Just In: Sturtevant
While often misunderstood during her lifetime, Elaine Sturtevant (most commonly referred to simply as Sturtevant) has become the subject of great critical affection over the past decade. In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art, New York organized “Sturtevant: Double Trouble,” the first American retrospective of her five decade-long career. Together with the exhibition’s subsequent presentation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this was the only institutional showcase of her work in the United States since her breakout show at the Everson Museum of Art in 1973.
As a conceptual artist, Sturtevant shared the ideology of her contemporaries, which argued that the thought behind a work superseded its “optical experience.” Interested in the systems that drive modern art production, Sturtevant began “repeating” other artists’ seminal works in 1964, starting with works by Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, specifically his Flowers paintings, which he had only begun producing that same year, and for which he lent Sturtevant the original screens. One of the most important qualifications of this practice was its defiance of mere copying. Instead, through close reading of her sources, Sturtevant created ‘works of works’ to examine the cultural function and “stylistic branding” of the originals themselves, calling into question the value of the art object. Working in what some described as a ‘parafictional’ genre, Sturtevant’s paintings, films, photographs, performances, and sculptures appear to perform one function on their surface, but in actuality operate in a very different capacity. This style “lays conceptual traps” for the viewer. In Sturtevant’s case, her works momentarily masquerade as the originals. Upon closer inspection however, the intentional differences between her ‘repetitions’ and their forebearers, “jolt” the viewer with subtle differences that highlight ideas of identity and originality. By referencing and thus reinforcing the familiar signifiers of prominent artists, such as Jasper Johns’s flags and Andy Warhol’s Marilyns, Sturtevant sought to complicate her viewers’ automatic response to the image.
For many, Sturtevant’s repetitions represented a “dangerous” attack on the mechanisms that affirmed artistic authority and drove the art market. As a result, many prominent artists, collectors, and institutions refused to associate with her. Sturtevant’s relationship with Warhol, however, remained one of her most amicable ones. As a member of Rauschenberg’s circle in the early 1960s, Sturtevant had the opportunity to petition Warhol for access to the Marilyn screens that he had begun producing in 1962, as he had for Flowers. Eventually Warhol agreed to give her “whatever Marilyn [she] wanted,” but this failed to materialize. By what she described as a “one in a million chance,” Sturtevant found the original publicity photo of Marilyn Monroe from the film Niagara (1953) that Warhol had used for his own series. She then took the image to “Andy’s silkscreen man” and replicated Warhol’s original screen. Because Warhol himself had made a career out of “lifting” images, he never resisted her project, though Sturtevant stated that she believed that rather than understanding her intentions “…[Warhol] didn’t give a f***. Which is a very big difference, isn’t it?” Sturtevant would go on to make over thirty iterations of the central Marilyn image, including this early example from 1965, Study for Warhol’s Marilyn (lot 100), which has been in the same private collection since around 1977.
Attracted to source works that themselves elicited strong and at times even violent reactions, Warhol’s Marilyn presented a prime target for Sturtevant’s manipulation. Her engagement of the image was made even more “provocative” by its temporal proximity to Warhol’s original production. Described as a “feedback loop” of Pop art’s concern with celebrity, iconography, and gender, the efficacy of Sturtevant’s Marilyn series lies in the artist’s reenactment of Warhol’s own process of reiteration. As she put it: “The Abstract Expressionists were all about emotion, and the Pop artists all surface. That got me into thinking. What’s underneath?” As Warhol’s original series had taken up America’s fetishization of Marilyn Monroe’s demise and the “hollowing out” of the fated starlet’s identity through her overexposure, so Sturtevant considered the same hollowing out of both Warhol’s Marilyn image and his own artistic persona through over-distribution. Sturtevant suggested that the image’s proliferation displaced the primacy of the original articulation, rendering the authentic work valueless as an object. Given this framing, the artist insisted that her own art objects bore no significance or weight beyond their referential function.
During her lifetime Sturtevant rejected outside attempts to contextualize her repetition work, dispelling gendered readings of her process, as well as associations with both Pop and Appropriation art. It has been observed, however, that without Sturtevant’s deeply theoretical practice, Appropriation art would never have been able to seize a valid position in the American art dialogue. By redefining originality, artistic identity, and the ideological location of the art object, Sturtevant brought about “a decisive moment” in the history of art.
Lee, Patricia. Sturtevant, Warhol Marilyn. Afterall Books, 2016.
Eleey, Peter. “Dangerous Concealment: The Art of Sturtevant.” Sturtevant: Double Trouble. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014.
Bagley, Christopher. “Sturtevant: Repeat Offender.” W Magazine, May 8, 2014.
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