A black dog whips across a field. In this looped, nine-second film, projected along the length of a long corridor wall, the soundtrack reinforces the sense of speed, panting and thudding like a pumped-up heartbeat. Such was the rousing opener to the late Elaine Sturtevant’s retrospective, organized by MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey. The facing wall was papered with imitation Warhol cows, followed by celebrated works that seemed at first to have been made by Duchamp, Beuys, Johns, Lichtenstein, and Muybridge, as well as Robert Gober and Felix Gonzalez-Torres; not many escaped her scrutiny.
Known simply as Sturtevant, the scrappy artist who died last May at the age of 89 dedicated her entire controversial career to exploring ideas of originality, authorship, and modes of art production and dissemination. A pioneer in many ways, she was an appropriationist before appropriation was accepted as a valid artistic strategy (it still provokes lawsuits if not outrage).
Sturtevant’s trademark, however, was to deliberately make inaccurate copies of her sources, so that hers would be only near replicas—“repeats,” she called them—initiating a complicated conversation about art and art making, starting with the photo of herself assuming the pose and garb of Beuys in that famous image.
Elastic Tango (2010), an inverted pyramid of nine monitors, blinks with an array of disjunctive images taken from television as well as from her own videos. It includes a memorable scene that shows her as de Kooning sawing off her/his fingers with a cleaver, a nod to carnage-meister Paul McCarthy.
As a mischievous installation gambit, the show continued (intruded?) into a fifth-floor gallery. Distrust, however, is contagious, and for a moment, even the great Matisses in the galleries next door seemed suspect, Sturtevant-ized. That’s pretty powerful, as was this engrossing, long overdue exhibition.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 80.