Re-Creating Sturtevant

New York

Poster for Sturtevant’s exhibition “The Store of Claes Oldenburg,” 1967, offset print on paper, 28 by 22 inches. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art Library, New York.


In 1967, New York’s East Village was a rundown neighborhood, strewn with garbage and pockmarked by empty and abandoned storefronts. In late April, an artist who was preparing an art exhibition for one such space was set upon by a group of schoolchildren who beat her so badly she ended up in the hospital. The attack occurred after the children peered through the dingy window of the storefront where the artist was readying the show. A photograph from the time offers a glimpse of the developing display. Through the window one can make out a scattering of roughly modeled sculptures of everyday objects, among them approximations of a lumpy pie, a men’s shirt folded over cardboard and a cake in a glass case, all piled haphazardly on the window ledge. Suspended horizontally over them is an oversize ice cream cone.1

Were the children flummoxed by the appearance of various consumer goods that couldn’t really be used or consumed? Even a savvy art observer would have had valid grounds for confusion about the nature of the show. In appearance, the installation suggested a revival of Claes Oldenburg’s already celebrated artist studio-cum-shop “The Store,” which had made its debut six years earlier a few blocks away. But in fact this was not “The Store by Claes Oldenburg,” as a poster announcing Oldenburg’s project had called it. Rather, it was, as a new poster proclaimed, “The Store of Claes Oldenburg.” The change of preposition is crucial because this exhibition was actually created by a young female artist who went by the single name Sturtevant. She had already begun to establish herself in avant-garde circles (exceedingly small by today’s standards) for exhibitions that involved the presentation of paintings and sculptures that appeared to be works by such better-known contemporaries as Andy Warhol, George Segal, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Many of these artists trooped to the opening, which occurred despite the beating. One of the attendees was Oldenburg himself, who had hitherto been supportive of Sturtevant to the extent of inviting her to participate in some of his Happenings. After seeing the show, however, he broke off their friendship and, according to Sturtevant, never spoke to her again.2

Sturtevant, who died last May at the age of 89 (or maybe 84, no one seems sure), remains one of the more enigmatic figures of postwar art. She was long known, when she was known at all, for remaking works in the manner of her contemporaries. In the ’60s, these included mostly artists from Leo Castelli’s stable and iconic figures like Duchamp and Beuys. Critical incomprehension of her work drove her to give up on art in the 1970s, preferring instead, as she later recounted in what was probably a deliberate echo of Duchamp’s own supposed withdrawal from the fray, to play tennis. Her career revived in the 1980s, spurred by interest in appropriation by artists like Sherrie Levine, Mike Bidlo and Richard Prince. Heralded as the precursor of these young postmodernists, Sturtevant began to turn her attention to the re-creation of works by younger contemporaries like Félix González-Torres, Robert Gober and Keith Haring. In 1990, she moved to Paris, and her career revival continued, including solo exhibitions in places like the Deichtorhallen Hamburg (1992) and the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, which in 2004-05 devoted the entire museum to her work.

In the midst of this renewed attention in the 2000s, Sturtevant made what appeared to be an about-face. Turning from the re-creation of work by others, she began to focus on pulsing multichannel videos that employ found and recycled digital imagery. These works helped spur a late-life artistic rebirth, marked by high-profile exhibitions at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012 and the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2013. In addition, the artist received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Now, six months after her death, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is offering “Sturtevant: Double Trouble,” a full-scale retrospective curated by Peter Eleey.

Sturtevant was born Elaine Frances Horan on Aug. 23, 1924 (or 1929), in Lakewood, Ohio. After studying psychology at the University of Iowa, she moved in the ’50s to New York, where she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. She was briefly married to an advertising executive, Ira Sturtevant, from whom she took her professional name. She had two children, one of whom survives her. It almost feels like a violation to recount such biographical facts, given the efforts Sturtevant made to disappear into her work. Yet, not unlike Woody Allen’s Zelig, she seems to pop up everywhere, once you begin to look at recent art history.

Sturtevant emerged when the heroic singularity of the Abstract Expressionist vision was being replaced by a fascination with mechanical reproduction, mass media and a highly commercialized pop culture. Signs of the new mentality were everywhere, evident in Warhol’s repeated silkscreened mass-media icons, Lichtenstein’s repurposing of comic-book panels, the repetitive imagery of Jasper Johns and the transfer drawings of Robert Rauschenberg. It was even evident in the antics of that master debunker of authenticity, Marcel Duchamp, who in 1964 produced a series of remakes of his famous readymades.

