Will the Real Sherrie Levine Please Stand Up? 'Mayhem' at the Whitney

What’s unusual about the show is what is not present. I would have loved to see Ms. Levine’s Sons and Lovers (1976-7), from the seminal 1977 “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space, or the small mass-produced shoes she put up for sale once in a store on Mercer Street. In contrast to the revealing David Smith show one floor up, which is replete with sketch books, photos and drawings, “Mayhem” never lets the viewer see behind the mask. What, for instance, would a Sherrie Levine drawing tell us, if such a thing were to exist?

Throughout the show Ms. Levine is entirely focused on the history of fine art (except for two Krazy Kat paintings hidden in a back gallery). There are several works that derive from an engagement with French painting. After Courbet: 1-18 (2009) is a grid of 12 postcards. L’Absinthe: 1-12 (1995) repeats 12 photos of Degas’s absinthe drinker. In this context, Ms. Levine’s copies look dutiful, rather than subversive: they are, in effect, what art copies have always been, works in thrall to history. Ultimately, Ms. Levine ends up looking like a Bouvard and Pécuchet: the art on display is unabashedly derivative. It is, as ever, her choice of what to copy and most of all how to present it that begin to create meaning.

There was a time when the encounter between Ms. Levine and the objects she chose to copy seemed to matter in the world. Whatever its fastidious formal arrangements and moody lighting, what is ultimately missing from “Mayhem” is an engagement with anything besides the museum. The questions the artist once raised about originals, photography and meaning opened onto a whole world and could have grown with the questions of authorship and copy, original and citation raised by the internet; instead, they have become a local griping about the museum from within the museum. Seeing the rooms full of postcards of 19th century masters, photos of photos, and laboriously recreated motifs from European painting, the show feels like a game of billiards in which the same balls bounce endlessly against one another. One is left with the sneaking suspicion that Ms. Levine’s goal was to elicit just this response: some will feel tricked and manipulated by this proposal, others enchanted, still others saddened.

editorial@observer.com

Will the Real Sherrie Levine Please Stand Up? 'Mayhem' at the Whitney