Permanent Impetus of Thought

“My work has nothing to do with appropriation, the refocusing of history, or the death of art, or the negative questioning or originality. Rather just the opposite, as it involves the power and autonomy of originality and the force and pervasiveness of art.” (1)

The now 86 years old Elaine Sturtevant is at least one step ahead of everybody else. Already at the beginning of the 1960s the American artist was breaking the taboo of authorship, decades before The Pictures Generation (Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince or Louise Lawler) problematized the topics of “original” and “copy” in the field of art, Elaine questioned the holy relic of “originality” or “authenticity” in the arts and started to imitate, shamelessly, artworks of her male colleagues. Quite a long time before the realization of virtual trips by cyborgs and internauts in the cyberspace, before internet became mass culture, Sturtevant had anticipated the digital era through her activity. What superficially could appear as a simple copy and a naughty provocation had infuriated some artists of her generation to the extent that Sturtevant had been obliged to stop her art production from 1974 to 1986 – should be read, in despite, as deeply respectful reverence to art and it’s ability to cause thought process.

History demonstrates that she was right. With the postmodern discourse in the 80s which canonizes quotation, Sturtevant has been rehabilitated and recognized as a visionary and prophetic artist. Sturtevant was awarder of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale 2011 because she “…tries to open the space behind the art-pieces and to provoke a critical discussion on surface, copyright and the silent power of art.”

Beatrix Ruf, director of Kunsthalle Zurich, where a huge retrospective of the American artist is currently taking place – in collaboration with the Moderna Museet Stockholm – elaborates on the question of what makes, in her opinion, Sturtevant one of the most important artists of the present: “I think that she was talking about cybernetics long before all the others, and when she dealt intensively with philosophical questions. What she was thinking about the digital world was to become, in the future, extremely meaningful, and determines our reality today. When you really take the digital world seriously, then any copy doesn’t exist anymore, because the concept of “copy” or “appropriation” becomes something else if you are conscious about the meaning of digital reality. I think that this is astonishing and incredibly farsighted of her, even before Deleuze formulated his philosophy of repetition. She says: “… when I take cybernetics as being serious, then those concepts of “original” and “copy” don’t exist anymore, but what we expect from art – that it moves our thoughts – must be even possible if I repeat an artwork that already exists and if I give meaning to this repetition.”

Elaine Sturtevant’s empathized pieces can be seen as an evolution of Marcel Duchamp’s idea of readymades and especially, of course, of L.H.O.O.Q., which directly quotes and questions Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa. On the other hand, Sturtevant’s work can be considered as a continuation of the investigations by Andy Warhol, who brought in popular elements and elaborated them in series of printed pictures, and in doing so, already worked with the idea of (industrial) repetition which directly questions the uniqueness of the artwork. For a very long period Duchamp and Warhol were the only artists who understood Sturtevant’s research. They not only sanctioned her actions, but even helped and sustained the artist in her intentions. Warhol, for instance, gave her his silkscreen frames in the Factory, in order to permit her to print the Flowers series which she then exhibited the following year, signed as Sturtevants, two blocks further in the Bianchini Gallery in New York.

Sturtevant refuses to call her works “appropriations” or “copies”, instead she defines them as repetition. The term of repetition calls to mind the idea of mimesis, imitation, a term negatively associated with art since antiquity. Is Sturtevant’s work also engaging profoundly with culture in its expression as a picture, in its character as a paradigm when, for instance, we perceive a landscape as a Caspar David Friedrich or as a Turner? Maybe this reversal will be enforced by the serial installation of the works in space? If you get into the space with the eight Duchamp Fresh Widow’s reconstructed from Duchamp’s work, then it seems to express: no artwork ever can be an original, or everything is a reproduction, or shows the influence of something that has already existed. It is very interesting that Fresh Widow could be considered a “wrong” readymade, because it was built by a New York carpenter, on Duchamp’s order, in a smaller version than a real window and it is definitely not a serial industrial product redefined as an art-piece.

