Sherrie Levine emerged in the late 1970s as a member of a loosely affiliated group of Conceptual artists known as the Pictures Generation, a name derived from the seminal 1977 exhibition organized by Douglas Crimp for Artists Space in New York. Immersed in the prevailing currents of critical theory, these artists used appropriation to interrogate the assumptions surrounding visual representation. Whereas many of her contemporaries drew images from everyday life and the mass media, Levine found a more rarified source in the annals of 20th-century art, appropriating verbatim from the oeuvres of such modernist luminaries as Walker Evans, Willem de Kooning, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Edward Weston. After Rodchenko: 1–12 (1987/98) comprises 12 rephotographed facsimiles of the work of the Russian Constructivist, whose boldly dynamic photographs dating from the 1920s and 1930s reflect a fiercely communist ideology. Feminist critics have interpreted the performative nature of Levine’s work, in which she assumes the identity of an artistic predecessor, as a subversive intervention in the rigid (and overwhelmingly male) construction of the art-historical canon. However, while she acknowledges this oedipal aspect of her practice, she ultimately prefers to view her work as a regenerative act of collaboration, transforming the singular masterpiece into something fluid and perpetually renewable.
In tandem to her iconoclastic rephotography works, Levine has enacted more allusive transformations of her artistic sources. In the Knot Paintings, begun in 1985, she painted in the whorls formed by the grain of untreated plywood boards. Along with a contemporaneous series based on the geometric patterns of chessboards and checkerboards, these works represent a new type of conceptual gesture for the artist. Dictated by the existing, arbitrary forms of a found object, their titles pun on the fact that they are “not paintings” in the traditional sense, and the isolated ellipses of monochromatic pigment draw careful attention to their medium. Reducing her composition to a bare industrial support and uninflected, repeated units of color, Levine seems to engage with the strategies of Minimalist abstraction—evoking both the monochromatic planes of the painting associated with the movement and the plywood sculptures of Donald Judd. Characteristically, her dialogue with the visual tradition is infused with ambiguity, and the tensions deriving from what she has termed as a “head-on confrontation with the anxiety of influence” result in an act of homage as much as of hostile usurpation.