The work of Sturtevant is some of the most elusive in contemporary art. An outlier among her peers, Sturtevant claimed allegiance with no one group, and she defied strict categorization throughout her career. She exclusively produced art that referenced works made by other artists, and her oeuvre includes recreations of now-iconic pieces by Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Beuys, Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and more. Her cutting-edge interrogations into the “understructure” of art and her groundbreaking use of appropriation both set her apart from other artists, and situated her as the crucial link between Pop Art and the Pictures Generation of Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman. While Warhol was concerned with the seductive image, surface appeal and art as a commodity, Sturtevant explored the underlying theoretical mechanics of art, and she daringly usurped Warhol’s forms and techniques and drove them further than had been allowed in Warhol’s Pop expressions. Introducing a caliber of conceptual rigor in her work that was absent from Warhol’s, Sturtevant effectively put the ‘Art’ back in Pop Art, making Warhol Diptych a leading masterpiece of the twentieth century.
In the present work, Sturtevant recreates Warhol’s legendary diptych of Marilyn Monroe, one of the most recognizable works in the canon of art featuring the ultimate symbol of celebrity, sexuality and glamor. Bringing the visage of Marilyn Monroe to life through multiple passes of ink and paint on the canvas, Sturtevant’s Warhol Diptych is imbued with a magnetic pull and hallowed aura, and echoes the colors, composition, grand scale and silkscreen technique of Warhol’s version. Her exacting attention to detail is apparent in the overlapping fields of black, yellow, pink, turquoise and peachy orange on the canvas; the vertical streaks of ink on Marilyn’s cheeks and neck; and the smudged registrations of rich black ink on the right half of the work. Confirming Sturtevant’s mastery in replication, when questioned about his process and technique, Warhol famously quipped, “I don’t know. Ask Elaine” (B. Arning, “Sturtevant,” Journal of Contemporary Art, vol. 2, no. 2, Fall/Winter 1989, p. 43).
As one of the progenitors of Pop, Warhol appropriated images of supermarket essentials as well as larger-than-life stars in order to capture the panorama of American consumerism, commercial art, mass media and popular entertainment. He also used the silkscreen, a tool of commercial origins, in order to produce his art. Yet Warhol did not see anything conceptual in his appropriations: “I just see Monroe as just another person. As to whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colors: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colors, that’s all” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Celant, SuperWarhol, exh. cat., Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, 2003, p. 69). Sturtevant, on the other hand, was deeply concerned with the symbolism of her art, and she wielded appropriation as an instrument of subversion, iconoclastically destabilizing the art conglomerate’s notions of the hand of the artist and original versus copy.
In its bold recapitulation of a pre-existing image, Sturtevant’s work is the inheritor of the legacy of appropriation art began by Duchamp and his ready-mades, which questioned what art could be made with and look like. Like Sturtevant, Duchamp declined to abide by the established conventions of the art world, instead rejecting the practices that were assumed to be necessary for success. Furthermore, Sturtevant and Duchamp both worked across multiple styles and movements, refused to repeat themselves in their oeuvres, prized the conceptual and theoretical in their art, and were incredibly provocative in their time. From the beginning of her career, Sturtevant was considered to be so subversive and unusual that most critics, dealers and museums would not recognize her work. Creating her carefully inexact reproductions in the years before appropriation became widely accepted as an artistic strategy, Sturtevant’s work caused an uproar among artists, collectors, audiences and more, who took offense at what they deemed mere copies. In 1974, weary of the misinterpretations attributed to her art, Sturtevant took a ten-year hiatus from the art world.
Working within the dissident strategy of appropriation, Sturtevant’s art thus forms the bridge between Duchamp, Pop and the later Pictures Generation of artists, which included Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman, among others. Through such groundbreaking works as Warhol Diptych, Sturtevant confronted the “question of the new,” and illuminated how it was possible to not only create new art in a heavily visual contemporary culture, but to also give pre-existing images or works new meaning and a new spirit through re-creating them and placing them in a different temporal and spatial context. The present acceptance of appropriation, and the growth of the strategy in the past five decades, owes much to Sturtevant’s pioneering work, and in 2011 she was recognized at the Venice Biennale with a Golden Lion lifetime achievement award.
We begin to get at the real impact of Sturtevant’s work with her explanation that, “The brutal truth of the work is that it is not a copy. The push and shove of the work is the leap from image to concept. The dynamics of the work is that it throws out representation” (E. Sturtevant, quoted in U. Kittelmann and M. Kramer, Preface to The Brutal Truth, Ibid., p. 19). In other words, Sturtevant was not merely imitating Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, but was instead masterfully replicating the creative process that Warhol used to get from his source material, a publicity still, to a work of fine art. Understood through this lens, Sturtevant’s work is a sharp, self-reflexive exercise in examining the art-making process—the way that an object can be transformed into art—and how the creative “leap” actually transpires. The question that she answers is why something was made the way it was, in the time that it was, versus using a different method. As Blistène comments, “It is not a question of having, on one side, the model and, on the other, the duplicate. Not a question of some sort of crutches or other: lines, grids, square, tracing, projection…or other such devices. But of summoning with sufficient intensity the memory of images viewed in order to be able to recreate and invent them. Not stubbornly worrying about the resemblance alone but working towards an absent original in a convincing manner. Taking the same tools and the same colors. Understanding why and how it is done. Attempting to convoke the observed details” (B. Blistène, “Label Elaine,” Ibid., p. 37).
Warhol Diptych is a major work in Sturtevant’s oeuvre, and powerful evidence for the value of the image in today’s media-saturated society. The looping, replication and repetition that figure so prominently in her work are also evocative of the way we manage, process and utilize images in the face of the digital age’s endless proliferation of media. In this age and more than ever, Sturtevant speaks to the salient issues of the art world, affirming that appropriation can be a radically generative process.