Beatrix Ruf explains: “The Duchamp Fresh Widow’s in this version have been produced specially for the exhibition in Stockholm and Zurich, because before that there existed only one “window”. In the beginning you had mentioned that Sturtevant deals with Duchamp and Warhol as artistic and iconographic figures, but also with their intellectual and philosophical attitude. With this multiplication of the Duchamp Fresh Widow she realizes, of course, central issues from Warhol’s as well as from Duchamp’s ideas once again and develops them further on. I think this work is very important in this show, just because it’s placed in the same room as the
Sturtevant- Warhols: because in Sturtevant’s exhibitions, the relation between the pieces is a very important issue, able to create a further mutual energetic charge which enlarges the intellectual topic of the works – in this case surely the seriality, but also the mechanisms of production and questions on the relationship between Pop Art and Minimal Art.”

When Baudrillard says that reality is something from which we can figure out an adequate reproduction and approximates reproduction to the real, the question arises whether Sturtevant, considering the problematics of true and false, also reflects on the concept of “truth” by opposing it to multiplicity.

Beatrix Ruf: “Yes, maybe in the sense of the relevance of specific art works for the production of meaning. The decisive part in Sturtevant’s work is really that she ì breaks concepts that come before the reception of the work itself, as authenticity, iconicity of the author and that she breaks with her repetitions comfortable approaches to the work in order to provoke an intellectual process. Additional to her great analyses of Warhol and Duchamp, her big merit is that she reflects also central formulations and attitudes of conceptual art in a very different way, as the conceptual artists themselves in the 1960s. To the topic of the “state of an artwork” and the relevance of its physical realisation – like for instance the attitude of Lawrence Weiner or John Baldessari, but Joseph Kosuth as well –, which means how the materialization of a thought into an object functions, if the only thing that matters is the linguistic formulation that defines the artwork and if the realized artwork itself is not necessary anymore – she opposes the very clear affirmation that art needs a handwriting and that the material realisation is absolutely relevant and crucial, just because the thought has been realised through materia. It is to consider decisive that Sturtevant repeats those repeated works also physically.“

What motivates Sturtevant to reconstruct this particular artwork rather than another one, and to traverse it sensually and intellectually? Are they artworks she loves, especially in the sense of an energetic charge, as related above? Does she consider the chosen pieces as icons of our culture so that they earn the status of being representative? Could we say that the artist acts as a filter, discovering excellent artworks? Sturtevant has indeed made repetitions of several artists at a time when they were completely unknown, but later they became megastars in the art market. Could it be that Sturtevant is questioning at the same time the role of the artist?

Beatrix Ruf: “When you see a Warhol which has been repeated by Sturtevant then it’s a Sturtevant, and the decisive question is whether the artwork she has repeated is still as relevant, that even in the second version the spirit of the artwork continues to come through. In the first, mental process of an artwork, as Sturtevant sees it, the questions of decision and choice have a decisive part and again the question of handwriting is still a fundamental issue. When we talk about the topic of the selection, then I also think on the actual internet-generation, for whom “selection” is an important competence in order to valorise and choose the useful part within the infinite flow of information. Selection has always played a central role in the artistic act.”

As Duchamp says, it’s the artist who defines through their choice what is art and what is not, and not the critic or the curator…
In Beatrix Ruf’s opinion, we should be very careful with this Marcel Duchamp quotation, as with the Beuys belief that everybody is an artist, thus: “…not everybody is an artist and not everything is an artwork, if the artist exclaims it, but it’s decisive of course, what he says and what he chooses and how that is realised in the oeuvre.”

What status do the repeated pieces have for Elaine Sturtevant?
Beatrix Ruf: “Definitely the third option – that she acts as a filter, I think, because as you said, she has perceived and repeated other artists – unfortunately only men, corresponding to the period and the iconicity of the artists from this generation – at a moment of their career when there hasn’t been any “label” on their works and their persons yet. In her artistic strategy it is logical that she repeats artworks in a very early moment of their effect on Art History, but she also repeats the public, because she permanently analyses and thinks about the present. Through recognizing or knowing, she shows her ability to read the mental movement artworks can spark. This is related to reception, but on the other hand also to the reality of an artwork itself.”

When visiting the show, you can’t get rid of the feeling that Sturtevant moves on a meta-level and is also discussing the role of the museum, or institutions, or of culture in general. The museum as a sort of “Noah’s Ark” of culture.
Beatrix Ruf: “Sturtevant believes definitely in the movement of thought that artworks are able to provoke. For her, the experience of art pieces is a main topic and therefore the museum as a space where this relationship is produced, as well. Nevertheless, I have asked myself whether it’s to be considered also as a curatorial act she executes through the choice of the pieces. At the same time, one has to consider as well, that all good artists refer to the art of other artists. Art is always self-referential and continues to write its own history.”

