Art about “Art” too often exudes the dogma of religion. Whether one worships the crucifix or the canvas, salvation — or the hammer price at Sotheby’s — depends solely on faith and desire. Where there is no intrinsic value there is only judgment, which (at least on this mortal plane) is never final. But just how many angels can dance on the tip of a stretcher key?
Born Elaine Frances Horan, in Ohio, in 1924, the artist went professionally by the last name from her marriage to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, which produced two children and ended in divorce. She died in 2014. Sturtevant made a splash in the mid-1960s by replicating the works of already well-known contemporaries — Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, among others. (Most copyists, whether students sketching the Old Masters in museums or forgers cranking out fake Mona Lisas, have the veil of time to separate their facsimiles from the real McCoys.) In 1965 New York Times critic John Canaday, in reviewing Sturtevant’s first show of copies, mentioned “a Jim Dine necktie,” a “fine little Jasper Johns flag,” and some “good Lichtensteins,” noting that Sturtevant “must be the first artist in history to have held a one-man show that included everybody but herself.” He then asked, “Does Miss Sturtevant make the ultimate confession that art today is so superficial…that it is only a series of copyrighted gags?” and summed up with another question: “What about those fancy prices for big names, if a little name can give you the same thing just as good?” A current survey of Sturtevant’s work at Gavin Brown offers some answers.
Back in 1965, both artist and critic were indulging in a facile reading of the art of their moment, assuming contemporary art is easily replicated. No one would question that forging a Renaissance masterpiece requires serious technical skill and deft draftsmanship. Sturtevant, though, always said she was seeking something other than exact copies, telling an interviewer in 2007 that, as in her 1965 debut, she was generally after a “total structure…a way of trying to trigger thinking. So you’re not seen as that specific, but you’re seen as a total structure.” By imitating the works of others she sought to create an installation critiquing the matrix of galleries and museums that anointed one artist and not another. Later in the interview she recounted a disagreement she’d had during a lecture in Berlin, when an audience member told her he thought she was a conceptual artist. Despite her desire to “trigger thinking,” she replied, “I have nothing to do with conceptual artists. Their emphasis on language is totally different, where they want to go is different. They never wanted to make objects. I mean, the premise was not to make objects, even though they made objects. So basically I said to this guy, I make tons and tons and tons of objects.”
But her objects, as she herself pointed out, need the conceptual echo chamber of being surrounded by themselves: “[I’m] practically never, ever, in group shows because it’s just a piece hanging out.” This quarantine tactic faltered during her 2014 MoMA retrospective, when it was simply a matter of going from one floor to another to compare one of Stella’s lustrous Black Paintings to Sturtevant’s flat variant. The proximity exposed her knockoffs of artists from Beuys to Rosenquist as visually inert, with little of the dynamic presence of the originals. This aspect comes across clearly in her unfortunate decision, in 1991, to copy Jasper Johns’s White Flag (1955). Radiant as an atomic burst, White Flag defined the Cold War anxiety of the buttoned-down Eisenhower era through denatured color, even as the sumptuous surface captured the roiling undercurrents of a nascent counterculture that would explode in the next decade. Although partially created with encaustic, an ancient, wax-based medium, Johns’s monochrome twist on one of the most powerful (literally and metaphorically) graphic designs in the world was a shocking cultural breakthrough, subsuming the passions of Abstract Expressionism into a loam that would help engender the dynamism of Pop, the ascetic purity of Minimalism, and the intellectual gyrations of Conceptualism. Yet for all that formal freight, what puts Johns’s revolutionary painting over the aesthetic top is his preternatural touch with materials, his pungent blends of encaustic blobs with slashes of oil paint, a quiet riot of resplendent texture. In Sturtevant’s version in the current show, such startling grace is absent, the pale strokes one-note and rushed across the newspaper ground.
