Of Widows and Maids: Production, Reproduction, Caregiving

Curator's Note

In 1993-1994, Sherrie Levine made 24 sculptures in white and black crystal and sandblasted glass cast “after”[1] Constantin Brancusi’s Le Nouveau Né (1915-1920), which she titled (the gender-neutral) Newborn.

Authorized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns Brancusi’s 1915 original, Levine’s replicas “revisited the problematic analogy […] between the work of art and the newborn child,” a Duchampian move ironically commenting on Brancusi’s insistence that he never made reproductions.[2] It was part of a wider critique of the masters of modernism’s patrilinear claim to authorship, often signaled by using “after” in the title of her works (“After Walker Evans,” for example), where the temporal marker functions simultaneously as credit, a statement of authorship, an appropriation, and a reclaiming of the gendered labor of reproduction. Inverting the relationship between original and copy, while inhabiting the recursive temporality of the readymade, Levine’s titular “after” disposes of Benjamin’s aura for the sake of reproductive labor.[3] Ultimately, as Rosalind Krauss argued, it was part of a broader rejection of the bachelor machine of high modernism, I would describe as marred by a racial and gendered confusion between production and reproduction.[4]

In 2018, Carissa Rodriguez directed a twelve-minute double-sided video installation titled The Maid, commissioned by The SculptureCenter in New York. Unfolding as a full day, from dawn to dusk, The Maid follows six of Levine’s pieces in their current settings in collectors’ homes in NYC and Los Angeles, museum storage rooms, and at Christie’s auction house. Her floating Steadicam shots, slow pans and tilts approach the Newborns in their own (alienated) environments as quasi-animate beings, quietly awaiting human care or perhaps questioning if it’ll ever come. Yet, no signs of a caregiver—except for the gloved hands of an art handler—is ever seen.

Rodriguez’s The Maid was in turn inspired by Robert Walser’s 1913 short story of the same title about a maid caring for the child of a wealthy woman—a child the story describes as “her charge”—who, after the child goes missing, travels the world for 20 years looking for her. Upon finding her in Paris, the maid dies of happiness.

In Walser’s one-paragraph story, the financial transaction by which the maid is put in charge of the child has already occurred and, just like her caregiving labor (or the mother’s reproductive labor, for that matter), needs no further mentioning. Once the charge goes missing, however, the maid appears to act on an obligation—a charge—she seeks to pay back. All the while, the story never mentions the mother looking for the missing child.

If, as Leah Pires argues, “by shifting emphasis from production to reproduction, Levine’s work imagines alternative kinship structures for modernism” that do not depend on the patrilinear claim to radical originality, then Rodriguez extends this critique by recasting the original story’s hardline between reproduction (the mother) and caregiving (the maid) by instead focusing solely on the sculptures—in their self-absorbed contentment and simultaneous radical alienation from any context of reproduction—to question the invisibility of the labor of care.[5] In this way, she uncovers the reproductive nature underneath the modernist masters’ claim to originality (i.e., they think of themselves as original producers but are actually reproductive) and asserts the racially gendered nature of caregiving.[6]

This distinction between reproduction and caregiving interests me because that’s where the labor of care—the perennial racial and gendered ghost in the machine—can only appear as already disappeared. That is, it never appears as labor, but only as a site of valorization. Indeed, in The Maid, the Newborns are cared for because they are part of an “ecology (art) of care” that, Fernando Dominguez Rubio shows, was established by the modern art museum to ultimately care for the systems of care that can endlessly valorize the art objects in their care.[7] That is, care is deployed in the service of value and self-valorization, adds Marina Vishmidt, is now the value-form that art shares with speculative capital, their shared speculative ontology.[8]

I am interested in black art and what happens to it—to its concept, its reception, its practice, and praxis—when they are brought under this speculative ontology. Following Vishmidt, Harney and Moten, and R.A. Judy, among others, I am not solely interested in how black art has become an object of speculation, but rather, how black art “speculates.”[9] And how the artist may or may not participate in this speculative project by performing the work of self-valorization.

When I encountered Rodriguez’s The Maid at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, it literally stopped me in my tracks. When I saw Steve McQueen’s 2018 Widows, the reasons and stakes came sharply in relief. Installed as a double-screen hanging from the ceiling, Rodriguez’s video placed the very imbrication of art care and expected valorization in a sublime mise-en-abyme. By recasting the heist genre film under the sign of racial and gendered dispossession, McQueen pushed this mise-en-abyme even further. A “charge,” or an unpayable debt is already the premise of the film in which an interracial group of recently windowed women have to pull a job that will allow them to pay off the debt incurred by their husbands killed in a heist gone wrong. Yet, before the sum of money that Harry (Liam Neeson) has stolen and his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) has to pay back, there is the loss of her biracial son, killed by police during a traffic stop—his life foreclosed by the inherited debt of matrilinear blackness. Although the film opens with a moment of intimacy between the interracial couple, this plentifulness is already framed with abundant negative space and immediately intercut with the deadly heist. After the getaway van explodes, a hard cut brings us back to Veronica in bed, directly confronting this same negative space no longer occupied by her husband.

