Of all the questions raised in the exhibition Sturtevant at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, perhaps the most appropriate would be: What to make of a Sturtevant exhibition in the absence of Sturtevant?
In many ways the artist has always been absent from her work. Born in 1924 in Lakewood, Ohio, Elaine Sturtevant — known professionally by only her last name — gained both acclaim and notoriety in the 1960s for her renditions (repetitions, in her words) of artworks by better-known contemporaries, mostly Pop artists.
Her debut exhibition, at the Bianchini Gallery on West 57th Street in 1965, featured a George Segal-style plaster man pulling a garment rack hung with painting samples (i.e., an “Albers,” a “Johns”) in front of a wall of Warhol flowers. In his 2013 book on the artist, Under the Sign of [sic], Bruce Hainley quotes New York Times reviewer John Canaday, who wrote that Sturtevant “must be the first artist in history to have held a one-man show that included everybody but herself.”
Despite obvious problems with Canaday’s appraisal (and his use of the term “one-man show”), Sturtevant’s presence in her current one-woman survey of repetitions is like a ghost in the machine: Warhols and other emblematic Pop and postmodern art pieces are haunted by her spirit.
The exhibition is the artist’s third at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the second since her death in 2014 (previous shows were in 2012 and 2016, the latter held at Gavin Brown’s outpost in Rome). Organized by the gallery and Sturtevant’s daughter Loren Muzzey, it includes works based on Warhol, Johns, Frank Stella, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons, along with video pieces produced by Sturtevant herself and with Muzzey.
The works are and look like Sturtevants, in the way that a Sturtevant looks uncannily like, but not quite the same as, works by other artists. Yet the Sturtevant/not-Sturtevant dynamic is altered by the awareness of her physical absence from the organization of show, as well as the presence of Muzzey — like but not quite the same as her mother. This shift in the control of the display results not in a demonstrably different aesthetic, but in the formation of another strata of meaning through new dialogues and dizzying displacements of identity and authorship.
A common interpretation of Sturtevant’s work, which has dogged her since the ’60s, is that it is a critique of capitalism. Such a one-dimensional reading misses the dialogues that open up in the encounter between the original and the Sturtevant, and among the various Sturtevants in the show.
To paraphrase Canaday, the exhibition — like most Sturtevant exhibitions — resembles a group show but is not a group show — clearly, because the works are all by one artist and, made from memory, they are not precise replications of their models. But the exhibition also does not replicate the typical structure of a group show: No artwork or artist is privileged over another; nothing captures a single zeitgeist or theme. Instead, the juxtapositions and overlaps between the pieces seem to drown out, challenge, or even comfort one another.
For the video “Dillinger Running Series Compilation” (2000), images of Sturtevant dressed as the gangster John Dillinger are projected, with an accompanying soundtrack, from a rotating base across the walls of the gallery’s darkened first floor, where her replications “Warhol Gold Marilyn” (1973/2004), “Stella Kingsbury Run (Second Version)” (1989), and two Johns light bulbs in bronze (1987) along with their plaster casts (1968 and 1987) are installed. Another video, “Re-Run” (2007), produced jointly by Sturtevant and Muzzey, depicts a running dog (also projected from a rotating base) across the various surfaces of an expansive gallery space. Sometimes elongated, sometimes compacted, sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, each frame of the looped video produces a unique image.
On the second floor, “Johns White Flag” (1991) — a version of Johns’s 1955 “White Flag,” but lacking the thick, encaustic sheen of the original — seems almost anemic, situated on a white wall near a window. If Sturtevant’s pieces don’t measure up to their models, as some critics have argued, it’s beside the point — or, arguably, it is the artist’s point. With her repetitions, the artist inhabits a position that reflects back on the original. She had a sixth sense for important artworks and artists, repeatedly recreating works by contemporaries that would become canonical. Her recreations and juxtapositions expose how instrumentalized many of these canonical works, and our perceptions of them, have become.
In a stunning, loft-like space on the gallery’s top floor, with exposed brick and skylights, a lone, 120 by 120-inch Warhol flower print, in maroon and black, accompanies strings of illuminated light bulbs loosely scattered across the floor. Were “Warhol Flowers” (1990) and “Gonzales-Torres Untitled (America)” (2004) actually by Warhol and Gonzales-Torres, the juxtaposition might speak to such issues as gay rights, on one hand, and artifice versus authenticity on the other — the former uniting the works via the artists’ sexuality, and the latter disuniting them via their motivations. Traces of these issues are retained in the pairing of these two artists, yet Sturtevant’s gesture creates additional layers of difference — between the original and recreated artworks and between one straight female and two gay male artists, whose personas have been identified with countercultural otherness.
These kinds of encounters raise questions of who is intervening in what, for whom? Sturtevant for Gonzales-Torres and Warhol (who not only supported her endeavors but supplied her with a flower silkscreen)? Muzzey and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise for Sturtevant? Sturtevant for Sturtevant? One other (the woman, the double) for another (the gay man)? Or the artist (Sturtevant) for the question of meaning?
Sturtevant famously declared of her art, “I create vertigo.” There are no easy answers to these questions. Moreover, attempts to disrupt the status quo and create questions rather than answers are frequently met with hostility: When Sturtevant recreated Claes Oldenburg’s Store (1961) as The Store of Claes Oldenburg in 1967, Oldenburg, she related, was “ready to kill me”; eventually, hostility from the art establishment compelled her to leave New York for Paris and, for a decade, abandon art altogether.
Such reactions also reveal the importance of Sturtevant’s interventions. Her work questions not only the systems of art and art commerce, but of art criticism as a means of defining art and, more broadly, the acts of identifying and making meaning.
In his 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard, philosopher of the simulacrum, writes, “Simulation is infinitely more dangerous [than transgression and violence] since it always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation.”
Sturtevant continues at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (439 West 127th St., Harlem) through September 9.