Imperfect Documents: Sherrie Levine Restricted; Files Only

Jones, Haley (Fall 2020)

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This qualifying paper for the Emory Art History department argues that contemporary artist Sherrie Levine's 2014 series African Masks After Walker Evans reveals the ways in which works of African sculpture have been mediated through Western primitivism. In the series, Levine reproduces photographs of African masks that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) commissioned to Walker Evans on the occasion of their exhibition African Negro Art in 1935. This paper explores the layers of desire that contributed to the production of the original photographs: that of MoMA director Alfred J. Barr, who wished to expand the category of modern art to include works that he and other European and North American connoisseurs had come to view as primitive; African Negro Art curator James Johnson Sweeney, who worked to foster public appreciation of African art for its plastic qualities; and Evans, who approached his project with a desire to capture works of African sculpture as beautiful objects first and foremost. The paper then questions Levine’s motivation for selecting only twenty-four images for reproduction out of Evans’s series of 477 photographs. I argue against the notion that Levine selected the images with disinterest and arbitrariness from an existing sequence published in Sweeney’s book African Folktales and Sculpture (1952). Instead, through Levine’s notable deviations from the sequence and selection of particular photographs based on formal criteria, the artist enacts the formalist and primitivist desire for African art that drove the objects' collection, display, and initial photographic encounter.

Table of Contents

Introduction — 1

Alfred J. Barr, Jr.: Making African Art Modern — 4

James J. Sweeney and Primitivism — 8

Walker Evans and Photographing African Masks — 14

Sherrie Levine’s African Masks After Walker Evans — 17

Sherrie Levine and the Representation of African Art — 23

Conclusion — 28

Bibliography — 31

List of Figures — 37

Figures — 39             

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