Sturtevant, Study for Muybridge Plate #136, 1966, twelve black-and-white photographs, glue, black paper, graphite, 8 5/8 × 6 1/2".

Sturtevant, Study for Muybridge Plate #136, 1966, twelve black-and-white photographs, glue, black paper, graphite, 8 5/8 × 6 1/2".


Sturtevant, Study for Muybridge Plate #136, 1966, twelve black-and-white photographs, glue, black paper, graphite, 8 5/8 × 6 1/2".

The viewer of Sturtevant’s photographs hardly need be told they are hers to realize something is awry. In images seemingly familiar from the oeuvres of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Eadweard Muybridge, Sturtevant is seen striking the poses we know so well, or striding along in recognizable apparel like Beuys’s full-length fur-lined coat—or in the nude. As if this twist of the already-known wasn’t discomfiting enough, she also used techniques of collage, montage, cropping, and multiplication to unsettle habitual modes of perception. For instance, a peephole-shaped photograph of her own body, Duchamp Untitled, 1997, draws in the viewer as voyeur, but only to distance him or her further by disrupting visual pleasure with the psychological stress of conceptual inconsistency. And just as the viewer is starting to make sense of the oscillatory movement between contradictory pieces of visual information, he or she is completely thrown off again when discovering that in one of four xeroxed headshots in Sturtevant’s Beuys Untitled, 1998, Beuys himself actually makes a ghostly reappearance. 

This show, “Undeniable Allusion”—including more than sixty photographs from across Sturtevant’s career, many of them little known or previously unexhibited—demonstrated that photography was a more considerable part of the artist’s output than had previously been assumed. Sturtevant used photographs first and foremost to document herself repeating other artists’ actions. Images such as Beuys Film Clip Fat Meditation, 1971, or Duchamp Man Ray, 1966, show that at the core of her Conceptualist practice of repetition was a performative aspect. By restaging others’ works as though they were notations, Sturtevant created pieces that were never copies but always new and different.  

She had already worked with photography and brought her body into her work when repeating Muybridge’s motion studies at the beginning of her practice in the mid-1960s. In works such as Plate 136, After Muybridge—Woman with Hands on Her Hips, and Muybridge Plate #97 Woman Walking, both 1966, in which she walks or jiggles in front of her own versions of Andy Warhol’s flowers and Jasper Johns’s flags, Sturtevant traced her body’s movement against the quasi-grid provided by the paintings. While bikini tan lines visible on her nude body help track its passage, they also allude to a play with presence and absence in her work that has supplanted Muybridge’s engagement with photography’s index and scientific truth. By shifting focus away from his sequentially unfolding image-narratives to questions about art’s underlying structures, she turned Muybridge’s stop-motion photography into a device for triggering a conceptual movement in the viewer’s mind. 

While photography entered Sturtevant’s practice only through the work of a few artists, the photographs are revealing about her practice overall. They underscore her humorous side, and show her presence in an oeuvre that otherwise looks like everyone else’s but hers. By documenting the performative aspect of her work and by depicting her always on the move, the photographs suggest that repetition in Sturtevant’s practice is structured by a tension between not just originality and copy as is commonly understood, but also the live or animate and the mechanical. Understanding this latter dynamic is crucial to grasping how these repetitions cohere with her still relatively neglected or misunderstood videos based on reproductions of gestures or movements taken from media imagery—works she produced from the late 1990s onward—and why, in a world characterized by increasing automatization, her work is ever more vital.

Elisa Schaar