Sturtevant was an artist whose reputation preceded her. It still does.
More people know her works from pictures in catalogs and essays in textbooks than from seeing them in the flesh. That’s a shame because the paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, films and videos by the enigmatic expatriate are far better in person than in reproduction.
While that’s true of every work of art that’s worth looking at, it’s significantly more complicated when it comes to Sturtevant.
Sturtevant was born Elaine Frances Horan in 1924 in Lakewood, Ohio. She married, had two daughters, but separated in the early to mid 1960s, after which she used only her last name. She lived her adult life in Paris, where she died last year.
Many of her pieces appear to be reproductions — or copies — of other artists’ works, including pieces by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys and Robert Gober. That has led many critics to write that Sturtevant’s art is all about second-hand imagery and the way information is transmitted in our media-saturated culture.
The standard interpretation of Sturtevant’s peculiar pieces is that they are generic critiques of originality — run-of-the-mill rehashes of the idea that there is nothing new under the sun. Some commentators go so far as to say that her slippery renditions of modern art’s highlights are opportunistic instances of a postmodern pasticher trying to ride the coattails of famous modernists.
But such interpretations miss the trees for the forest. You need to see the works Sturtevant has made with her own hands to understand what they mean, how they work and why they are timely. Viewers in Southern California will have a chance to do that when “Sturtevant: Double Trouble” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art on March 20.
The eye-opening survey was organized for the Museum of Modern Art in New York (where it was on view from November to February) by Peter Eleey, MoMA curator and associate director of exhibitions and programs, with Ingrid Langston, curatorial assistant. It’s Sturtevant’s first museum exhibition in the United States since 1973.
It includes 46 works, which Sturtevant made from 1961 to 2014. They fall into two groups: those that superficially resemble other artists’ works and those that don’t.
When you stand before any in the first group, you see that Sturtevant was not trying to make exact copies of her sources.
The orange background in her rendition of Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” has too much red in it. The textures of Johns’ encaustic paintings are off. Silkscreened images were made with too much — or too little — ink. Titles have been altered. Sizes aren’t right. Some pieces seem to be miniatures. Or enlargements. Or prototypes. Or souvenirs. Just a little out of step. Out of whack. Off-kilter. As a group, Sturtevant’s works have the presence of cock-eyed near misses.
The idea of mass-produced knock-offs comes to mind. Hot on its heels is the feeling that what you’re looking at is the loving labor of an outsider, the earnest work of an eccentric who saw no reason she shouldn’t have firsthand access to the best modern culture had to offer.
Eleey says Sturtevant “hit on a major idea whose radical implications are concealed by a simple visual fact.”
“That apparent simplicity meant that her work was often summarized in terms of the image — a copy — rather than its production, display and consumption, and the thinking she aimed to trigger,” Eleey says. “Because she made much of her work the art of others, it has been difficult to see what she was really doing.”
Sturtevant’s uncanny art draws a viewer’s memories into action. With memories come emotions and all the loose ends of psychological ambivalence. You find yourself comparing and contrasting her versions of other works with your own feelings about them. You begin to distrust your recollections. Lively conversations unfold, internal and otherwise.
Something similar happens before Sturtevant’s works that do not directly refer to other artists’ works. With great efficiency, her videos and films make you see that each moment is unlike any other. And, as she would certainly insist, the only way to find out is to experience that for yourself — again and again.