‘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
When questioned about his process and technique, Warhol famously replied ‘I don’t know. Ask Elaine’ —A. WARHOL
‘While she appeared to be making her art about the art of others, Sturtevant was in fact cranking up the surface noise of that other art, and focusing her own upon the broader systems of value supporting it’ —P. ELEEY
Boldly conceptual and acutely prescient, Stella Union Pacific is a monumental example of Elaine Sturtevant’s ground-breaking use of appropriation. Resplendent with shimmering metallic paint, the entire picture plane is covered with uniform silver stripes arranged in a strictly abstract composition. Measuring nearly four metres in width and two in height, the work is an almost identical copy of Frank Stella’s 1960 work Union Pacific (Des Moines Art Centre, Iowa) – his largest Aluminium Painting, and among his first works to deploy shaped canvas. Sturtevant’s appropriation, executed on the same scale, is the largest of six works based on Stella’s series of twelve, all rendered in aluminium radiator paint. Painted in 1989, Stella Union Pacific forms part of one of the most significant series of Sturtevant’s later career, and has been exhibited widely throughout Europe, including at the Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart (1992), the Deichtorhallen, Hamburg (1992), the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Nice (1993), the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin (2002), the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2004), and the Museum fur Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe.
From the early 1960s until the final decade of her life, Sturtevant almost exclusively made art that directly referenced other artists’ work. In doing so, she astutely questioned the way in which an object becomes an artwork, fundamentally challenging long-standing concepts of originality, authenticity and authorship. Fearlessly interrogating the idea that an artist can instill an object with a transformative aura, she probed the foundations that underpin all acts of artistic creation. As Peter Eleey has written, ‘While she appeared to be making her art about the art of others, Sturtevant was in fact cranking up the surface noise of that other art, and focusing her own upon the broader systems of value supporting it’ (P. Eleey, ‘Dangerous Concealment: The Art of Sturtevant,’ in Sturtevant: Double Trouble, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, pp. 53-54).
Sturtevant worked without employing mechanical tools, which allowed her art to be slightly different from the work she had chosen to replicate. She also worked predominantly from her memory, using the same techniques and materials as the artist. Andy Warhol, who along with Frank Stella was one of the first artists whose work she co-opted into her practice, willingly assisted her in this respect. When questioned about his process and technique, Warhol famously replied, ‘I don’t know. Ask Elaine’ (A. Warhol, quoted in B. Arning, ‘Sturtevant’, Journal of Contemporary Art, vol. 2, no. 2, Fall/Winter 1989, p. 43). The slight imperfections that emerge during this hand-crafted process heighten the stimulating effect of the moment when the viewer realises that the work they are looking at is entirely independent from its original. In Sturtevant’s words, ‘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 The Brutal Truth, exh. cat., Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, 2004, p. 19).
Sturtevant chose her subjects carefully, selecting well-known artists whose work had strong conceptual foundations. Frank Stella, who is widely credited with bridging the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, makes work that deliberately eschews interpretation and resists any emotional or transcendent reading. The materials he used in the aluminium series – commercial reflective paint, un-primed cotton duck and house painter’s brushes – deliberately grounds the work in reality, and keeps the viewer at a distance. As he famously said, ‘My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. All I want anyone to get out of my paintings and all I ever get out of them is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion. What you see is what you see’ (F. Stella, quoted at http://www.tate.org. uk/art/artworks/stella-six-mile-bottom-t01552] accessed 24 January 2017]). Rejecting illusionistic space in favour of the physicality of the flat surface, each painting is a statement of itself alone. In Stella Union Pacific, Sturtevant has absorbed Stella’s idea – itself a radical concept – and taken it one important step further.