New York

Elaine Sturtevant

Bess Cutler Gallery

The viewer who has grown accustomed to looking at copies in a certain way over the past few years must unlearn this habit when looking at Elaine Sturtevant’s drawings. For the artist, making copies is not the result of some recently occupied theoretical position, it is a longtime obsession; this show spans more than 20 years of work. The cluster of ideas around replication, technical prowess, and the essential copy has paved the way for a discourse resembling a kind of transhistorical sports commentary: things begin to revolve around questions of who is ahead of whom. As a woman artist, Sturtevant seems all too conscious of this mentality of competition. Instead of trying to break out of it into some kind of utopian space, free of the burden of this tradition, she has chosen to remain deeply embedded within it. She refuses to participate in the competition by taking the game to its point of dissolution.

Sturtevant’s recent occupation with certain Roy Lichtenstein motifs is significant. There are two versions of Lichtenstein Study for Portrait Triptych, 1988, in this show. Read from left to right, the triptych shows the dissolution of a woman’s face into the forms of abstract geometry. But read as two copies of a man’s representation of a woman’s face disintegrating into abstraction, the work takes up a critical position toward representation itself. By copying Lichtenstein, Sturtevant also makes the work her own in some way. For Joseph Beuys, art was about a process of personal testimony and healing. By copying Drawing for Beuys Feld Krigel, 1971, Sturtevant subtly usurps the role of the male artist/healer, including herself as a woman, as a viewer, and as an active sub-ject in an unusually disruptive way. In Duchamp Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1967, Sturtevant takes the older artist’s notions of travesty and disguise, copies and irony, a step further.

These studies and drawings can seem somewhat self-effacing. Yet Sturtevant’s compulsion to copy the work of male artists whose careers have been described in terms of greatness and originality can now be construed as a series of bold, defiant acts. Today, artists trying to plot out different strategies of resistance might want to look at Sturtevant’s lessons in subtle subversion. By making copies that are so much cheaper than the originals, hasn’t she, in a very concrete way, repopularized Pop?

Catherine Liu