Though Elaine Sturtevant’s work prefigured ’80s-style appropriation (Mike Bidlo, Sherrie Levine, Philip Taaffe et al.), her role has never been fully recognized. Indeed, she remains one of those unclassifiable contemporary figures who seems perpetually out of sync with their moment.

Picking up and developing an element that was present in her first New York show, Sturtevant devoted her entire recent exhibition to Andy Warhol’s “Flower” paintings. Twenty-five years after her first show in Paris, Sturtevant remains remarkably faithful to her original position. Though her intentions have remained constant since 1965, the reception of her work has shifted from one of more or less hostile incomprehension, to one of acceptance, and finally to one of fatigue resulting from the glut of appropriation during the ’80s.

Sturtevant has always refrained from making copies; her repetitions—most often done from memory—are always approximations, even if they are rendered as faithfully as possible (she often works with the help of her contemporaries in the technical simulation of their motifs). This aspect of approximation, which escapes most viewers, is a reminder that the work is not about perfect copies, or about pure simulacrum; rather, it is about making another original by acknowledging the simultaneous inevitability of repetition and its impossibility due to the modulation of historical circumstances around the “repeated motif”—it is about the memory of the original that Sturtevant is keeping alive.

Acting less as Modernism’s exterminating angel than as a kind of guardian angel, Sturtevant anticipated the “liquidation” of the Original in the proliferation of copies from the outset of Pop art. One of the determining features of post-Modernism, this phenomenon has fueled appropriations in all genres. Though on the one hand Sturtevant’s work hardly resuscitates the Modernist clichés of rupture and newness by celebrating the aura of the work of art that was defused in the age of technical reproduction, on the other, she is not interested in negation, demystification, or a nihilistic discourse on the death of art. If Sturtevant persists in expressing the notion of power and the autonomy of originality through her reprise of works by artists who brought that notion to its crisis-point, it is because her way of conceiving of repetition has less to do with originality than it does with Origin, with bringing the Origin to the fore. She tracks the original moment at the very heart of works that are based, in one way or another, on retakes or series (from Warhol to Haring via Duchamp and Beuys). Before Sturtevant’s works, an unpredictable, unappropriable temporality appears that eludes the fixed, dead time of history, in which the name of Warhol the artist is instantly consumed in the visual recognition of the work. History turns an artist’s name into a mere point on a time line, an immediate visual sign—a kind of “ceci est un Warhol.” Sturtevant’s piece is a Warhol that is not a Warhol. This cerebral shock shatters the historic signature to reveal the human scale, impersonal and anonymous, beneath Warhol’s game. Sturtevant’s work is thus an implosion of historical time as well as an emergence of contemporary time. In her repetitions, she reintroduces an intensive, unappropriable time—a happening time—that is at the core of historic time.

Sturtevant’s notion of repetition thus has less to do with the impossible return of the original than it does with the emergence of the Origin, that is, with that moment when the work gushes forth, impersonal, authorless, but contemporary. There will always be a quality of nonresolve in the work—a quality that resists historicizing and interpretive impulses. Contemporary time is an origin never closed off from its identity—a perpetual élan that eludes epoch, history, and time itself.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.