Erase and Rewind
It’s hard to know where to begin.
Elaine Sturtevant made Warhol Empire State, a black and white film, in 1972. Although I have never seen it, to remake Warhol’s most notorious, ‘unwatchable’, and purely conceptual movie is an act of great, breathtaking beauty - in a way not unlike Douglas Sirk’s making of Imitation of Life (1959) anew. Warhol Empire State situates Sturtevant’s project in terms of contemporaneity; what is seen and unseeable; what causes thinking and what passes unthought.
In 1991, Sturtevant presented an entire show consisting of her repetition of Warhol’s ‘Flowers’ series. It was not the first time (although what ‘first time’ means in terms of seeing and re-seeing art is important to consider) she had investigated the flash and physics of encountering this work. In the mid-60s, she asked Warhol for the original silkscreen with which he had made his ‘Flowers’ - an image he appropriated, not uninterestingly, from a Kodak ad - to make hers. Warhol gave her the screen. At a later date, after being bombarded with questions about his process and technique, Warhol responded: ‘I don’t know. Ask Elaine.’ As Sturtevant puts it: ‘Warhol was very Warhol’. 1
This is a complicated statement. How did Warhol get to be ‘very Warhol’? How does one come to recognise - see, consider - a painting, film , or anything by Warhol once he and everything he’s done are slated only to be ‘a Warhol’? It is Sturtevant who knows how to make a Warhol, not Warhol. It is Sturtevant who allows a Warhol to be a Warhol, by repeating him. Copy, replica, mimesis, simulacra, fake, digital virtuality, clone - Sturtevant’s work has been for more than 40 years a meditation on these concepts by decidedly not being any of them.
Strangely absent from most histories of Pop and Conceptualism, her work has important ramifications for the understanding of both movements. It is as if Sturtevant, with a radical pragmatism, observed and considered so intensely the art of her contemporaries that her gaze burned through to its core. Study Sturtevant’s Stella for Picabia (1988). If the initial response is to see ‘a Stella’ and recall his famous 1962 dictum ‘what you see is what you see’, then to avoid vertigo upon figuring out that the painting is not by Stella, the viewer must hold on to everything usually thought about Stella and consider what it would be for all of it not to be what it was. Sturtevant discerned a way to present what you cannot see as what is seen. In no small part due to her being positioned as the original appropriator, and because she has made Sturtevants of certain Duchamp pieces, her philosophical consideration of her contemporaries and of contemporaneity has been short-changed. If Stella is a crucial impetus, so is Lichtenstein - in particular his amazing painting Image Duplicator (1963). She looked into, through, and beyond the eyes beaming out from Lichtenstein’s image. She eyed the science, the fiction, and the possibility of the sci-fi interlocutor’s demand: ‘What? Why did you ask that? What do you know about my image duplicator?’ Sturtevant’s project has been to pragmatically demonstrate what she knows, and how and why how what she knows operates.
In ‘Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,’ the final essay of Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (1999), Thomas Crow examines the necessity of interrogating the ‘assumed primacy of visual illusion as central to the making and understanding of a work of art’, and focuses on how Sturtevant ‘acutely defined the limitations of any history of art wedded to the image.’ 2 Sturtevant’s project questions the primacy of visual illusion - not by marking a point in the 60s when this became necessary, but by her repetitions demonstrating how aesthetics has, all along, been structured and determined by whatever is understood to be the non-visual, the non-retinal - the unseen and thought. Through her exploration of the underpinnings of what the encounter and/or physics nominated as ‘art’ is, she dematerialises the primacy of the object and of the visual, but not by abandoning the object, the methods of its making, or even visuality itself; this is why her work is stranger and more promising than even Crow suggests. She provides immanence - and it’s contrafactual. Sturtevant has written: ‘It is imperative that I see, know, and visually implant every work that I attempt. Photographs are not taken and catalogues [are] used only to check size and scale. The work is done predominantly from memory, using the same techniques, making the same errors and thus coming out in the same place. The dilemma is that technique is crucial but not important.’ 