Raising issues of simulation and authenticity way before they became hot, Elaine Sturtevant, who prefers to be known simply as Sturtevant, began replicating works by Johns, Warhol, and Lichtenstein back in the early ’60s, almost before the paint was dry on the originals. She hung out with the old Castelli crowd but worked with concepts that were light-years ahead of Pop, like a mole in their midst. In 1964, the same year Warhol began his flower paintings, she began duplicating them—from the original silk screen, which he gave her. He replicated his own work. So did she, along with Johns’s Flags, Rosenquist’s spaghetti, Segal’s white zombies, and Lichtenstein’s dots. Her 1965 solo looked like a group show. Later, when someone asked Warhol about his process, he supposedly replied, “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.”
But in 1967, when she redid Oldenberg’s Store in the East Village, a few blocks from its original site, the art world was scandalized. Her repetitions were raising a slew of issues—not just about conceptual and perceptual paradox but about value, authenticity, commercial viability—that were too disruptive. Her mimicry was exact but it was no homage. Sensing the implications of the copy as an original, she was far too radical, probing the way images are perceived, undercutting the myth of origin, collapsing history.
Like Lee Bontecou, she left the art world. When she resurfaced in the mid ’80s, at the height of the appropriation art craze, it was with Keith Haring look-alikes. Her oeuvre, which already included Duchamp, Beuys, Stella, and dozens of Warhols, expanded to Robert Gober’s drain, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s go-go platform, and Kiefer’s airplane. Two years ago, she even re-created Paul McCarthy’s fabulously grotesque video performance, The Painter.
Now 74, living in Paris, and revered in Europe, Sturtevant has a museum retrospective currently in Frankfurt, a catalogue raisonné on the way, and one monumental work here, titled Warhol Ten-Foot Flowers. It’s an exact copy and a grand, enigmatic conceptual object. For more of her work, we’ll have to wait until next May, when Rubenstein will mount a double show.