Maddalena Disch, La Donazione de Panza di Biumo al Museo Cantonale d'Arte, Skira, 1997
In the mid-eighties Levine began to develop a type of painting using small canvases with which he investigated the culturally determined approach of certain types of images. Taking into account genres, styles, and techniques, he examined recent art history with a mixture of critical detachment and personal involvement. Engaging in a conceptual reflection on the picture, he created a silent aura of the image in which it was possible to perceive multiple referents, ranging from inherited artistic sensibility to culturally acquired styles.

At first Levine used historical photographs: taking small illustrations from late nineteenth-century America (battle scenes, pioneers in new territories), he sprayed them with a layer of silver or gold paint. By reducing the visibility of the image and making it vague, the artist challenged the accepted interpretation; and by decontextualizing it, he disregarded the narrative in favor of abstraction. The smallness of these works, evoking both the precious miniature and the reproduction, was a sharp contrast to the monumentality implicit in the originals. In subsequent works Levine reproduced details of old daguerreotypes — sprayed and mounted on steel supports — representing both literally and metaphorically the historical and material weight of the old plates.

In the second half of the eighties Levine concentrated on the concept of “drawing,” using unorthodox means to abstract supports, types, and meanings from this. Evoking graphic techniques and styles of various origins (from typically nineteenth-century modes to Abstract Expressionism), he bought the idea of the sketch and structure into play, then sealed with all with a final layer of wax and paint.

Toward the end of the decade he shifted his attention to the concept of “painting”: reproducing details of pre-existing images, he annulled them with a process of superimposition and artistic gestures, which he then covered with a mono- or bichrome glaze. Obviously what counted was not the referent, now unrecognizable, but rather the virtual impression of the image that had been created and its aesthetic and conceptual significance. The works in the MCA collection, dated 1990 and 1991, all belong to this period, and consist of small canvases painted in acrylics. At first sight they appear to be milky white, but prolonged observation from various angles reveals that an iridescent effect is produced by the opalescent paint. At first the eye sees the monochromy as a sign of aesthetic formalism, while the mind associates it with purity, luminosity, and brightness, or else with nihility and vacuity. And it is on these mechanisms that Levine focuses our attention, intervening in the psychological relations and the art history-based interpretation that models the identity of the picture. By choosing small-sized canvases the artist investigates the dimensions of the picture; the need for its lengthy — and not exclusively frontal — examination involves an approach that is typical of sculpture, suggesting that the picture is treated more like an object than a painting.

The use of a variety of titles implies a broad range of relationships based on form and content: the neutral exterior (the square support, the use of a white monochrome, the similarity of the works) and the small size are contradicted by the ambiguous denominations. Untitled (From Pure) refers to the transcendence of the monochrome painting (typical of Kasimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt; Sorry, on the other hand, expresses an intrinsic sense of sadness and bleakness. Other titles are monosyllables that are both verbs and nouns and have a variety of meaning: Head, Part, and Well. Thus Levine contaminates the cliché with a wide variety of referents and derivations in order to examine the aesthetic, conceptual, and cultural values of the pictorial image with irony, aloofness, or careful attention.

In his subsequent works Levine used sponges to apply layers of yellow, red, blue, and black industrial paint to canvas, obtaining watery glazes reminiscent of the diluted hues of the color filed painting of Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, and Larry Poons. These works contain a punctiform structure resembling the halftone screen of the printed images, while the superimposition of four primary colors echoes the process of four-color printing. By contrast, a more recent work consists of twenty photographic details of the blonde hair if an actress reproduced in an advertising poster in which the colors have been reworked. Formal abstraction is wedded to aspect of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, so that it is seen as an object of desire with consumerist associations. Thus the artist continues to use a heterogeneous assortment of referents and techniques to undermine the instant, preconceived interpretation to which an image can give rise as a result of he widespread acceptance of modernist abstraction both on a mass level and in the everyday iconography of the post-modern era.