So dead-on imitation (a grueling exercise in any event) was never Sturtevant’s intention. She was questioning why one image has more cultural prestige (and dollar value) than a similar version. The immediate answer would be that there is value in all the pick-and-shovel work of origination. Yet there is no gainsaying that in the 1960s, and right up to our current moment, questions of remuneration in relation to the gender or race of the creator resonate forcefully. (In this realm, at least, Sturtevant has slightly evened the score, with some of her works selling for seven figures at auction; at times, her “Lichtensteins” have kept pace with — and in one notable case, well surpassed — what the originals were gaveled down for. Lichtenstein’s compositions were invariably more rote than the comic-book illustrations he swiped from, and such simplicity was made to order for Sturtevant’s strategies.)
Her faux Warhol diptych in the current show — a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on one small round canvas next to a blank companion, both with gold grounds — only confirms that conjuring the aura of exalted tragedy the Pope of Pop achieved in his best work requires more than one of his castoff silk screens. Warhol understood that popular culture gained visual impact precisely from the limitations its creators were forced to work under; hence his insight that clogged printing screens, poor color registration, and other defects of mechanical reproduction stripped away the perfection celebrities strive to project and revealed the flawed humanity underneath. Sturtevant’s bland simulacrum feels wanly precious, an emotion that Warhol, with his iron gaze, never indulged in his paintings.
Such criticism begs the question of whether, confronted with a few unidentified Sturtevants salted into a room of real Johns and Warhol canvases, this critic could pick out the ringers. Maybe, maybe not. I’d certainly, though, chalk them up as poor examples from the maestros. After changing the face of painting in the 1950s and early ’60s, Johns has been churning out elegant clones for half a century, to diminishing aesthetic, if not financial, returns. And Warhol’s minions manufactured acres of schlock celebrity portraits over the years; Sturtevant didn’t corner the market on subpar canvases.
She did, however, question the supremacy of imagery that was already becoming iconic — a “Warhol” here, a “Lichtenstein” there — at a moment in history when techniques of mechanical reproduction were gaining ever more verisimilitude; this undoubtedly allowed for cocktail chatter about the artist who was copying copyists. But any sense of shock in the face of such tactics can only exist within the fussy confines of the art world, which sometimes has a tendency to champion minor insights as major transgressions. Sturtevant came to prominence at a time when gallerist Ivan Karp, on viewing Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic panels, declaimed, “It was just too shocking for words that somebody should celebrate the cartoon and the commercial image like that.” Well, anyone who had read Gilbert Seldes’s The Seven Lively Arts anytime over the prior four decades might have felt that, actually, Ivan just needed to get out of the house more. Writing the same year Sturtevant was born, 1924, Seldes zeroed in on the surrealistic pathos of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, crowning it “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic….For ten years, daily and frequently on Sunday, Krazy Kat has appeared in America; in that time we have accepted and praised a hundred fakes from Europe and Asia — silly and trashy plays, bad painting, woeful operas, iniquitous religions, everything paste and brummagem, has had its vogue with us.” Plus ça change…
As it happens, Sturtevant tried her hand at Krazy Kat, portraying the bewitching hero/ine and his/her longed-for beau, Ignatz Mouse, with a wavering, weightless line that Herriman, as incisive an inker as ever wielded a pen, would never have countenanced. Herriman convincingly conveyed head-clonking bricks as expressions of love in its myriad glories — unrequited, passionate, chaste, triangular — but Sturtevant delivers only dithering slapstick.
Tricky business, this cribbing of other people’s work. Consider Han van Meegeren, who had a lucrative cottage industry cranking out fake Vermeers and selling them to high-ranking Nazis during World War II. Accused at war’s end as a collaborator who sold Dutch treasures to the enemy, the alcoholic painter avoided the hangman’s noose by copping to his forgeries, painting a fresh “Vermeer” in the courtroom to convince skeptics. Van Meegeren’s Vermeers are serviceable at best, devoid of the beguiling atmosphere of the originals, but as there were only thirty-some paintings attributed to the Dutch master, van Meegeren found anxious buyers amid the nouveau riche plunderers of the Third Reich, all of whom craved the favor of Hitler, who admired only paintings with a realistic bent.