3 Crucial that she paints, makes, does - but not important, crucial ‘to find a way to use an object that would not present itself as an object, that would at the same time talk about the structure of aesthetics as the idea.’ 4 Not exactly jettisoning the history of art, she always illuminates the potential of art’s contemporaneity - which partly explains, for example, why she repeated a Muybridge (a study of a woman - Sturtevant - walking with hands on hips) in 1966, as well as Warhol Flowers in 1964-65, 1969-70, 1990, and 1991. From Duchamp Fresh Window (1992), to Beuys Fat Chair (1974), Lichtenstein Happy Tears (1966-67), and Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (1997), Sturtevant repeats works for the necessity of a catalytic recognisability, sparking an investigation of what allows ‘art’ to be, so that the entirety of the structure of art is reconsidered horizontally not linearly. 5
Sturtevant had her first her solo show in 1965 at the Bianchini Gallery. It included Sturtevants of Warhol’s ‘Flowers’, a Johns ‘Flag’, an Oldenburg shirt, a Segal sculpture, a Rauschenberg drawing, a Stella concentric painting, and a Rosenquist. When she redid the show a year later in Paris, there was a difference: ‘the gallery was locked at all times, making the show visible only from the street.’ 6 Originally most of her artistic peers supported her work, and even sceptical critics often applauded what they interpreted to be her savvily making fun of the artists and art of the moment, showing how ridiculous contemporary art was by doing something even more absurd. The climate began to shift when, in April 1967, she repeated The Store of Claes Oldenburg at 623 E. 9th St., a few blocks from where Oldenburg had made his Store on E. 2nd St. By the mid-70s, as Christian Leigh has noted: ‘What had at first been laughed at and appreciated for all the wrong reasons [...] quickly turned to anger, rage, mistrust, and misunderstanding on a collective scale.’ 7 After her 1974 Beuys exhibition at Onnasch Gallery, New York, Sturtevant ‘made a slow and conscious decision to stop making work. A theoretical stance rather than a defeated withdrawal, she felt that the combined hostility could only dilute and dissipate the power of her work.’ 8 Some have interpreted Sturtevant’s withdrawal as a repetition of Duchamp’s silence, his abandoning art for chess-playing and breathing. Her work would not be seen again until the 1986 White Columns show in New York.
Sturtevant as Beuys, walking down the street for the frontispiece of her 1992 Württembergischer Kunstverein survey, or with a pie in her face for Study for Beuys Action (1971); as Duchamp, in Duchamp’s Wanted (1969), or covered with shaving cream curved into devilish horns for Duchamp’s Man Ray Portrait (1966); as Cranach’s Eve with Robert Rauschenberg as Adam for Duchamp’s Relache (1967). John Miller has been the only writer to identify an inherent Feminist critique as part of Sturtevant’s project. This is something the artist denies, although she suggested such a possibility in a letter to Francis M. Naumann, writing that her intention ‘was not to anger anyone but rather “to engender polemics”, to “give visible action to dialectics”, and “to narrow the gap between the visible and articulate”.’ 9 I would want to question her choice of the word ‘engender’. While Sturtevant’s project is not limited, nor reducible, to an investigation of how the concepts of ‘genius’ and ‘original’ are conditioned by ‘gender’, I do believe that her work concerns the polemics of engendering and its relation to being, identity, and selfhood. To one critic who inquired whether it is ‘important that you do the work of exclusively male artists?’ Sturtevant replied: ‘Oh no, that question!
It never dawned on me. My choices were made on another level.’ 10 She has made a work by Yvonne Rainer, but when pressed on whether she saw gender/biography as having little to do with her project, or if there were a fluidity about the imaginary that overwhelms/disregards gender/biography, she responded: ‘Surely you don’t want me to reiterate. Gender discourse has nothing to do with the work. Why agitate? Why bring it up? A[nswer]: desire & drive to/for surface + flacks probing issues.’ To bring the issue to a complete halt, she added: ‘These questions are not for you/you.’
