Repeat after me: Erase and rewind.

That’s Sturtevant, the short version.

A longer version—on view at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, brilliantly curated by MMK director Udo Kittelmann and curator Mario Kramer—managed not to be a retrospective (Sturtevant’s got zero tolerance for retro spectacles) or a historical show prioritizing her foundational work from 1965 to 1974. Instead, what could be seen (for the first time?) was the deep continuity of four decades of her thinking—its action, its power and beauty—given space (the entire museum, from which even the permanent collection was removed) and time.

Born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1926, Sturtevant made her solo debut in New York at the Bianchini Gallery in 1965. Her seismic activity continued in New York and Paris, culminating in a landmark show at Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art in 1973 and her “Beuys” show in New York the following year. She wouldn’t exhibit again until 1986 (at White Columns in New York) and has since shown almost exclusively in Europe. (She moved to Paris in 1990.)

Recently, Sturtevant beamed her ongoing project into three laserlike sentences:

The brutal truth of the work is that it is not copy.

The push and shove of the work is the leap from image to concept.

The dynamics of the work is that it throws out representation.

Sturtevant’s project uses conceptual thinking (not theory) but is not Conceptual art, if Conceptual art dematerializes the object entirely (often fudging). Her work must be seen, materially, in order to start the nuclear chain reaction that gets one to think (see above, second sentence), rethink, and push beyond what is seen—in/visibility (third sentence) leading to contrafactual immanence. Her physics of catalytic reversals depends on our habitualization as lookers: what causes anyone to “know” what is seen before it is seen or thought, before it is looked at; what causes anyone to look without thinking, and vice versa. Often this nonthinking looking occurs through a reliance on proper names and an arrogant crossbreeding of synecdoche and metonymy: “I recognize a Warhol, therefore I know how to recognize all Warhols, all things Warholian.” Sturtevant deploys the transformational iconicity of works (Johns Flags, Warhol Marilyns) to get at, say, the string theory of art, but her investigation of interior structures is why her work is neither appropriation nor copy (first sentence).

For those who may still feel Sturtevant seems to require an apophatic approach, in that, like God, she can only be defined by negative attributes, let’s be quick: The work isn’t copy because it has never been about her setting up an easel in front of a “masterpiece” and copying stroke by stroke, beholden, derivative. It isn’t appropriation either, even avant la lettre. Rather, it is about the imaging of contemporaneity: When Sturtevant first repeated them, Warhol was barely “Warhol,” Johns “Johns,” or Lichtenstein “Lichtenstein”; what have become their iconic works were then hardly icons. There’s surpris- ingly little overlap between her practice and, say, Sherrie Levine’s. Levine works serially and surveys the entirety of modern art history like a stalker; her work questions the engendering of genius, of masterpiece, and depends, regardless of its media, on a photographic sensibility. Sturtevant repeats only her contemporaries; even her Duchamps have to do with the post-Cagean/Rauschenbergian contemporaneity of Duchamp, Duchamp not as father but participant, still working (on Etants Donné). Sturtevant’s pieces can’t be copied or appropriated. (Try it.) She’s eliminated references and is, somewhat like Marie Curie, playing with aesthetic radioactivity. It burns invisibly.

What does it mean now to walk into the first room of her nonretro-spective and encounter next to one another the glow of her Johns Flag, 1966, lavender Warhol Marilyn, 1973, and Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (America), 2004? The electric charge of the negotiation of what it would mean to have all these be the work of a single artist, the products of a radical continuity, deranges rote art history, renders notions of simple progression moot. What shines brightly is her endeavor’s continuing immediacy. Although she was the first to do the work she is doing, in her project she questions ferociously what the romantic commitment to firstness is. She’s stated that you’d have to be a mental retard to think that her work is about the death of originality; but her questioning originations would show that even Original Sin wasn’t original (in no small part because it was prohibitive and not creative). Consider now how a resolute insistence on firstness—never Sturtevant’s concern—would resign one to a rhetoric of arrogant preemption. The purposeful juxtaposition of Johns Flag, Warhol Marilyn, and Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (America) allows a horizontality to be considered—all these things now, America—and to show how the point is to look beyond seeing what is seen, the given, to everything that is not, even cannot be, shown. A useful strategy given our current point-blank America.

Perhaps the intensity and insistence on thinking through all these things as appearances of a totality of invisible structures is most easily apparent in her breathtaking drawings and works on paper, where the manifold consequences and originality of making a cerebral network out of how now was being imaged through art can be most powerfully felt. To encounter her amazing Working Drawing Wesselmann Great American Nude, Lichtenstein Hot Dog, 1966, in which the odalisque sprawls beneath the collage of Times Square, flowers, and radio while topping a frisky benday-dotted frank is to jettison, once and for all, any misconception that the work concerns copy; rather one must deal with how a single artist looks like a Wesselmann and Lichtenstein at once and what it meant for the contemporary moment of 1966 to look like that. She wasn’t drawing Wesselmann’s nude or Lichtenstein’s hot dog, she was drawing connections. Her drawings are also the place to start thinking about how a rhetoric or grammar of gendering, uh, frankly impinges on the manner in which images activate concepts—an issue that a related drawing, Study Wesselmann, Great American Nude, Johns Target, 1966, bull’s-eyes.

