“Pre-sentient, self-satisfied, and inhuman, this object, like any newborn, is unaware of the network that at every moment assures its well-being, the only evidence of which is the attentive and respectfully distanced gaze of the camera, whose bobbing on the gimbal is the scene’s only trace of organic life.” Art historian Isabelle Loring Wallace reflects on Carissa Rodriguez’s film The Maid—on view through February 2—as it documents the care of Sherrie Levine’s series of egg-like Newborn sculptures.
First, some background information: Carissa Rodriguez’s The Maid—a two-sided, 12-minute video installation—focuses, at least in a superficial sense, on six sculptures by Sherrie Levine as they appear in domestic and institutional spaces over the span of a single day. These sculptures, which belong to Levine’s Newborn series of 1993–1994, are elegant ovoid forms executed in sandblasted glass and are themselves copies of a well-known work by Constantin Brancusi entitled Le Nouveau Né. First carved in marble in 1915, Brancusi’s sculpture, which recalls the head of an infant, an egg, or, still more essentially, the cells of which both are comprised, encapsulates the artist’s preoccupation with origins and originality, as well as his stated aversion to repetition to which he nevertheless fell prey, making a cast version in bronze in 1920.
Hence, in the early ’90s, when Levine used Le Nouveau Né to cast her own series of 24 sculptures with the permission of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (it holds Brancusi’s “original” along with seminal works by Duchamp whose critique of authorship Levine extends), she returned spectators to an extant tension between repetition and originality and exposed as impossible the Modernist quest for creation ex nihilo. At the same time, Levine’s project revisited the problematic analogy, made explicit in Le Nouveau Né, between the work of art and the newborn child, both of which are marked, conventionally, with the name of the man who begat them. Like her photographs of famous photographs by Edward Weston and Walker Evans, Levine’s Newborns, authored by a woman and themselves ungendered, expose the willfulness and precarity of these relations; for if paternity and authorship are finally a matter of the name, then they are just as easily overwritten and undone in favor of other names that are no more legitimate and no less provisional.
If I begin by reprising the conversation in which The Maid intervenes, it’s partially to stress by contrast Rodriguez’s disinterest in the figure of the artist. Yes, The Maid focuses on recognizable sculptures by Levine that willfully recall a famous, early-twentieth century work by Brancusi, but, as shot by Rodriguez, ensconced within the homes of collectors and auction houses, the artist is curiously secondary. For, in these locations, authority is cast not in terms of authorship but in terms of the relations that mark the life of an object once someone has paid handsomely to call it his (or her) own. That this someone is largely off-stage in The Maid is a curious fact, and one that is central to the video’s tone, the elegiac dimension of which aligns with Robert Walser’s one-paragraph-long story of 1913, from which Rodriguez borrowed her title. Therein, a maid loses sight of her charge and for the next 20 years she searches all the world wide. Finally, in Paris, she sees the child, a grown woman now, “grand and beautiful,” and dies, instantaneously, of joy.
The Maid is smart—melancholic too, and from the beginning it’s clear that it takes itself seriously. Its austere opening shot, accompanied by the low-rumble of amplified white noise, is somber, but also cryptic and ambivalent in tone. Centered within the frame, perched atop a table that is itself centered before deep-set French windows that overlook Central Park and the hazy forms of distant skyscrapers on the park’s other side, an authoritative object appears to glow, like a moon, in the dim light of dawn. Viewers may identify this object as one of Levine’s Crystal Newborns or know only that it is important enough to command an entire table prestigiously placed in a lofty apartment. In either case, it’s clear one is being introduced to The Maid’s auratic main character.
And yet, as filmed, lying on its side, against the high-sheen of the mirror-top table, Crystal Newborn appears twinned, like a cell in the process of dividing, but without the movement one might expect from an organic process. Instead, there is a deathly airlessness here that is rather more like the motionless rapture of Narcissus frozen in admiration of his incomparably beautiful image. Indeed, no signs of life animate the scene: the tight shot precludes family members or incident of any kind, and despite the gape of its open mouth, the newborn neither squirms nor wails in an effort to garner attention or nurture. On the contrary, the ambient sounds of the room suggest an embryo’s contented encasement in the low-light of an otherworldly womb. Pre-sentient, self-satisfied, and inhuman, this object, like any newborn, is unaware of the network that at every moment assures its well-being, the only evidence of which is the attentive and respectfully distanced gaze of the camera, whose bobbing on the gimbal is the scene’s only trace of organic life.
