On ViewMuseum of Modern Art
November 9, 2014 – February 22, 2015
A cynic might point out how convenient it is for the Museum of Modern Art to have an exhibition that essentially doubles the narrative of modern art enshrined in neighboring galleries and on the floor below. Or he might point out how unsurprising it is that the museum’s permanent collection doesn’t contain a single work of art by that female artist whose retrospective seems to depend on, or at least point to, the art by the men next door. But MoMA is to be commended, for Sturtevant: Double Trouble, the long overdue retrospective of Elaine Sturtevant’s career, brings attention to an artist who, as the palpable tremors of semantic anxiety surrounding the show demonstrate, threatens the core foundations of this cathedral of modernism even as it attempts to subsume her.
“Sturtevant, Duchamp Wanted,” 1969. Photograph collage. 11 7/16 × 9” (29 × 22.8 cm). Kolodny Family Collection. Photo: Peter Butler. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.
Installation view of Sturtevant: Double Trouble, The Museum of Modern Art, November 9, 2014 February 22, 2015. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Thomas Griesel. All works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.
Sturtevant, “Warhol Flowers,” 1964 65. Synthetic polymer screenprint on canvas. 221/16 × 221/16˝. Estate Sturtevant, Paris. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, ParisSalzburg. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.
This anxiety around Sturtevant’s work is rooted in a fear of what to call her, perhaps most evident in the catalogue where Peter Eleey makes an abundantly clear list of what Elaine Sturtevant is not. She is “not a copyist, plagiarist, parodist, forger, or imitator”; instead she is an “actionist,” a maker who circulates, consumes, and canonizes (thereby doubling the basic operations of the museum). Eleey attempts to make Sturtevant digestible by showing that she isn’t a faker per se, rather she is “faking faking.” The history of modern art relies on the idea that art moves forward through originality, and Eleey attempts to show that there is true originality in Sturtevant’s work, despite its appearance. These aren’t copies; these are something else.
This avoidance of the “copy” is felt throughout the show, in the press, and sometimes even in Sturtevant’s own words. But why does a copyist have to be opposed to an actionist? Why can copying not also be an act of making? The negative connotation which “copying” has acquired in the last century runs contrary to the large extent of the history of art—one need only look to the widespread copying amongst the masters of Renaissance Europe, or the copying of venerated icons and religious images to multiply their spiritual powers, to know this.
One of the great lessons of Duchamp’s readymade is that this prohibition against the copy is utterly unsustainable. And if the exhibition makes anything clear, it is the undeniable influence of Duchamp’s work on Sturtevant. She chose no other artist as her subject more (seven times over in the case of “Duchamp Fresh Widow,” (1992/2012)), and her work is rooted in the readymade as practice. Sturtevant’s work is an opportunity not to find originality in the fake, as Eleey would suggest, but to see how one artist cast down the needless opposition of copy and original. The copy of the readymade is not simply a replication but rather a reiteration, a continuation. And while Duchamp begat the readymade from objects, Sturtevant takes the entirety of another artist’s work as her readymade. This is a step beyond “adopting style as her medium,” as Eleey describes it. Rather, Sturtevant enters another’s work into a discourse—that is into a circulation of sayable and knowable meanings—on their behalf.
Take one of the most consequential works in the retrospective, “Oldenburg Store Object Slip” (1967). Hanging high on a wall, “Slip” is one of the only remaining objects from Sturtevant’s 1967 repetition (Eleey uses the word “variation”) of Oldenburg’s famous studio-cum-installation “The Store.” It was one of many sculptures that Sturtevant produced and offered for sale in a vacant East Village storefront on East 9th Street, only a few blocks away from where Oldenburg had opened his “Store”six years prior. Sturtevant’s “Store” was filled with enameled and plastered forms copied from Oldenburg’s, down to a large bridge sculpture tucked away in the back. Though recent critics and historians of her work have fetishized the minute differences between a “Sturtevant” and its “original,” Sturtevant’s iteration of “The Store” and its objects can only be differentiated from Oldenburg’s by direct photo comparison.
The slippage already created in just a few sentences discussing “The Store,” the constant need to verify whose store or which store, is central to the anxiety Sturtevant’s work can produce. Rather than lose ourselves in the endless variations of terms to describe Sturtevant’s work as repetition, variation, or copy, we ought to ground “The Store”of 1967 in a term that makes Sturtevant’s connection to a readymade strategy explicit: we are discussing an iteration of “The Store.” The object MoMA hangs on its wall is a material record of the particular 1967 iteration, done by Sturtevant of the Oldenburg work. It is “The Store” of Oldenburg, but an iteration by Sturtevant rather than Oldenburg himself.
Eleey notes that Sturtevant admired the “traps” of discourse that surround Duchamp’s work. This discourse circulates independently of a work’s materiality, as is clearly visible in “Fountain,” which lost its “original” 1917 iteration yet continued as a sequence, from urinal to photo to full replication by Arturo Schwarz. This narrative is one of constant changes of state through a discursive circuit in which the readymade is caught: a trap. Prior to Sturtevant’s 1967 choice, “The Store” of Oldenburg was only “The Store” by Oldenburg, a discrete event and series of objects constituting a work of art. But Sturtevant, by reiterating “The Store” in its entirety, enters it into the trap of discourse. By engaging the entirety of a work rather than a single object (also see the publicity material Sturtevant copied from Oldenburg), Sturtevant shows that the discourse of the readymade need not be produced by a single object. It is no surprise, then, that Oldenburg felt immense anxiety when what he undoubtedly considered his work escaped him as it emerged into discourse, the artist losing his hold on the “by” as it became “of.” Sturtevant’s work makes visible this potential for a future of iterations removed from any singular notion of original, authorship, or control.
Sturtevant’s challenge is not to originality altogether, but rather a challenge to the preconceptions that the original and the copy need be opposed. In creating “The Store,” she enters as a progenitor into that artwork’s particular sustaining iteration as a readymade. This insertion is how we can describe any work from Sturtevant’s oeuvre as a “Sturtevant,” as current writers insist on doing, rather than another “Oldenburg” or “Warhol.” Warhol certainly relished this aspect of Sturtevant’s work, saying several years before she infamously asked to borrow the silkscreen for his “Flowers” series: “I think it would be so great if more people took up silkscreens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.” Indeed by taking the silkscreen to produce “Warhol Flowers” (1964 – 65) Sturtevant made “a Sturtevant” out of Warhol’s original, producing a copy which threatened Warhol’s ownership while simultaneously inserting Sturtevant into its discourse as an author. Unlike Oldenburg, Warhol had little anxiety over losing singular authorship. When asked particulars about his printing method, he said, “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.” Sturtevant shows us that we should not fear the copy, for her work points not to any original but only to the potential past and future of any art as an iteration of the readymade.