Visitors who don’t know Sturtevant and haven’t read any explications could easily be convinced that they find themselves in a group show of any artists from the second half of the 20th century: Sturtevant produces quite a big confusion in the unsuspecting recipient. Exactly through the mise-en-scène of this strong ambiguity the show seems to reproduce or to problematize the museum as such, as a container and archive. Even though in reality it is a single show by Elaine Sturtevant, who has produced all the pieces on her own. At that point, a suspicion arises that it all may be the same threats of appropriation, however not, as it first seemed, of single artworks, but rather the appropriation and mirroring of the mechanism of power in the art world. Could it eventually be thinkable that Sturtevant appropriates the role of the curator, but through artistic techniques?

Beatrix Ruf: “Of course, the institutional context is questioned as well. Going back to the topic of the group show, I believe, it matters more about the collective creativity which again indicates digital reality. A decisive point in this show is, of course, that Sturtevant’s video oeuvre is given to see in its totality and that it’s put in relation to her older repetition pieces. The video-works are the continuation of her questioning of Cybernetics, which have led to her original artworks. In a consequent way, through the combination of the different works in the show, questions like the value of artworks in reality or in an institutional situation are pushed further on, through the digital realisation. Sturtevant creates with her video-works a very personal universe of pictures out of digital reality and the availability of digital material to repeat. In the video-works, we may talk about appropriation, because beside her own pictures, she also uses material from the internet or picture databases. But, the decisive part is, that she produces authorship out of the collective level. I think this is extremely interesting to see beside the Sturtevant-Warhol, the Sturtevant-Haring and the Sturtevant-Jasper-Johns in the show.”

It seems that Sturtevant, in these newer pieces from 2000, approaches again Pop Art, because she doesn’t repeat the art level, but she picks up and develops elements from popular culture. Not only in the video works, but in the installation with porno dolls as well, where she confronts visitors with stereotypical pictures of a society in search of easy pleasure, where everything is replaceable and sellable. Sturtevant produces here a short circuit: what does she want to say? Does she invite us to read low- and high-culture as being on the same level, or is she talking about hierarchies? What are those recent works talking about?

Beatrix Ruf: “You could say that all of Sturtevant’s work is “Pop”, in the sense that it treats collective meaning. I think that there are different levels playing a role. On the one hand, of course, it is an analysis of the digital world coming from a person who has lived for almost a century, who wasn’t born in the 1980s and hasn’t grown up with internet and television. On the other hand, it is a very consistent continuation of her repetition series, to observe closely what are the specifics of this digital reality. In the video tower Elastic Tango, which creates a relation not only to Nam June Paik but also to Beuys or Dieter Roth, where the topic is the simultaneity and the constant flow of the pictures in the world: it’s a mixture of found and self-produced material. But here, too, we should find a new concept for the notion of ‘appropriation’.”
For fifty years, Elaine Sturtevant confronts herself with the present and its cultural, technological and philosophical evolution, and is able to recognize, as a seer, new phenomena at the root of their very first beginning and to translate this knowledge in her artwork.
Beatrix Ruf, who has known Sturtevant for a very long time, affirms: “The work with Sturtevant as a person and as an artist is extremely friendly, but extremely exigent as well – Sturtevant insists on thinking and the movement of thought of human beings and objects in the world.”

Barbara Fässler

(1) Elaine Sturtevant quoted in the text written by Doris von Drathen: “Der Dialog mit dem Gleichen. Enteignen der Appropriation”, Kunstforum 111, 1991, S. 180.

Painting Kunsthalle Zürich Interview with the curator Beatrix Ruf

Published in
Studija 88 - 1 2013

PDF Studija 88

Elaine Sturtevant (Photo: Loren Muzzey)
1 / 2

Elaine Sturtevant (Photo: Loren Muzzey)

Beatrix Ruf (Photo: Lukas Wassermann)
2 / 2

Beatrix Ruf (Photo: Lukas Wassermann)