Van Meegeren had cleverly decided not to mimic the domestic interior scenes Vermeer was famous for, but to fabricate an earlier body of work supposedly influenced by the painter’s youthful travels in Italy. He then produced a number of “Vermeers” with classic religious themes, such as The Supper at Emmaus. That canvas was eventually acquired by Hermann Göring, who had missed out on a genuine Vermeer that had been confiscated from the Rothschild family for the Führer’s collection. During his trial, van Meegeren pointed at Emmaus, which was now acknowledged by the court as one of his forgeries, and proclaimed, “Yesterday, this painting was worth millions of guilders and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”
Indeed. When Göring, on trial for crimes against humanity, was informed that his beloved Vermeer was a fake, he looked, according to one observer, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” Had the Nazis triumphed, Göring’s cack-handed Vermeer would be enshrined in the canon and Picasso’s Guernica (postcards of which the Spaniard handed out to German soldiers who visited his studio in Paris during the Occupation) would have been tossed onto the ash heap of “Degenerate Art.” Unlike van Meegeren, Sturtevant was not trying to fool anyone, but their conceptual gambits landed in similar realms when the Dutchman stood in the courtroom and declared himself the proud creator of fakes.
The notion of a “creator” riles culture no less than religion. Take the sad tale of Ruth Kligman’s “Pollock” painting. Dubbed “Death Car Girl” by poet Frank O’Hara, Kligman was Pollock’s lover when he smashed his convertible into a tree, killing himself and a friend of Kligman’s, who herself was thrown clear. Kligman (a Liz Taylor–ish beauty who died at age eighty, in 2010) claimed that during her affair with Pollock — which enraged his wife, Lee Krasner — the brooding Abstract Expressionist gave her the painting as a token of his love. Despite forensic analysis that lends credence to Kligman’s claim, the painting was never authenticated by the Pollock estate, which was staffed with friends of his widow. All the principals are now dead, and, at roughly two-foot-square and as red as a bleeding heart, the painting is undoubtedly striking. But whether it is a genuine Pollock resides in the mind’s eye of the beholder.
Sturtevant’s work treads this heady space between perception and the physical object, between brain and fingertips. Marcel Duchamp, a precursor to Sturtevant’s thought-bubble art, literally dispensed with even the most banal of physical touches when, in 1915, he purchased a snow shovel in a hardware store, hung it from his studio ceiling, and titled it In Advance of the Broken Arm (though he would’ve been more statistically accurate to call it Prior to the Strained Back; alternatively, he might have amped up the drama with Herald of the Heart Attack). Dispatches from the driest reaches of the aesthetic desert that Duchamp created when he declared war on what he disparaged as “retinal art,” such works are unconcerned with any of the corporeal pleasures arising from the form, texture, color, illusion, and other physical properties one communes with in the presence of great visual art.
Some of Sturtevant’s videos, projected by rotating lenses, do deliver a frisson in the gallery space (one section of which — all paint-scabbed brick and raw girders — could be the setting for an Anselm Kiefer painting). Images of a striding figure — Sturtevant imitating one of Beuys’s performances — flare and stab across walls, doors, fire extinguishers, windows, and columns like shards of light from a king-hell disco ball. A heavy, monotonous beat drones as the luminous rectangles stretch and rack like taffy across the ersatz canon of Warhols and Johnses on the walls.
If you’ve made it this far in this article, you have some idea of the effect of a Sturtevant show. Interesting to think about, not so much to look at. Or, viewed more generously, Sturtevant can be seen as a precursor to our present moment, when any image can be Photoshopped, and valuing the original seems an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays, paintings — objects pretty much defined by tactile subtleties — are routinely viewed (and sold) on iPhones. Like Sturtevant’s bland copies, a screenshot supplies plenty of data while truncating beauty.