The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective for Sturtevant, who meticulously repeated the work of other artists for half a century, until her death in May at the age of 89, is creepy, hilarious, elegantly curated and utterly thrilling. Called “Double Trouble,” the show is smaller than MoMA’s superb blowouts this year—the Sigmar Polke and Robert Gober surveys—but it is by far the most radical of the bunch, and is virtually guaranteed to provoke strong reactions.
MoMA does not own a single work by the artist, and is the first American museum to mount a proper retrospective of her work in 40 years, but one cannot imagine a better place for it. The grand institution, after all, is rich with works by the artists that Sturtevant spent her career studying and repeating—Warhol, Johns, Lichtenstein, and more, which are all in the show. It was her hometown museum for the pivotal stretch in the mid-1960s when she began her defining project, asking Andy Warhol for his silkscreens and making her own Marilyns, clipping out newsprint to make Jasper Johns numbers, and opening her own version of Claes Oldenburg’s legendary Store (1961) in the East Village.
Sturtevant has always struck me as a pretty good name for a medieval weapon—catapult, trebuchet, Sturtevant. It sounds tough, sophisticated, and capable of delivering incredible blunt force, which was exactly the kind of artist she was.
When she did her Store of Claes Oldenburg in 1967, setting up shop a few blocks from where Oldenburg’s was, she got beat up by local schoolchildren, and apparently enraged the artist, who had previously been a supporter, but she went through with it anyway. (“I think I wanted that kind of brutality,” she says in an interview published in the catalogue.) She endured years of neglect and misunderstanding, when most critics and curators had no clue what she was up to. (Like Duchamp, she quit art for a stretch, decamping to Paris in the mid-1970s.)
She was notoriously acerbic in interviews. When I spoke with her right before her 2012 show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in downtown Manhattan, she scared the hell out of me. She was mischievous and energetic, jumping from idea to idea and occasionally ordering me to write things down. But she was also charming. “He…knows knowledge is not for understanding but for cutting,” she told me, when I asked why she was showing with Brown. “That’s impressive. Also, don’t forget he’s rather sexy. Voilà!”
Her work is cloaked in those two contradictory modes—chillingly caustic, and yet filled with an uncanny warmth in its almost loving devotion to details. She uses “style as her medium,” as the show’s curator, Peter Eleey, has argued. She disappeared into the work of her (almost entirely) male peers, echoing them, shadowing them, but her careful repetitions can also be seen as a very specific form of tribute: she wanted to reckon with those names.
The catalogue charts her endlessly fascinating life, which began in 1924 in Lakewood, Ohio, under the name Elaine Frances Horan. Knowing the ease with which biographical information can take the place of actual aesthetic understanding, she studiously obscured her past, and adopted that single name, which she picked up in a marriage that ended in divorce. A member of the avant-garde set in early ’60s New York, she always seems to have been hiding in plain sight during major chapters of postwar art history—in the audience at performances, at parties, and on the studio walls of artists.
Her very presence at MoMA turns walking through the museum into an intoxicating game. To venture from her show on the third floor to other galleries in the museum is to be confronted again and again by the crushing déjà vu and intellectual jujitsu that her work provokes. (“I create vertigo” is how she once famously put it.)
Her Johns Target with Four Faces Study (1986) is visible at the end of a long hall at the start of her show, and even up close it’s nearly indistinguishable from Johns’s Target With Four Faces (1955), which is on view one floor above. (A checklist reveals that Sturtevant’s work was off by only fractions of an inch on each side.) Or consider Sturtevant’s Gober Gential Wallpaper (1994/95), which shows the same hastily sketched sex organs that are on view in Gober’s retrospective on the second floor.
Part of me wishes that MoMA had staged the retrospective within the collection galleries, replacing its regularly exhibited Warhols, Stellas, and the rest with Sturtevant after Sturtevant after Sturtevant, the structure of the museum’s narrative being complicated and rewritten in one fell swoop.
But that may have been too cute an exercise. This show displays the full potency of Sturtevant’s art, which challenges the way in which art and art history typically operate, making the recognizable look topsy-turvy and shaky and new.
Once you know that Warhol didn’t make that all-black Warhol Black Marilyn (2004) on view, you are forced to start considering thorny, uncomfortable thoughts—about why people lust after such images and artworks, about how they end up in museums and in the textbooks, about what Warhol was actually up to, and even about the power that we ascribe to art, and the power we believe it can have over us.
Beating the 1980s Appropriation artists by a full generation and paving the way for contemporary figures as disparate as poet Kenneth Goldsmith (with his endless textual repetitions) and artist Darren Bader (with his co-option of others’ work), Sturtevant has long seemed wildly ahead of her time, almost existing outside of time itself. But now the present is finally, slowly catching up with her. She is at MoMA, precisely where she belongs. But even there, as she is being assimilated into the canon, her work still looks fresh, and even a little bit threatening, like it is quietly, patiently holding on to some secrets, sinister and dark.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.