It’s often said that originality is simply undetected plagiarism. In the past couple of years, several major art institutions and museums have revisited the work of American artist Elaine Frances Sturtevant (1924–2014), known simply as Sturtevant, who was both as original as they come, but also a well-known plagiarist. Recent exhibitions include Double Trouble at the MoMA, New York City, and MOCA, Los Angeles (2014–2015), Leaps Jumps and Bumps at the Serpentine Gallery (2013), and Image Over Image, at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Kunsthalle Zürich (2012). And now Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof has opened an exhibition dedicated to Sturtevant’s graphic works on paper.
Elaine Sturtevant, Working Drawing Warhol Flowers Lichtenstein Pointed Finger, 1966. © Collection Paul Maenz, Berlin
A predecessor of many contemporary artists who employ appropriation and repetition in their practice—e.g. Richard Prince, Jeff Koons—Sturtevant questioned the very notions of originality, authenticity, and authorship in an image-based economy. With a growing number of high profile copyright cases, fair use in art remains a blurry concept in our digitally-based world of re-makes and image saturation. Well ahead of today's copyright and appropriation polemics, Sturtevant made her name as a fine duplicator of works by her mostly male contemporaries—Warhol, Johns, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein—oftentimes before these artists had achieved their stardom status. Showing how truly prescient her practice was, the Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition focuses exclusively on Sturtevant’s graphic oeuvre. With some 100 works on paper, the exhibition sheds light on her meticulous drawing methods. She employed no forms of mechanical reproduction, no photographic or digital processes—the very tools that have made copyright and ownership discussions particularly challenging today.
Even though the exhibition is purposely devoted to her graphic works, examples of Sturtevant's installation works, as well as her film and video, are missed. Inclusion of works in additional media would have created a broader context and reflection on her complex practice, particularly since Sturtevant worked mainly in video and new media art after 2000. Without the additional context the show feels, at times, rather dry. Nevertheless, it offers a complete overview of her graphic work and reaffirms the position of pop icons like American flag and the hotdog in the contemporary arts image book and popular imagination.
Elaine Sturtevant, Johns Flag, 1991. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris, Courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg
The recent interest in Sturtevant—better late than never—questions the hierarchies and power in the art world, which prevented her from having notable recognition in the early years of her career. In addition to the growing institutional attention, in 2011 she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. Sturtevant might have been a fine imitator, but history is starting to better portray her as a distinguished actor who insightfully critiqued consumption and production in the ever-expanding commercialized art world—a woman who began to probe the concept of repetition before her contemporaries, male theorists like Barthes, Foucault, and Deleuze, had published on the subject.
(Image at top: Elaine Sturtevant, Lichtenstein Laughing Cat, 1987. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris, Courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg)
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