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PRINT September 2014

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Sturtevant

Sturtevant, Haring Tag July 15 1981, 1985, sumi ink and acrylic on cloth, 9 7/8 × 12 7/8".

STURTEVANT WAS NOT HER NAME. It originally belonged to someone else, but she inhabited it and made it her own, inaugurating a kind of vaudeville that she would repeat many times over the fifty years of her career. She often said that she liked the name because of its power, but its camouflage surely also appealed to her. Abandoning any kind of recognizable style, she began in 1964 “utilizing Johns, Duchamp, or Warhol . . . as catalysts to dispose of representation,” dedicating herself to a practice whose force depends upon first being seen as what it is not. This meant that a lot of people missed it altogether, and still do.

“If something is not yet known, then only what it is not can be understood,” Sturtevant wrote in a 1971 letter, pointing beyond the horizon of our recognition and indicating the difficulty of her path toward it. A few years ago, I found myself on a certain Sturtevant Road in New England and noticed that it was a dead end. NO OUTLET. It was a reminder that Sturtevant seemed to represent a cul-de-sac to many: Her detractors dismissed her as a sideshow plagiarist, while her fans hyperbolically described her as the destroyer of modern art. “Does she send us back,” Bernard Blistène eloquently wondered a decade ago, “to face a void with no landmarks, no date or limits, no beginning nor end?” But that was the thing with Sturtevant: Relentlessly looking ahead rather than back, she was always an end and a beginning. The artist’s show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012 premiered a new video work based on Pac-Man, in which the avatar runs mindlessly around the digital maze until the ghosts catch him. THE END, it then proclaims, and starts up all over again.

Two years before Sturtevant began her innovations, art historian George Kubler referred to “precursors” and “rebels” to describe what he viewed as the two types of innovators in the history of art. “The precursor can have no imitators,” Kubler wrote. She “shapes a new civilization; the rebel defines the edges of a disintegrating one.” That Sturtevant could have been both inimitable precursor and edge-riding rebel is a testament not only to the strange contours of her era but to the unparalleled razzle-dazzle of her thinking, the push and shove of her work, and its sweeping leaps, bumps, and jumps.

Long before the attention she would enjoy during the last decade of her life, Sturtevant was asked if her work would end once it was fully understood—what would happen if the “not yet known” finally became comprehensible? In characteristically zigzagging language, Sturtevant replied, “There never has to be something else. It has to be everything else and not something else. There is no end. The head doesn’t go dead after you understand it. On the contrary, there are many places to go.”

After her memorial in Paris in June, three of us gathered at an apartment there and raised our glasses to a remarkable lady who was everything else and not something else to all of us lucky enough to have known her. We watched the late-afternoon light move across a Warhol Black Marilyn from 2004 hanging on the wall. The glossy star moved fabulously in and out of view against the matte darkness of the painting’s background, an evocation of the elegantly conflicted visibility that marked its maker’s career.

I later learned that Sturtevant had planned to surprise those of us at her memorial with a video statement. She reminded me in one of our last conversations that she still had a show to install with me at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this fall, and she was at work on a new video installation about “the demise of the binary system.” Probably thinking that she had plenty of time, she hadn’t gotten around to making her send-off. Or perhaps she saw no need to repeat herself. After all, we have her great little Haring Tag July 15 1981, 1985. Mickey Mouse waves to us from inside a television, as if saying, “Hello, voilà, good-bye,” in a permanent repetition. Now, sadly, that will have to suffice.

Peter Eleey is Curator and Associate Director of Exhibitions and Programs at MoMA PS1.