Magazine article Artforum International

Sturtevant: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Magazine article Artforum International

Sturtevant: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Article excerpt


WHAT BECOMES A LEGEND MOST? For years, the artwork, actions, and life of Sturtevant operated like a trade secret, quietly scrambling preconceived notions of the origin of appropriation. Having been one of the first postwar artists to create paintings and sculptures that other artists had already created, she now appears to be the matriarch of a postmodern brand of screwing around with Serious Things. Like the recently revived work of pseudonymous artist Vern Blosum, Sturtevant's "deliberate imitations" (as described by Lil Picard in a 1965 review) have increasingly been adopted by those seeking convenient examples of self-reflexivity that predate its twenty-first-century champions. Less than a year after her death at the age of eighty-nine, "Sturtevant: Double Trouble"--the artist's first US museum survey, mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, New York--punctures the longstanding mythology enshrouding her practice with a fine-toothed comb. Complementing the frisson of the artist's legacy is Bruce Flainley's brilliant and timely Under the Sign of [Sic] (2014), a jaw-dropping study of Sturtevant's practice in which no exegetical expense is spared.

Beginning in 1964, Sturtevant started making "other people's work," to quote gallerist Virginia Dwan. By the time Sturtevant made their art again, the mostly male creators were already rather successful in terms of the market, the institution, and the media. She had a solo debut at the Bianchini Gallery the next year, which prompted one critic to decry Sturtevant as "the first artist in history to have held a one-man show that included everybody but herself." The Bianchini exhibition featured walls covered in Warhol Flowers--the artist famously plucked a silk screen from the Factory with Andy's consent--and artworks seemingly by Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Claes Oldenburg, and Oyvind Fahlstrom. The "making again" of such works demanded skills acquired over months of trial and error in the studio, prompting Warhol's legendary response as to how he produced his work: "I don't know. Ask Elaine." Such effort suggests that the decision to put doubles of supposedly singular artworks into the world was a choice not made inside a vacuum: "I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'oh, wow, lets [sic] do that!"' Yet when Sturtevant's doubles surfaced, the system started to hiccup: She claimed Oldenburg wanted to "kill" her; teenagers from a local school attacked her during the installation of her 1967 The Store of Claes Oldenburg; and amnesia seemed to strike most of her peers when her name was mentioned--all that one writer could recently recall of Sturtevant, apart from an anecdote about her breasts, was that she was "someone you were inclined to think of as a mild nuisance."

"Sturtevant: Double Trouble" is a rare cultural occasion. After all this anticipation, it's easy to feel let down by the materiality of her work when confronting it in person for the first time. It's as if Sturtevant essentially dares us to be disappointed. The easy response is--and always has been--to view the work as a pale imitation of something else, ignoring the name (a surname provided to Elaine Francis Floran by a marriage that ended in divorce) proudly displayed on all of Sturtevant's works and exhibitions. In this way, her art is like a decoy--drawing in prey unaware of impending ambush.

Sturtevant once said that "definition is limitation"; this reasonable maxim may also explain why she famously made a laundry list of what her work is not. In most things Sturtevant, there is an undercurrent of refusal, spurred on by decades of critics and viewers misreading her works as direct copies, replicas, parodies, remakes, or fakes. Approved (or rather, tolerated) terms include: versions of other artworks, repetitions, or, in the case of a painting such as Warhol Flowers, 1964-65, a "Warhol."

Organized by Peter Eleey, curator and associate director of exhibitions and programs at MOMA PSI, the exhibition is a focused meditation on the artist's vociferous output, framing Sturtevant as an artist "who adopted style as her medium" to lasso her unruly endeavors. …

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