New York

Elaine Sturtevant

57 STUX + Haller Gallery

Over the past few years myriad references have been made to this prototypical appropriator, this artist who, by copying the works of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and others in the mid '60s, anticipated the artistic discourse on originality by two decades. These discussions of Elaine Sturtevant's work repeatedly pointed to the way in which her re-creations paradoxically reduced the practices of Sherrie Levine, Mike Bidlo, and others to repetitions of a single, seminal activity. I just had to rush to see this show of work by an artist who, it seemed, had “done it all” for 20 years.

The exhibition indeed emitted a timely ring, as every one of the 10 images was “after” the work of another artist. Featured here were not Sturtevant's disquieting paintings from the ‘60s, which have received so much attention lately, but a brand-new series of works. The main space was dominated by a group of paintings and small sculptures after Jasper Johns. Some helium-filled mylar pillows after Andy Warhol and a rather tepid painted canvas drop after Keith Haring were arrayed in an adjoining gallery. Offstage, in an office, a roundelay of drawings and photographs after Eadweard Muybridge, Joseph Beuys, and Marcel Duchamp paid kind courtesies to Sturtevant's work from the '60s and '70s. Sturtevant's “Johns” paintings are nice renditions of their subjects, skillfully mimicking the formats, relations of images to frame, stencil letters and numbers, collaged objects, etc., that are characteristic of this modern master's work. They do diverge significantly from their predecessors, but they're still very nice, thank you. Bits of newsprint show through Sturtevant's carefully simulated drips and dribbles of paint, and the encaustic covers the whole to perfection. The gallery grouping provided a good selection of “key” works, including facsimiles of Device Circle, Painting with Two Balls, and Out the Window, as well as a number painting, Johns Big Figure Five (Study). Marching down one wall were four renderings of Johns’ noted light bulbs, one each in cast bronze and gray painted bronze, and two in white plaster casts.

Sturtevant deliberately stopped practicing in 1973, and only resumed her simulations in 1985. In the brief catalogue that accompanied this show, critic Klaus Ottman notes her insistence that “her paintings are not copies and that the work has to be seen on her own terms.” Sturtevant's aim in producing Sturtevants, then, is neither to make multiples, democratically placing an esthetic chicken in every pot, nor to extend the discussion on authorship. Indeed, in a statement used as the epigraph to the catalogue, she debunks the latter as persiflage: “Commentaries, commodities, copies, appropriation, authorship, death-talk, originality, . . . these are for ‘heroes,’ hot dog boys, and bubble gum chewers.” It's a nice quote, with its healthy gibe at currently fashionable esthetic positions, but it transmutes this practice into a pointless activity. Minus ideology (or even ideas), each work seems strangely denuded, neither “good” as a Johns, nor “interesting” as a Sturtevant. Perhaps Sturtevant just finds pleasure in production, enjoying the endless repetition of dribbles, strokes, and gestures and pushing toward the bizarre utopia of an inspired replica. The viewer is encouraged to observe this phenomenon, and to quickly turn the page in the history book.

Kate Linker