Sturtevant was the first and most relentless appropriationist, making a career out of making close copies of other artists’ work. What are we to make of her art? You won’t find any easy answers in MOCA’s “Sturtevant: Double Trouble,” and Sturtevant herself wasn’t one to supply them. (Above, Elastic Tango, 2010.)
Some Sturtevant facts that may or may not be helpful:
• Sturtevant hated the word “copies.” She insisted her works were “replications.” (Left, her version of Jasper Johns‘ Target With Four Faces.)
• Sturtevant did a full-size painting of a Roy Lichtenstein print, Crying Girl. It’s like the painting Lichtenstein would have made of the image, except that he never did.
• The level of verisimilitude ranges from that of the Basquiat pastiches to the licensed Kehinde Wileys seen in Empire. There are those who marvel at the exactitude of Sturtevant’s simulacra, and the lengths she went to to make them accurate. Others insist that every copy is subtly “off” and that the experience of Sturtevant’s art requires knowing the models well enough to appreciate the off-ness.
• Sturtevant had an good eye. For the most part, she replicated brand-new works by peers who were only beginning to achieve recognition. This is one difference between her art and that of Sherrie Levine, who mostly mined the textbook art of previous generations. (Both Sturtevant and Levine had a thing for Duchamp and Man Ray, though.)
• There is some analogy between Sturtevant and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939). The fictional Menard is a 20th-century French writer who “re-creates” Don Quixote, not as an act of plagiarism but of conceptualism. One interpretation of Sturtevant is that she is a Borgesian character defined by the act of replicating other artists’ art.
• Sturtevant asked Andy Warhol for his silk screen used to print Flowers. Warhol said, sure. This is held as evidence that Warhol “got” Sturtevant. Sturtevant downplayed that reading in an W magazine interview shortly before her death: ““Everyone says, ‘So, Andy really understood!’ Well I don’t think so. I think he didn’t give a fuck. Which is a very big difference, isn’t it?”