Sturtevant (1924–2014)

Sturtevant in 2012. Photo: Paul Hansen.

AS I MOURN the passing of the most provocative artist that I have been privileged to work with, Sturtevant, I would like to consider all the ways her vision has shaped the field of art as we know it. I first encountered Sturtevant when I was still a teenager; visiting a friend’s parent’s house I saw what I believed to be Warhol and Lichtenstein paintings, and I told my hosts as much. Being precocious and proud of my art knowledge, the identification of these works was, in my eyes, a momentous achievement. When my friend’s father, the critic Douglas Davis said, “Oh no kid, those are paintings of paintings,” I was both frustrated and a little appalled that anyone would dare to do this. When other artists like Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine started working on similar turf ten years later, I knew that the experience of seeing a repeated artwork was something I had encountered before, but the memory was vague and dreamlike, and I could not put a name to it.

In the mid-1980s I became director of White Columns, and the collector Eugene Schwartz came to me and said that I needed to put on a show in the space for an artist named Sturtevant who had been left out of the dialogue and needed to be seen again. For me it was an aha moment that connected me to the memory of what I saw in the Davis’s loft at the legendary address 80 Wooster Street.

My first meeting with Sturtevant was not exactly auspicious. She walked in with Gene and Doug Davis, who had been called upon to be the critical voice of the show. She walked right past me and said “Gene, you said this was a big space—it’s tiny.” Gene’s response was, “Elaine, I didn’t say it was big space, I said it was an important space.” At that point there was a tremendous amount of interest in Sturtevant, as there is in so many artists who have taken voluntary hiatuses from showing their work. She had existed as a rumor among artists for so long. The show was small, featuring, among other works, one of her Joseph Beuys repetitions that involved a large quantity of fat—along with felt and copper—on the floor, much to the delight of the neighborhood ants, which ran in a solid line to the piece throughout the run of the show. I learned then that she had done a very unlikely exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, under the leadership of the legendary Jim Harithas, which had been entirely made of works of Beuys; since the museum had never shown a work by Beuys before, the audience was left quite puzzled.

When I was exhibitions curator at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, I had the opportunity to bring Sturtevant’s Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt exhibition to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Once again a new audience had to deal with Sturtevant’s philosophy-based investigations of relationships, origin, and originality. The high point of the show, for me, was staging a Sturtevant repetition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Go-go Dancing Platform). Felix had been a close friend, and along with Sturtevant, one of the few artists with whom I’ve worked closely who I knew to be fundamentally shifting the paradigms of art. When it came time to find go-go dancers, I learned that we could not afford real ones; instead we would need to use local artists who wanted to play go-go dancers for Sturtevant.

Over the years, I came to really enjoy her well-earned reputation for being almost too scary to engage during the Q&A portion of her public lectures. She was a known quantity in Cambridge, MA, as she had taught at both Harvard and MIT and seemed the perfect artist practitioner for that uniquely intellectual environment.

I had grown close enough at this point to know that her curt and crabby answers were really a way of pushing the audience to ask deeper, more complex questions about their relationship to visual culture. I would often volunteer to pose the questions that the audience wanted to ask but was too afraid to. She was frequently asked whether her choice to appropriate the work of only male artists was in fact a radical feminist gesture—I once heard her respond, “You have to be dead from the neck up to even ask that question.”

During her talk at MIT, I risked a question that she might have shot down similarly harshly. In her early days, her best-known repetitions were of Warhol, Johns, and Rauschenberg. Then, after her decade off, she chose to repeat Keith Haring, Robert Gober, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres for her most prominent exhibitions. So I raised my hand and said, “Sturtevant, it occurs to me that your repetitions of cultural objects have focused primarily on gay male artists with exception to Stella, Lichtenstein, and Keifer. This seems to be a consistent enough choice that it needs to be discussed. Is it that gay men, by choosing to stand next to other gay men’s bodies in life and love, are already manifesting a repetition?” She looked genuinely taken aback and said, “I’m not sure that’s right but it’s not a stupid question.” From Sturtevant, that is high praise indeed. I will miss her.

Bill Arning is the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

More reflections on Sturtevant will appear in the print edition of Artforum.