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11/17/11
The Whitney: Anarchy and Mayhem
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David Smith, 17 h’s, 1950, painted steel © The Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Photo courtesy of the Estate of David Smith, photo by David Heald.

The Whitney has on view two solo exhibitions whose titles elicit tension—David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, and Sherrie Levine: Mayhem. (And this ain’t even Zuccotti Park!) These two artists couldn’t be more different. Smith is the old fashioned kind who constructed lively steel sculptures with which the viewer can immediately engage on a visceral level. His work elicits the satisfaction from viewers that they’ve seen Abstract Modern Art, but stuff that their 8-year-old kid definitely could not do. Levine creates sculptures but on a conceptual plane, trafficking in appropriation and replication. Her work has wrought controversy about ownership and plagiarism, as well as a plain old “why?” Seen together, the shows exercise the heart and the brain.

Smith (1906-65) often cut geometric shapes out of steel plate and welded them into totemic shapes. He made steel boxes, stacked them in lyrical ways, and buffed swirls into their surfaces. He played with gravity, balance, and even words—well, letters, anyway, as in his tree-like 17 Hs. The scale of his works in the Whitney show (through January 8), which also includes earlier sculptures of a more symbolic, surreal nature as well as sketches and photographs, tends toward the human side, sometimes casting them more as playmates than as alien objects. He sang, talked, and danced in metal.

Levine basically dares you with her work. After Walker Evans—photographs of Evans’ well-known photographs—questions so many of the basic precepts of photography and artmaking, including ownership and originality. It’s Evans’ composition and subject choice, but it is Levine’s photo of his photo. (Another artist took it a step further and yet photographed Levine’s Evans appropriation.) It may be tacky, but then again, it acknowledges the original source and provides even more exposure for his remarkable photos while raising meaty questions.

As conceptual as her work is, Levine’s slick and surfacy installations (on view through January 29) fit elegantly and comfortably within the sleek Whitney galleries. (It’s hard to imagine the museum in a giant new downtown headquarters, and not Breuer’s well-proportioned, granite halls, but start we must.) A row of pool tables—a nod to Man Ray— looks stunning, as do her cast glass ovoids atop grand pianos and a series of bronze thingies set within vitrines. The “knot” series, plywood sheets with the knots painted silver or gold, manage to evoke some sort of social metaphor—of a group either accepting or rejecting outsiders, as well as the old man vs. nature chestnut. Several works quote Marcel Duchamp, a way of saying, see? I wasn’t the first to steal. Nor, for certain, will she be the last.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.