to other issues. The photograph is not something that has much intrinsic interest by itself.

Curiously, it is the cataloguer Sander whose images convey the most emotion; we stare through his window and see a parade of human stories pass before us. In front of the Levine appropriations we see the dark ghosts of old stories, served up in a thin gruel of dated irony.

Sherrie Levine and August Sander



Paula Cooper Gallery
521 W 21st St.
Chelsea         Map

212 255 1105
paulacoopergallery.com

Saturday, February 16 to
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10 to 6
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