In such a climate, Sturtevant’s decision to replicate the works of her fellow artists seems less incongruous. And in fact, in 1973, Gregory Battcock’s much-circulated anthology of writings on Conceptual art included an essay purportedly by a critic named Cheryl Bernstein, expounding on an artist named Hank Herron, whose work consisted solely of replicas of Frank Stella’s paintings. The writer explained: “Mr. Herron’s work, by reproducing the exact appearance of Frank Stella’s entire oeuvre, nevertheless introduces new content and a new concept . . . that is precluded in the work of Mr. Stella, i.e., the denial of originality.3 The essay was later revealed to be a hoax perpetrated by art historian Carol Duncan and her husband Andrew Duncan, who intended it as a satirical send-up of some of the more esoteric theoretical positions of the time.

Duncan has maintained that she was unaware of Sturtevant at the time, making the parallels between her invention and the real-life artist all the more uncanny., p. 361.’]4 But the spin Duncan/Bernstein placed on this kind of image replication echoes statements made by critics trying to pin down Sturtevant’s intentions. Even those who most closely scrutinized her work, however, offered a variety of conflicting explanations. In his recently published book on Sturtevant, Under the Sign of [sic], Bruce Hainley digs up a variety of responses to the artist’s first exhibition, in 1965. The show consisted of a white plaster George Segal-like figure pulling a garment rack filled with paintings by well-known Pop artists in a gallery lined with Warhol-esque flower wallpaper. In the New York Times John Canaday wondered if the show was an indictment of the transformation of artists into brands. Others saw the work as an homage, a joke or an attack on the whole notion of art and artists., pp. 58-68.’]5 These interpretations would be revived in the 1980s when Sturtevant was rediscovered as the mother of appropriation art.

Yet, as she was always at pains to aver, Sturtevant did not want to be seen as a maker of copies or a critic of authenticity. The MoMA catalogue includes a text from 1971 in which she lists all that she is not. In part it reads:

I am not Anti-Art

I am not saying anyone can do it

I am not “poking fun at the artist”

I am not “reporting the current scene”

I am not in the process of celebrating process

I am not making copies

I am not making imitations

I am not interested in painting sculptures or objects

I am not interested in being a “Great Artist”

That’s real medieval thinking.6

As to what she was doing, that remained somewhat ambiguous. Throughout her career, Sturtevant was given to gnomic pronouncements that frequently explained less than they obscured. Among her oft-repeated statements: “Repetition has nothing to do with repeating”;7 “I have no place at all except in relation to the total structure”;8 and “My work is the immediacy of an apparent content being denied.”9

Today Sturtevant’s project seems less strange given the current vogue for the re-creation of historical exhibitions, performances and artworks. From Marina Abramovíc’s reenactments in 2005 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, of seven iconic works of endurance art by other artists, followed in 2010 by a blockbuster MoMA retrospective in which she tasked others with re-creating her own most famous performances, to the Fondazione Prada’s 2013 reinstallation of Harald Szeemann’s legendary 1969 show “When Attitudes Become Form” and the Jewish Museum’s re-creation and elaboration earlier this year of its own 1966 “Primary Structures” show, we seem awash right now in a sea of reproductions.

At the time, however, Sturtevant found her work met with resistance and even hostility. Her frustration culminated with a 1973 show at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. Titled “Sturtevant: Studies done for Beuys’ Action and objects, Duchamps’ etc. Including film,” the exhibition encompassed three rooms of objects and three of her early films that played off Warhol, Beuys and Duchamp. It was met with a deafening silence from the art world, precipitating her withdrawal.

When she reappeared in the 1980s, Sherrie Levine’s rephotographed photographs had already launched a discussion about the meaning of authorship and the ownership of ideas. Once again, though, Sturtevant preferred to define herself by difference. Reflecting from the distance of 2013, she noted, “The appropriationists were really about the loss of originality and I was about the power of thought. A very big difference.”10 While younger artists and their explicators were fond of quoting Barthes and Baudrillard, Sturtevant preferred Foucault and Deleuze. And indeed, it is clear in retrospect that there were essential differences between the appropriationists’ work and hers. Sturtevant never created exact copies—her version of Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl, for instance, was a painting rather than a print (a fact that became significant when it came to auction in 2011 and fetched more than almost 10 times what one of the original Lichtenstein prints had received four years earlier), her George Segals and Claes Oldenburgs were merely in the style of the sculptors, and a late painting of Warhol’s Marilyn is a black-on-black version not found in Warhol’s oeuvre.

