AS BRAVE AS A BLIZZARD
No museum in America has yet dared to acquire her works, but in Europe she has been proclaimed one of art history’s unsung heroes. At first glance, her work seems overtly simple, although one senses that it is not so much overt as covert; a copy of a copy –be it an image of a Kodak flower or a sculptural urinal – Elaine Sturtevant pushed postmodern art production a step beyond ‘post-’. While Pop artists were appropriating images from advertising, Sturtevant was appropriating not only Pop, but also other conjecturing ‘stoppages’ of contemplation via the work of Beuys, Fahlstrøm, Gober, Gonzalez-Torres, and Muybridge, before anyone could fathom what mystery she was brewing.
When Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds was broadcast over the radio in the US in October 1938, people believed that its warnings about Martians invading our planet were real, and widespread panic ensued. Such is the flight-path of the imagination of a public who believed for a moment that fiction (fake) had become reality (real). H G Wells wrote the book in 1898; Orson Welles turned it into a radio play in 1938. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz in 1899; it was made into a movie in 1939. An odd historical parallel: a 40-year span stands between original and copy. What are we to make of this?
A 40-year span has occurred between Sturtevant’s first remake, Warhol Flowers in 1964 and its exhibition in a major museum survey of her work in 2004 (although one must pause to reconsider how to describe what Sturtevant does, for to call it a remake, remix, or a replay would more than likely irk her). Sturtevant makes copies of art works, but she is no copyist. She appropriates, but is not an Appropriationist. She was a renegade female artist, but not a feminist. So what is this artist sine qua non all about?
Is she illustrating Baudrillard’s sense of the simulacrum, or denuding Deleuze’s thinking on difference and repetition? Is she challenging or upholding the aura of the artwork in an age of reproduction? Perhaps a Proustian sense of memory, of ‘seeing again’, lies behind it all. Or perhaps Sturtevant is working against the empiricists, eliminating the possibility of ‘seeing’ altogether. After all, it would seem that the crooked stick of humanity has never quite gone beyond the idea that ‘seeing is believing’.
Sturtevant’s early career is remarkably strange. In 1965, she was given her first solo exhibition at the Gallery Bianchini in New York, playing the role of a prescient dramaturge, setting the stage for future powerstations: Sturtevant/Warhol’s Flowers took its place next to a Sturtevant-/Johns Flag, a Sturtevant/Rauschenberg drawing, a Sturtevant/Stella concentric painting, a Sturtevant/Oldenburg shirt and a Sturtevant/Segal sculpture. One year later at the Galerie J in Paris she redid the show, only this time locking the doors so that one could only peek at the art from the outside. In 1967, she remade Oldenburg’s store just seven blocks away from the original, and in 1974 she re-inacted a series of Beuys performances. But the problem was that she was appreciated by a public who thought she was poking fun at contemporary art: the yellow brick road to fame was paved with the wrong colour bricks. Resigned and disappointed, it wasn’t until 1986 that she would allow her work to be exhibited again, and even this time, she would still be grossly misunderstood as an early hero of Appropriation.
If I see ‘a’ Warhol, what happens when I see a Sturtevant/Warhol? Through the remaking, Sturtevant makes Warhol into a Readymade. But does one ever really ‘see’ a Warhol any more, or has his work become a logo, a label-enabling non-thought? It would seem that ‘seeing’ a Warhol today is less ‘seeing’ than it is a ‘reported sighting’, to borrow John Ashbery’s phrase. I wonder if her appropriation/non-appropriation of Warhol in 1964 functions any differently when she repeats that process in 1965, 1969, 1970, 1990 and 1991. Famously, Andy found Elaine’s idea fabulous, lending her his silkscreens so that she could make copies of works that he himself had planned to have produced and reproduced over and over again by the members of his Factory. When asked years later how he did it, he responded, ‘I don’t remember. Ask Elaine.’