The upper half of the window pane, on which the camera comes to rest, serves as a portal to the home of another collector as the sun rises over the Hollywood Hills. Drone footage establishes a wide shot of the entire house before bringing us swiftly and purposefully to the home’s interior, where another Newborn—this one jet black— can be found atop a polished table of its own. A third collector’s house, this one in a California suburb, soon follows, and after shots of the art-filled interior, viewers conclude that if there are Newborns here, they are as yet unpacked, resting in crates in the collector’s garage, awaiting the invisible hands that ensure safe transport to the home’s well-appointed interior. Back, once more, on the east coast, the video revisits the Manhattan apartment by daylight, where more of the collector’s possessions can be seen, including a second ovoid rendered in black.
The video’s midpoint, which coincides with the middle of this fictional day, is marked by a shift from domestic to institutional settings, after which the video returns to domestic contexts, revisiting the very homes with which it began, until, as the music rises to reach a moody crescendo, it arrives once more, at dusk, at the Manhattan apartment, where Crystal Newborn again glows with the light of the moon. This image—symmetrical and doubled along its horizontal axis—thus serves as the video’s bookends, but simultaneously it is an image of the video’s structure. For, just as the mirror-topped table repeats and reverses the sculpture’s form, so the video’s second half can be understood as a mirror image of the first. And, while such symmetry is elegant and satisfying on a formal level (the video as a whole is consistently so), it also establishes The Maid’s middle as a hinge or fault line that lends meaning and form to the structure that surrounds it. But, what exactly, does one find there?
Approximately half way through The Maid, one arrives at the LACMA storeroom, where two Newborns lie nestled in a crate. Anonymous gloved hands with palms reinforced by leather carefully extract them one by one and place them with great precision atop a table for inspection. Lest they wobble, they are set within malleable beanbags that read like scarves for disembodied heads whose fragility and value the scene painstakingly underscores. Additional images of care follow and compound, as layer after layer of protection are managed. Together, they testify to the anxiety brought on by the necessity of touch, itself ever mediated by gloves and required only in moments of economic exchange.
From LACMA to Christie’s we go—a Newborn is for sale!—and there, in the scene that is the video’s symbolic fulcrum, the camera cuts from a wall label identifying Levine’s Crystal Newborn to a tightly cropped image of a woman and child, the focus of which is neither the faceless woman nor the blurry toddler visible beyond the frame of her cascading hair. Instead, the camera attends to the material the woman reads: a lavish publication issued by Christie’s in 2017, the year a newly authenticated Leonardo painting, Salvator Mundi, went up for auction. Serving as a pointed counterpart to Levine’s critique of the author (once authenticated, Leonardo’s work sold for the authoritative, record-breaking sum of $450 million), Rodriguez’s reference to the sale serves another function as well, for what the painting depicts is Christ at close range, one hand raised in blessing, the other holding in his ungloved hand a transparent orb made of quartz said to symbolize the world and, via touch, the power of the Christ to redeem it.
That Rodriguez references and withholds this image is crucial. For touch is precisely what’s missing in the ocularcentric world she documents—a fact made all the more poignant because what is notionally at issue in every scene is a newborn, the defining attribute of which is neediness, its reliance, in other words, on the touch of others. Shown repeatedly atop lacquered, smudgeless surfaces, as if island within a protective, amniotic sea, the Newborns that populate this rarified world are to be admired at a distance, touched only occasionally and with great care offstage by paid laborers one does not see. Indeed, what’s at issue here, is labor, not care. Or perhaps labor as care. Or, perhaps, as with Robert Walser’s despondent maid, labor as love.
The Maid concludes with a coda that purposefully breaks the symmetry of the film. Following the video’s return to the New York apartment where Crystal Newborn for the last time appears, there is an abrupt shift in the spectator’s point of view as footage of the Newborn before the window is replaced by a view of the luminous orb as seen from the building’s exterior. As the floating camera rises up and recedes, it brings the viewer with it, and as it retreats, the spectator sees, but could just as easily miss in the distant window frame of an apartment below, the one for whom s/he has looked: the one who does not own, but is nevertheless charged with care.
Ending this way, juxtaposing the viewer’s sense of disembodiment with moving images of the maid’s laborious touch, one feels acutely the ambivalence that has underwritten the video as a whole. What’s more, one feels implicated, faced with an image of oneself that is uncannily like the invisible collectors whose objects one has surveilled: seeing but unseen, privileged but isolated, transcendent but strangely unmoored. This alone may serve to justify the video’s foreboding tone, but nestled at The Maid’s core is the suggestion of an alternative. As the faceless woman reads about a painting she cannot touch, the child plays with something in her lap we cannot see. And, if elsewhere banished and outsourced for pay, touch is something in which the child is reveling; indeed, like all children, this toddler touches for touching’s sake. Not yet outgrown it, not yet afraid of its consequence, she has yet to fear it, yet to mask the anxiety it induces in the form of self-satisfied disdain.