Simultaneously acting as an emblem of the Southwest and a luxury commodity, Sherrie Levine's Steer Skull, Un-horned (2002) is a contemporary manifestation not only of Levine's time in Santa Fe and New York, but also of her seminal works of the early 1980s and 1990s. Steer Skull, Un-horned is laden with a myriad of references, from sacred classical object to contemporary curio.
Cast in her signature high-polish bronze, Steer Skull, Un-horned follows the same tradition as her formative 1991 sculpture, Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp). A continuation of Duchampian appropriation, Levine's choice of lustrous material not only highlights the natural aesthetics of her chosen forms, but also transforms her selected objects into precious commodities. However, the appropriated steer skull extends beyond Levine's usual cast of borrowed works of art to incorporate a found object of Levine's own.
Having spent much time in the American Southwest, the steer skull directly references the bleached animal bones that occupy Georgia O'Keeffe's desert landscapes. A contemporary American insignia, the skull recalls the truly American imagery of Levine's first celebrated Pictures Generation series After Walker Evans (1981). While signaling an icon of the Southwest, the luster of the polished bronze recalls fetishized, designer aesthetics that occupy Fifth Avenue Department Stores. This too is derivative of Levine's 1979 Presidents series, which combined the busts of notable American leaders and high-fashion imagery.
True to Levine's early oeuvre, the sculpture simultaneously evokes contradicting interpretations. As soon as one decides for one interpretation over another, his or her conclusion is immediately superseded by alternative ideas. Of her work, Levine states, "I try to make art which celebrates doubt and uncertainty. Which provokes answers but doesn't give them. Which withholds absolute meaning by incorporating parasite meanings. Which suspends meaning while perpetually dispatching you toward interpretation, urging you beyond dogmatism, beyond doctrine, beyond ideology, beyond authority." (S. Levine quoted on Label text for Sherrie Levine, Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A. P.) (1991), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1999 - 2001.)
As with Fountain (After Duchamp) and the After Walker Evans series, in which Levine redirected male authorship to a female artist, Steer Skull, Un-horned illustrates Levine's interest in redefining masculine authority. Without horns, a steer, being recognized as a castrated bull, is reduced to the status of a female. Though not a direct appropriation from any one artist, Georgia O'Keeffe, who the skull most closely recalls, too was a female artist interested in evoking formal aesthetics found in nature, particularly in her large scale flower paintings.
Steer Skull, Un-horned is a direct derivation of Levine's early work. Tied into her oeuvre not only through material, but also through concept, Steer Skull, Un-horned is a rousing departure into Levine's appropriations outside of the art historical cannon.