Please note the correct artist's date is 1924-2014.
In 1964, long before Richard Prince’s Cowboys or Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, Elaine Sturtevant painted a faithful counterfeit of Andy Warhol’s Flowers. Warhol, an artist whose practice similarly interrogated the conception of “uniqueness” in an era defined by fully realized means of mass production, had immediately obliged Sturtevant’s request to borrow a silkscreen of his now-famous Flowers series for her to copy. When Warhol was later asked in an interview to comment on his artistic process, he replied, in his characteristically deadpan manner: “I don’t know. Ask Elaine” (Sturtevant: The Brutal Truth, (ed.) Udo Kittelmann, Switzerland, 2004, p. 17). This quote, by arguably the single most influential artist of the latter half of the 20th century, testifies to Sturtevant’s radically forward- thinking vision and essential place in art history.
Sturtevant generally refers to herself in the titles of her work simply by her last name, “Sturtevant,” a nom de guerre that implies no gender specificity. Her practice explored conventions relating to gender, originality and authorship—through a range of media including painting, sculpture and performance art—that were well ahead of their time when they were conceived, and continue to maintain their relevance to the current day. While her oeuvre designates a canonized chapter in contemporary art history and palpably influenced the careers of myriad artists, Sturtevant refused to be pigeonholed or defined by her relation to any specific movement.
Sturtevant vehemently denied any affiliation to the appropriation art of “The Pictures Generation” insisting she was “not making copies, paying homage [or] saying anyone can do it” (Sturtevant: The Brutal Truth, (ed.) Udo Kittelmann, Switzerland, 2004, p. 20) but rather “talking about the power and autonomy of originality, and the force and pervasiveness of art” (ibid., p. 20). By recreating Warhol’s Flowers, Johns’s Flags and Stella’s geometric paintings, Sturtevant forces us to consider how we are conditioned to respond to iconic works of art, and whether these responses reflect a genuine appreciation of the object in front of us or merely an identification with the label or brand of the artist with all of its semiotic associations. Furthermore, her decision to exclusively transcribe the works of male artists presents an incisive critique of the gender imbalances that persist in the arts.
Sturtevant creates willfully imperfect reproductions that allow for immediate recognition of the work in question, without suggesting replication. In American Flag after Jasper Johns, Sturtevant replaces the collaged faces of American presidents with those of Johns himself. This subtle intervention conflates archetypes of patriarchal hegemony in politics with Johns, thereby anointing him as the leader of another superpower, the contemporary American art scene, but also insinuating that the same proscriptive gender conventions that characterize American society similarly pervade the arts. In Marilyn Monroe, Sturtevant retains Warhol’s original composition but inserts a Baldessari-esque block of orange that abuts her neck.
Sturtevant’s “transgressions” produce a jarring incongruity between the viewer’s seeming visual apprehension of an object and the alternate reality of its constitution. Images of iconic artworks appear with such ubiquity, especially in the Internet age, that they have been etched in our collective memories, indelibly associated with their respective creator. We declare that a silkscreened image of Marilyn Monroe is a Warhol with the same confidence that we assert that the sky is blue. Sturtevant’s ersatz renditions of Pop masterworks convey the aesthetic impact of the “originals” while simultaneously investing them with additional layers of conceptual complexity. They force us to consider how commodity fetishism pervades even the sanctified realms of fine art through our reflexive identification with the maker, and perhaps, more alarmingly, how this identification informs our perception of those objects. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sturtevant’s work compels the viewer to reappraise what he/she takes for granted as a given, both in art and the greater world.
Sturtevant passed away in the spring of 2014, but not before her prophetic visions of the 1960s were fully realized through the Internet and the concomitant proliferation of a “cybernetic mode” of visual engagement, which, according to the artist, “plunks copyright into mythology, makes origins a romantic notion, and pushes creativity outside the self" (From the Press Release for Sturtevant: Image over Image, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Moderna-Museet/PressRoom/Press-releases/ accessed: Oct. 10, 2014).
Property from a Private Collection