Rather than seeking to reveal the mythology of originality or the commodification of art, Sturtevant was closer in actual spirit to Borges’s fictional Pierre Menard, a figure whom the appropriationists had adopted as a standard-bearer. In Borges’s deadpan fable, Menard re-creates several chapters of Cervantes’s Don Quixote three centuries after the fact, not by simply copying them, but by, in effect, becoming Cervantes and channeling his work—while remaining himself and a man of his time, creating a “new” text. In a similar way, Sturtevant made her re-creations in order to understand for herself the process that brought these works into being. Or so it would seem from remarks she made in a talk at the time of her Frankfurt show: “Not stubbornly worrying about the resemblance alone but working towards an absent original in a convincing manner. Taking the same tools and the same colors. Understanding why and how it was done.”11

Though she had previously dabbled in film and performance—by, for instance, remaking Andy Warhol’s eight-hour 1964 film Empire in 1964 and restaging an Yvonne Rainer performance in 1967—around 2000 Sturtevant began to concentrate on video, using as her raw material both excerpts taken from television and video clips recorded with her own camcorder. Some of these works were still in the mode of borrowing from other artists, as in her Dillinger Running Series (2000), in which she presents a series of still images of herself re-creating Joseph Beuys re-creating the American gangster John Dillinger. Other videos borrowed instead from popular culture, such as the 2012 Pacman, in which the omnivorous video-game character gets eaten by itself. And still others were a combination. Dark Threat of Absence Fragmented and Sliced (2003), for example, is a seven-screen installation that mixes clips borrowed from mass media with short sequences, comically violent, of perverse acts, among them an axe hacking endlessly at a blood-stained glove and a phallic broom handle repeatedly protruding between two legs. Many of these reference Paul McCarthy’s equally malevolent 1995 video Painter, in which he poses as a mad Willem de Kooning.

A similar approach appears in Sturtevant’s Elastic Tango (2010), which formed the centerpiece of her 2011 Venice installation. Here nine screens were piled into an inverted pyramid formation, which flickered with a tapestry of images that included Betty Boop, Liberace, Beavis and Butthead, a billowing U.S. flag, exploding atom bombs and toy dogs singing “What a Wonderful World.” As one reviewer remarked of these shots, “Repeated into mesmerizingly beautiful patterns, they lull you into an acquiescent stupor, so you no longer care whether they mean anything or not.”12 And indeed, Sturtevant’s video works are simultaneously enchanting and grating, reflecting something of the media overload and discordance that are such pervasive features of contemporary experience. In many ways, the works are reminiscent of the equally pulsing video collages created in the 1960s and ’70s by another explorer of the electronic universe, Nam June Paik (whose work is on view at the Asia Society, New York, through Jan. 4, 2015).

The videos seem an abrupt departure from Sturtevant’s earlier concern with repetition, a difference she explained in her typically opaque fashion in an interview with artist Peter Halley: “I’ve gone from making paintings, which favor concept over image, to videos, which favor image over image. Now the exterior carries the whole burden of what the work tries to do, so resemblance is not a big factor.”13

With somewhat more clarity, she also ascribed her change of focus to a shifting sense of selfhood prompted by the triumph of cybernetics. The feedback between humans and technology seems ever more significant today in the light of our growing dependence on “smart” devices for information, entertainment, communication and even personal relationships. (The 2013 film Her, in which a man falls in love with his operating system, only slightly exaggerates the seductiveness of personalized algorithms.)

Sturtevant described her work as art for a brave new world where there has been, as she put it in a talk for the opening of her 2009 show at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, “a reversal of hierarchies, of image over object, finite over infinite,” where “information is knowledge, truth is falsity, space as object is our place.” In such a world, she suggested, the simulacrum is no longer false.14 On another occasion, she described her project as an exploration “of the vast barren interior of man.”15

Contradictory to the end, Sturtevant offered up her grim view of contemporary reality in a series of videos that are her most engaging and accessible works. That they brought her belated adulation is at once surprising and somehow totally appropriate. We have finally caught up to her. The fact that we are captivated by the pleasures of videos about the evaporation of any inner life suggests that Sturtevant’s persistent ambivalence echoes our own.