New York

Elaine Sturtevant

Onnasch Gallery

I write reviews as a meta-art of chosen subjects, so while sympathetic to Burden’s use of media, I’m also aware of limitations with Elaine Sturtevant’s remaking the work of Joseph Beuys. The art world has had for some years a pitting of meta as against speculative concerns: the clash whether in object or Conceptual art between questioners of and speculators with the norms of art, but the debate is growing a little tired. The world is too big and interesting a place to think only of varieties of art incest. Sturtevant’s fat and felt replicas of Beuys—in an object rather than language meta-art camp—are not without interest, but I’m not sure I don’t prefer a handshake with the past rather than kissing its ass.

Commenting directly on the look of prior art whether it be Oldenburg, Duchamp, Warhol, or Beuys here, Sturtevant is always tied by an a priori acceptance of what things look like as facts. Her professed interest in “change, reference, repetitions, and opposites” is at the mercy of looks, and ignores the philosophy generating works. Therefore when Beuys looks okay so does Sturtevant; when he doesn’t, she doesn’t.

When Beuys is at his most expressionist original, as in Fat Corners in which fat is smeared blobbily into corners of walls and floors, Sturtevant is also interesting. Especially for those, like me, who’ve only seen Beuys’ reproductions. With Beuys’ best felts like Corridor Piece, with its wall-length draped felt with fat sewn into a triangular wedge running along the floor, Sturtevant also can’t go too far wrong. True also of her remake of Beuys’ Fettstuhl with its ski slope of fat dramatically altering a chair.

But her Study for Beuys’ “Vacuum Mass” with its 30’ floor and corner jumble of fat, and bicycle pumps, looks as indulgent as I only imagine the original Beuys to be. I feel the same disinterest in Sturtevant’s Study for Beuys’ “Plasticher Fuss—Elastisches Fuss” with its theatrical tableau of felt, lard, car batteries, and jelly. Sturtevant’s reasons for doing particular works are unclear.

Is she a vanguard representative of 19th-century museum copying? Or, is she simply rubbing a master’s humpback for luck? Sturtevant shows a touching concern for the commercial graphics symbols Beuys uses, from the signs on his work to even wearing his hat in her film Study for Various Beuys’ Films. I can imagine her saying: “Since I got the Beuys hat the work’s been going well.” But Beuys, I remember from a recent three-hour public onslaught, has a lot of mystical, Wagnerian, back-up chat to go with his hat—plus a great, very non-proletarian, floor-length, fur-collared overcoat. How can it be said Sturtevant is questioning the idea of “originality” or the “great artist tradition?” Doesn’t she just reinforce the kinds of works he’s using? Doesn’t she also reinforce Elaine Sturtevant’s vanguardism? The denial of originality is only replaced with a new claim to it: namely Sturtevant’s. Just as Pettibone can claim originality so can Sturtevant. I have a suspicion Sturtevant is as respectful as I pretend not to be of both originality and tradition.

––James Collins