Sturtevant makes her Sturtevantian memory (or memory in motion) the subject of her work and is antsy when anyone places her on the wrong shelf of the categorical imperative/interrogative. When someone called her an Appropriationist, she responded, “I am not an Appropriationist by token of intention and meaning. I do not make copies. I am talking about the power and the autonomy of the original and the force and pervasiveness of art. Perhaps the brawny brains of this ‘doctor of thinkology’ have scared off possible fans and supporters. And if Castelli could understand enough to wheel and deal in Pop, he knew that he could never convince his group of collectors that they should not only buy a Warhol, Johns, or Lichtenstein, but a Sturtevant/Warhol Marilyn, a Sturtevant/ Johns Flag, or a Sturtevant/Lichtenstein Hot Dog (though Castelli himself once acquired a Sturtevant from her Oldenburg store).
But after decades of artists trying to create non-object objects, the anti-materialist anticipations of our non-utopian, post-Marxist society are fading fast. And Sturtevant, with increasing fame, is facing an inescapable paradox, namely, that when a Sturtevant/Warhol or a Sturtevant/Duchamp become as famous as the Warhols and Duchamps themselves, then her work too has reached an impasse.
When her works are exhibited in a museum whose collection itself is comprised of several of the works she has pastiched, her work is lost to the conventions of traditional ‘mausoleum’ thought, immured within the archive, the warehouse of aesthetic objects. Indeed, it is surprising that she would relent to exhibiting in a museum. (That said, without her work being “seen” no one would “know” about it.) The theoretical terrorist/artist thus becomes as enigmatic as the Wizard of Oz:
Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow, Tinman: We want to see the Wizard.
Gateman: The Wizard? But nobody can see the great Oz. Nobody’s ever seen the great Oz. Even I’ve never seen him.
Dorothy: Well then, how do you know there is one? ...
Guard: Orders are, nobody can see the Great Oz, not nobody, not no how...NOT NOBODY, NOT NO HOW.
No one has admission to her sorcery excepting the few who are well-versed in the ideas of Deleuze and Foucault. This ‘black magic woman’ has worked the witchery of exclusivity into her production whether she wanted to or not. Like hearing heavy footsteps on the floor above, one can hear, but never really know what is going on upstairs; until, that is, one knocks on the door.
But the writer reaches a conundrum, having reached an impasse without a permit to this parallel or alternate universe. Where exactly is the land of Oz? And can one describe Sturtevant as its unlikely Wizard? In the movie version, Dorothy calls it, “Not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It's far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain...." As reality would have it, Dorothy arrived in Oz quite by chance, mostly by the whims of a natural disaster, a tornado blasting through her drab farmstead in Kansas. Much like a whirlwind of thought, this tornado embodies the process of how a Sturtevant boggles the mind.
Leafing through the catalogue of the survey dedicated to her work at the Museum der Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt, I realised suddenly that it is not so much a catalogue as it is a series of instructions as to how the catalogue should look. Slowly I climbed the stairs to taking refuge in a small room of the MMK, where I found several drawings confirming my wish for more than “fake is more”. The Wizard, once omnipotent, now takes on a sheen of new sympathy. What Sturtevant’s drawing Warhol Flowers Lichtenstein Pointing Finger (1966) depicts is the reality of now. Not only do “We Want You”, but we want you to show us how. Unlike her unmistakably good ‘fakes’, the drawings are a convergence of realities, playfully pointing to the spectator to forge their own ideas about these works of repetition. When Sherrie Levine makes works that are ‘after ’ another image (as her title indicates), the adverb of time either implied being in the wake of something or like a preposition, ‘after’ implied a resemblance, a derivation. When Sturtevant replicates a Warhol, a lateral thought is implied, and the hierarchy of power is eliminated. This is made clear in the drawings where a storyboard is created, whereas in the replica paintings and sculptures, an “either/or” situation is created (either Warhol or Sturtevant), and in that sense, the work is individualised when it appeared to be fighting against individualisation. Possibly, Uncle Sam’s finger is pointing to us so that we might ‘Play it again, Sam’ in our minds, so that we might remember not to forget what this iconoclastic subversion is all about.