Miller situates Sturtevant provocatively in the tradition of the dandy, but unlike the numerous male artists who ‘cultivate a persona infused with artifice in order to project an aura of exceptionality, their female counterparts tend to concentrate on selfhood itself as artifice, foregoing Romantic pretensions of genius.’ Miller invokes Wilde’s aperçu - ‘it is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything’. He goes on to describe Sturtevant: ‘By raising the challenge of an artistry divorced from the production of new imagery, she calls closer attention to art as discourse than before, making it, rather than the art object per se, the subject of connoisseurship.’ 11
How gender appears and disappears (part of the body’s difference, the body as difference), how it can be destabilised by looking like exactly what it is not, potentially analogises some of the ways Sturtevant’s repetitions work. She has written that it is Duchamp’s ‘reluctant indifference [...] his repetitive indifference, lack of intention, non-commitment - a sort of throwing away; letting it all go’ which has captivated her most, not his objects. Sturtevant’s words beautifully repeating, yet not exactly repeating, continue: ‘What Duchamp did not do, not what he did, which is what he did, locates the dynamics of his work. [...] The grand contradiction is that giving up creativity made him a great creator.’ 12 She concludes that ‘how Duchamp lived contains the functional totality of his work.’ Despite her own indifference to biography, her own appearance as difference - somewhat Rrose Sélavy-like - in certain of her works, and given her most recent pieces focusing on the body as object (using parts of nude bodies collaged with objects - such as a breast juxtaposed with the top of the Empire State building), Sturtevant begins to provide a trenchant commentary on identity and self. 13 On the back of a recent catalogues, over the image of a glorious fuschia field and a rising Batman figure, appear the words ‘Body, Objects, Image’. Sturtevant has said that the work concentrates on the ‘cybernetic overload, the danger of rejecting objects, about “having” instead of “being”.’ 14 The announcement card for a concurrent show at Air de Paris had World Cup soccer players kicking the ball, and on the verso the Adidas logo; both recto and verso were diagonally crossed by the phrase: ça va aller (everything’s going to be all right). She wrote to me about this card: ‘Simply put & it is simple: mass culture is art and not reverse’.
Some of the redefinitions and reversals are perhaps more ominous. Her video in the Paris show, Copy without Origins, Self as Disappearance (1998), demonstrates how her work has never been historical (nostalgic homage) but proleptic. The video examines ‘our cyberworld making copyright a myth, origins a romantic notion; with self as information, and identity as disappearance.’ If the body is an object, how does one object if one wishes to, and what occurs if virtuality dispenses with the need for bodies altogether, everything seemingly electronic, light and immaterial? To consider the questions raised by Sturtevant’s work, appalling or enthralling, remember Warhol’s automatonism, his body as invisible sculpture, absence; think about the human as only an affect or effect, a device of the aesthetic. See the number of Sturtevant yous, the number of Sturtevant mes making up whoever me is. Self and being as immanent contrafactions.
Every word she wrote to me was a facsimile. It’s hard to know where to begin.
1. Bill Arning, ‘Sturtevant’, Journal of Contemporary Art, vol. 2, no. 2, Fall/Winter 1989, p. 43.
2. Thomas Crow, ‘Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art’, in Alexander Alberro (ed.) and Blake Stimson (ed.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1999, pp. 555-6.
3. Sturtevant, ‘Interior Visibilities’, Magritte, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec, 1997, p. 124.
4. Sturtevant, quoted in Dan Cameron, ‘A Conversation: A Salon History of Appropriation with Leo Castelli and Elaine Sturtevant’, Flash Art, no. 143, November-December 1988, p. 77.
5. Although the choices of what she has chosen to repeat have to do with historical change and crises, with ‘art’s move from interior to exterior, from creativity to manipulation; origin to synthesiser (as in image)’, it is important that her choices have ‘nothing to do with judgement (this would be a severe interference)’. Facsimile to the author, 21 February, 2000. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Sturtevant are from a series of facsimiles to the author from January to April, 2000.
6. Christian Leigh, ‘The New Good Old Days’, Galerie Six Friedrich, Munich, 1989, unpaginated.
9. ‘Apropos of Marcel: The Art of Making Art After Duchamp in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, 8-30 October, 1999, at Curt Marcus. Francis M. Naumann’s brilliant show consisted of multiple Duchamp works by Richard Pettibone, Elaine Sturtevant, Sherrie Levine, and Mike Bidlo.
10. Arning, op. cit., p. 42.
11. John Miller, ‘The Weather is Here, Wish You were Beautiful’, Artforum, May 1990, p. 158.
12. Sturtevant, ‘The Reluctant Indifference of Marcel Duchamp’, unpublished essay.
13. See Rosalind Krauss, ‘Claude Cahun and Dora Maar: by way of Introduction’, Bachelors, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1999, pp. 42-3.
14. Joerg Bader, ‘Elaine Sturtevant, l’éternel retour des chefs-d’oeuvres’, Artpress, no. 238, June 1998, p. 34.
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