Reversing the heist film’s premise on primitive accumulation, McQueen augments Levine’s and Rodriguez’s intervention into the relationship between artmaking, reproductive labor, and art’s speculation. If the readymade is an offspring of the bachelor machine, then patriarchy is a system of accumulation that is also death-driven and relies on gendered labor to pay back its charge. That is, the charge that runs through Levine, Rodriguez, and McQueen is the cycle of reproductive labor forced to take charge of practices of care.

An adaptation of the 1983 TV serial Widows written by Lynda La Plante, McQueen’s version places the gendered and racialized labor of maternal reproduction at its center: three of the six women have children—that is, “obstacles” that, let’s say, Daniel Ocean never had—and practice an intergenerational passing on of the charge from mother to mother, by watching each other’s children.[10]

Yet something important happens in Widows which, to my eyes, establishes an even stronger family resemblance with Levine’s Newborns and Rodriguez’s The Maid: the articulation of a more profound aesthetic charge—the unpayable debt modernism has incurred with black aesthetics. Within the light-filled high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, a set décor following the visual vernacular of modernism, and framed with abundant white negative space, Viola Davis’s face and hairdo replicate the aesthetics of the lonely Newborns in Rodriguez’s The Maid.

While, in keeping with the Brancusi originals, the Newborns are already fully figured and self-content, in Rodriguez’s video, they, more scandalously and poignantly, engender their own duplicates as reflections on shiny tabletops. Similarly, once alone, and coming face to face with her new loss, Veronica duplicates in windows and mirrors, thus imaging not only creative production as, in reality, a reproduction but also the aesthetic debt that modernism owes to African art. In this way, the film sets “black art in motion” by foregrounding the reproduction of the alienated black object and subject through the mechanisms of high art.[11]

That is, Widows mobilizes images of Veronica to approach the genre film not just as formula, but as a readymade—an art historical concept and practice always-already imbricated with both the primitive accumulation and the reproduction of blackness. If the genre film is a readymade, and the readymade—from Duchamp onward—is already a response to the introduction of African art in Europe, then the heist film becomes McQueen’s vehicle to reflect on the mandate placed on black art and black artists to constantly self-valorize.[12]


[1] This temporality confounds issues of filiation and derivation: “the original work appears as an original, as a before, only when it has been called on to defend itself from its double—only after Levine’s work has come after it.” Howard Singerman, “Sherrie Levine’s Art History,” October 101 (2002): 98.

[2] Isabelle Loring Wallace, “On Touch and Surrogacy: Carissa Rodriguez’s The Maid,” Walkerart Magazine, Jan 13, 2020. https://walkerart.org/magazine/carissa-rodriguez-the-maid. See also Singerman, “Sherrie Levine’s Art History.”

[3] Ruba Katrib writes: “Levine’s appropriation of the Brancusi was part of her ongoing artistic practice, the absorption of canonical artworks under her moniker, and in many ways an angling for shared parentage with selected patriarchs of twentieth-century art history.” Ruba Katrib, “Carissa Rodriguez: The Maid and Others,” in The SculptureCenter, Carissa Rodriguez: The Maid, (2018): 2.

[4] Rosalind Krauss, "Bachelors." October 52 (1990): 53-59.

[5] Leah Pires, “Alternate Conceptions,” in The SculptureCenter, Carissa Rodriguez: The Maid, (New York: SculptureCenter, 2018): 9.

[6] In Black Studies, this is an established claim particularly developed within scholarship on the black maternal running from Hortense Spillers to Fred Moten to Jennifer Nash and Zakiyyah Jackson, which, however, I cannot properly unpack in this writing. See, Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65-81.; Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Jennifer Nash, Birthing Black Mothers (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021); Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. "“Theorizing in a Void” Sublimity, Matter, and Physics in Black Feminist Poetics." South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 3 (2018): 617-648.

[7] Fernando Dominguez Rubio, Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

[8] Marina Vishmidt, Speculation as Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018).

[9] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, All Incomplete (New York: Minor Compositions, 2021); R.A. Judy, “The Unfungible Flow of Liquid Blackness." liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies 5, no. 1 (2021): 27-36.

[10] The New York Times, “ScreenTimes: Widows with Steve McQueen.” YouTube video, 30:02. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWK6tNkIfO8.

[11] Arthur Jafa, “My Black Death,” in Everything but the Burden: What White people are Taking from Black culture, edited by Greg Tate (New York: Crown, 2003).

[12] Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

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