Something Almost New: Sherrie Levine After Lucian

We had our first discussion about Contemporary Art in my class Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art today and it was on the topic ‘Same as it ever was: Appropriation Art’. As part of the lecture, we looked at Sherrie Levine’s 1990 work La Fortune (after Man Ray):

Sherrie Levine, “La Fortune” (After Man Ray: 4), 1990. Felt and mahogany, 33 × 110 × 60 in. (83.8 × 279.4 × 152.4 cm) overall. Edition of 6.

Taking as its source/inspiration/model Man Ray’s 1938 painting La Fortune (below), Levine transforms the 2-dimensional image into a 3-dimensional object.

Man Ray, La Fortune, 1938. Oil on canvas, 24 × 29 in. (61 × 73.7 cm).
In our class discussion, students emphasized the consistency of the placement of the balls on the table(s) by Levine, as well as the precise shape of the table legs. We also thought about the fact that in Levine’s work there are 6 (identical) tables. This not only complicates the gesture of primacy in the work (i.e. the idea that Man Ray somehow based his painting on Levine’s table) by multiplying the original model beyond the singular, but could also act as a transposition of Man Ray’s 6 colored clouds into the number of tables. 
The effect of Levine’s juxtaposition of stubborn fidelity to Man Ray’s painting (the position of the balls) and its transformation of perspective in terms of transformation of the clouds into the number of table made me think of one of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead (23) when he imagines Ajax speaking to Agamemnon after Odysseus has just passed by in the Land of the Dead (made famous by Homer’s Odyssey, book 11). (We read this last week in our main textbook Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation edited by Stephen Trzaskoma, R. Scott Smith, Stephen Brunet, Thomas G. Palaima (Hackett 2004) 279-280). In spite of the novel shift in perspective in which he humorously imagines ‘what happens next’ in Homer’s narrative, Lucian’s Ajax stubbornly maintains his grudge against Odysseus for defeating him in the Judgment of Arms after Achilles’ death. While Agamemnon tries to change his mind, Ajax says of Odysseus ‘I couldn’t not hate him’. For all the novelty of Lucian’s narrative, changing Ajax’s mind about Odysseus was just too entrenched in his mythic identity to be transformed. Thus, Lucian’s narrative would remain as ‘something almost new’. This is a quotation from a comment made by Levine, and reproduced in the catalog to her recent exhibition at the Whitney called Mayhem, in which she states: 
‘I don’t think it’s useful to see culture as monolithic. I’d rather see it as having many voices, some conscious and some unconscious, which may be at odds with one another. If we are attentive to these  voices, we can collaborate with them to create something almost new.’
Hence in the ‘collaboration’ between Lucian and Homer/Levine and Man Ray some things stay doggedly the same (Ajax’s grudge, the billiard balls) while others can be transformed and made new (the post-Odysseus’ conversation, the clouds turned to tables). Nonetheless, between tradition and innovation it is a particular novelty of Levine to offer a critique of the singularity of the original moment. While Man Ray’s painting is imagined to be retroactively inspired by Levines 6 tables and not any single one of them, Homer’s Odyssey remains the singular focus through which Lucian’s Dialogue is (invited to be) viewed. In spite of all the other versions of the dispute between Ajax and Odysseus, from Sophocles’ Ajax to Book 13 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lucian asks us to read his narrative as following faithfully on from Homer’s.

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