A Sturtevant retrospective raises questions about the nature of her art

A retrospective raises intriguing questions about artist's replica work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is calling its survey show devoted to the late Elaine Sturtevant "Double Trouble", which is a clever way to avoid a complicated semantic problem.

Beginning in 1964 and for much of her career, the American artist made "replicas" of the work of other artists, appropriating stencils from Andy Warhol to produce convincing knockoffs of his silk screens and meticulously reproducing the target paintings of Jasper Johns, the geometries of Frank Stella and the cartoon Ben-Day dots of Roy Lichtenstein. But what exactly does one call these works? Copies? Replicas? Forgeries? Imitations?

The MoMA exhibition, the first comprehensive American survey of Sturtevant's career, argues for thinking of these works as performances of a sort, more akin to a musician playing from a score than the traditional idea of an artist creating unique works ex nihilo.

Thus the artist, who was known simply as Sturtevant and died in May at age 89 while the exhibition was being planned, meant to deflect attention from the physical art object and the style it manifests, and focus on how it operates in the world, the way it is used and interpreted, and the various myths that sustain its special status as art.

To wrestle with the semantic problem is to engage with the artist and her work. The word "copy" doesn't quite work, because Sturtevant wasn't producing exact doubles of the work she appropriated. When she reproduced a famous Wanted poster originally made in 1923 by Marcel Duchamp (who looms large in her oeuvre), she inserted her own face and name in place of Duchamp's.

She was also fond of juxtaposing the styles of two artists in a new, double image, such as in a 1966 work on paper with the self-explanatory title, Working Drawing Wesselmann Great American Nude Lichtenstein Hot Dog. In this case the sexual titillation of Tom Wesselmann's pop style nude suggests a wry phallic interpretation of the Lichtenstein hot dog underneath it - but it also demonstrates that Sturtevant wasn't interested in mere reproduction.

"Forgery" doesn't work either because Sturtevant wasn't practising any deception. She was open about her artistic practice - and moved freely in New York art circles - and in some cases signed her work on the reverse or put her initials on them. But it is curious how forgery and copy suggest very different ways of looking at her work.

If you walk into the gallery believing her works are exact copies, you may not feel any compulsion to linger or look closely: copies bore us and make us pine for the original.

Forgery, on the other hand, demands that we look closely, interrogate details, search out flaws. Copies shut down looking, while forgeries animate it.

Sturtevant's work will send you down both paths, and both are dead ends. If you don't bother to look at them because they are copies, you are left wondering: why I am here? Why waste time with them? But searching out their details, the small deviations from the originals, doesn't lead anywhere either.

Even the idea of Sturtevant's work as a performance - with the physical objects a remnant, or trace of the act of making them - doesn't quite work because it suggests she was in some way interpreting the works she "performed". Yet no matter how long you stare at them, they don't seem like interpretations or variations on the originals, rather nearly identical but completely unrelated objects.

It's like looking at two pennies and trying to imagine that one is an "interpretation" of the other.

Sturtevant - whose comments on her work tended to obfuscate more than enlighten - once said she wasn't "in the process of celebrating process", which suggests she wasn't trying to glorify the physical act of making art or interiorising the style of others just so she could "perform" it in her studio. For better and worse, she was good at saying what she wasn't doing.

So we have "double trouble" indeed. Sturtevant famously said she was interested in "the silent interior of art", or its "understructure", and that her work was "about total structure".

The MoMA exhibition argues for thinking of [Sturtevant’s] works as performances of a sort, more akin to a musician playing from a score than the traditional idea of an artist creating unique works

While it's dangerous to try to pin down the meaning of what may have been intentionally hermetic pronouncements, these comments tend to direct thinking in two directions: that she was speaking about the underlying psychological structure of art and art making, or the grander, sociological structure of the art world.

The psychological reading suggests she was resisting the pressure on artists to find a style and articulate it again and again with small variations and developments, that this model for art making was stultifying to her and that by inhabiting the style of others, she could connect with something more elemental or satisfying about creativity. Maybe, but she was too insistent on the intellectual content of art to be pinned down to any purely psychological motivation.

More likely, she believed her work enacted an ongoing critique of an art world that had become intellectually and creatively impoverished. The market needs original work to sell, and it loves work from artists with a recognisable style. A style is a kind of brand, a commodification of the artist's ideas and techniques. It sells.

Sturtevant wanted none of this, producing work that was "original" only in the sense of being a physically unique object and without any personal sense of style at all. Warhol was responding to the same cultural and market forces by embracing pure surface, erasing himself from the art, producing works that were intentionally commodities, but he also profited greatly from it: his critique was to brazenly embody and celebrate the very things that probably troubled Sturtevant too.

Sturtevant also made and sold art, but her attempt to erase herself entirely from questions of originality and style was more radical than Warhol's. The fact that she is now the subject of a MoMA retrospective shows just how impossible that erasure was.

One might also argue that she responded to ideas about style with a gimmick, or shtick. Her conceptual brand was to make replicas. One wonders whether the irony of that was one reason she dropped out of the art world for more than a decade beginning in 1974. She was seen as an artist who "owned" a concept, when, in fact, she was trying to extricate herself from ideas of ownership altogether.

Sturtevant, who was born near Cleveland, flourished more in Europe than the US, and even now with renewed attention, she is a difficult figure to incorporate into the standard narrative of postwar American art.

The MoMA show is both disappointing and bracing at the same time. It disappoints not because it is poorly executed or Sturtevant an unworthy subject: it disappoints because it must disappoint. The entire project is deflationary.

And that's what makes it bracing. The market for contemporary art today is a vast speculative bubble, a commercial enterprise without soul or substance. Many of the most famous contemporary artists are doing exactly the same thing a factory machine shop does.

One can look at Sturtevant's work, or not look, and it doesn't really matter, so long as you think about the project. And the thought that comes foremost to mind is this: what would the art world look like today if more artists (and curators, collectors and art lovers) were anxious about the same things that made Sturtevant anxious a half century ago?

The Washington Post