Much of Sturtevant’s most recent work is in video and doesn’t immediately appear to operate as her previous interventions. She works in and through video and ques- tions what video “looks like,” now that everything looks like video. Yet she has always been grappling with the aesthetic ramifications of seeing, feeling, and making, producing work that resists and protests the emptying out of just about everything, including the idea of art. Her dual videos The Greening of America, 2000, and The Greening of America 2, 2001, throw up and repeat images of a jizz-squirt of Heinz’s green ketchup, radioactive green lips, piles of greenbacks, and a green-eyed eerily human monkey to articulate how an excess (green ketchup) becomes connected to limitation (money) and transgression (genetic manipulation; cloning) to end up as exhaustion, articulated by a toilet plunger sucking up puce fecal muck through a green Astroturf sinkhole. Such vile incontinence has become the unstable ground treaded daily. It was recently announced that a cemetery in California would be the first anywhere to replace its lawns with Astroturf—to defray cost, of course. Sturtevant’s aesthetics confront such “greening,” such hyperbolic debasing of ritual grounds and faking of man’s relation to the land.

That green muck, shadowed by death, haunts the acidity of Sturtevant’s Gober Partially Buried Sinks, 1997, looking like two grim tombstones and witnessing not only truths buried but also an increasing internalization of death—a morbidity intensified many times over by Sinks’s proximity to her brilliantly horrifying video, The Dark Threat of Absence Fragmented and Sliced, 2002, a confrontation with, as she has written, “the outside brutally dismissing the interior.” Mortifying across seven separate monitors, it would be a mistake to mistake Dark Threat as a Sturtevant Paul McCarthy: This is not a piece about painting nor about McCarthy’s The Painter: It is about an internalization of mutilation, of toxic consumption—from the cartooned individual to the pixilated mass seeking statistical confirmation of personal existence via popularity contests, fear factors. The seven monitors line up like soldiers. In the first four, parts of the artist’s own body appear in different guises and get-ups, repeating actions reversing various kinds of up and down motion: (1) a cleaver chopping on a “bloodied” Mickey Mouse mitt; (2) a phallic broomstick boinging between skinny legs, partially occluded by a dingy nightgown; (3) a Mickey’d finger dipping/fucking a can of blood-red paint; (4) the artist as a scary clown, as much Krusty on a bender as McCarthy, demanding to be paid a lot of money as she rocks her head back and forth. The remaining three monitors disperse even a cartoon individuality to commercial global televisuals: (5) a “trainer” yelling like a colonel at a woman to chew chew chew her big burger; (6) a montage of a woman blurring into a crying boy into a French bulldog into a weird fetus to the sound of a voice intoning “fuckin’ great, fuckin’ great, fuckin’ great,” as if the sheer insistence made it true; and finally (7) fans screaming at an American Idol–like concert. The entire work overwhelms, gray matter shifted into virile color; it commits itself to confront the real disemboweled, a real having little to do but pimp commodities (in the catalogue there’s a storyboard image for Dark Threat featuring Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise), dasein incapacitated, a cover song performed inadequately by Paula Abdul and Ryan Seacrest. Spend enough time with Sturtevant’s project and it dawns on you that her use of art to interrogate the leaps of interior and exterior visibilities can brace one to deal with now—say, how it’s possible to contemplate that, in the insistent internalization of death, lynching (exterior homicide, torture—see Abu Ghraib) becomes plastic surgery (interior self-mutilation) through some perversion of the private mediated into the social.

But there are other tonalities. Consider Sturtevant’s grand Stellas. Consider how one carries the energy of the time one was born into throughout life, adding to it as a way of responding to where one is now. One of the few works actually by another artist in the survey was Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991, positioned in one of two twin galleries separated by the chasm of a stairwell; in the second twin gallery was Sturtevant’s Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1995. It was easy to see the small differences between them (slightly smaller light bulbs, more scuffable paint) and to see how beside the point those differences were in what was being accomplished. By repeating the Gonzalez-Torres, Sturtevant reveals things never before seen in order to see beyond seeing. When the guys (Luca and Moses) danced on the platforms they could look across the stairwell at one another; the music they heard on their yellow Walkmans couldn’t be heard by anyone but themselves, but anyone could see they were hearing something. They worked up a sweat and smiled at each other and anyone watching and then zoned into themselves again. Given the erotics on display, I could go into how Sturtevant’s repetitions produce difference in light of the homo-sameness of homosexuality producing differences; instead I’ll suggest that in showing both go-go platforms there were embodied interior and exterior structures, what was there and what wasn’t as human affect. Pleasure—between dancers, between dancers and audience—folded into thinking. Seeing the guys gyrate was a way to witness, analogically, through the human, the interior (music not heard) not visible but doubled and, when the guys quit the platforms, doubled again by absence twinned. In contemplating how we will or won’t, do or don’t go on after absence, resistance, even protest, not passivity in mourning. You and me, representations opposite of the same, after the repeat causing change, difference.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.