“The brutal truth of the work is that it is not a 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 cited in Exh. Cat., Frankfurt am Main, Museum für Moderne Kunst (and travelling), The Brutal Truth, 2004, p. 19)
“From the moment of her appearance at Bianchini, Sturtevant troubled the double. By faking faking, she showed that she was not a copyist, plagiarist, parodist, forger, or imitator, but was rather a kind of actionist, who adopted style as her medium in order to investigate aspects of art’s making, circulation, consumption, and canonization.” Peter Eleey, “Dangerous Concealment: The Art of Sturtevant,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Sturtevant: Double Trouble, 2014, p. 50
Sturtevant’s revolutionary and triumphant Johns Flag of 1965-66 is not only an appropriation of one of the most iconic images of twentieth-century art history; it is an image whose truly unparalleled symbolic power resonates with an electrifying vigor and resounding force. Illustrated on the cover of the artist’s catalogue raisonné in the now-canonical photograph of a nude Sturtevant striding past the work, the historical significance and decisive influence of this commanding painting is unmatched within the artist’s entire output and marks a pivotal catalyst at the advent of Postmodernism. A critical early painting, Johns Flag was exhibited in Sturtevant’s first solo exhibition at New York’s Bianchini Gallery in 1965. Suspended from a garment rack alongside appropriations of artists whose work epitomized the artistic discourse of the moment, Johns Flag belongs to the first body of works that launched Sturtevant’s career. Moreover, of the works hung on the now infamous rack being ‘pulled’ along by a figure resembling a sculpture by George Segal, Sturtevant’s Johns Flag is one of only two still in existence; each of the others, including the appropriations of Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Arman, and Claes Oldenburg, were since destroyed. Encapsulating the ultimate genesis of Sturtevant’s practice, Johns Flag is further distinguished as the second numbered work in the catalogue raisonné—it is preceded in Sturtevant’s oeuvre only by a small sculp-metal and collage version of the Flag that was one of the artist’s very first appropriations, and which has since been lost.
The thrillingly irreverent and radical nature of Sturtevant’s primary artistic project mimics in its very conceptual origins Jasper Johns’ fundamental practice; to depict, in Johns’ famous words, “things the mind already knows.” (Johns cited in Exh. Cat., London, Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags, 1996, p. 15) But whereas Johns mined the world of pre-formed, conventional cultural symbols such as Flags, Targets, and Numbers, Sturtevant turned her eye to the art world of her time. Sturtevant’s appropriations, in fact, arrived from a vantage point of contemporaneity: rather than focusing on established artists whose work was already recognized in the canons of art history, Sturtevant grasped onto the energy of her present era with phenomenal prescience. The artist painted Johns Flag only a decade after Jasper Johns executed his first version, and continued to replicate the works of artists who she sensed were redefining art in the moment; in many cases, years before they became recognized for the icons they are today. As Peter Eleey notes, “While she appeared to be making her art about the art of others, Sturtevant was in fact cranking up the surface noise of that other art, and focusing her own upon the broader systems of value supporting it, ‘utilizing Johns, Duchamp or Warhol…as catalysts to dispose of representation.’” (Peter Eleey, “Dangerous Concealment: The Art of Sturtevant,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Sturtevant: Double Trouble, 2014, pp. 53-54) Sturtevant probed the structural underpinnings of artistic creation and reception, undermining the focus on surface and aesthetic power central to the explosion of Pop Art in the 1960s to expose the outside forces that influence a work’s understanding. Sturtevant explained, “Technique is crucial. It has to look like a Johns flag so that when you see it you say, ‘Oh that’s a Johns flag,’ even though there’s no force there to make it look exactly like a Johns. Quite the opposite—the characteristic force is lacking. So when you realize it’s not a Johns, you’re either jolted into immediately rejecting it, or the work stays with you like a bad buzz in your head. You start thinking, ‘What is going on here?’” (Sturtevant cited in an interview with Peter Halley, Index Magazine, 2005) Amidst a cadre of artists whose work privileged originality through foregrounding an authorial presence, Sturtevant disappeared into her own work—ridding her public persona of a first name allowed her to maintain an aura of invisibility, heightening the ambiguity of the hand behind her appropriations.
Sturtevant’s flawless technical execution of the large-scale encaustic on collage Johns Flag emulates the astonishing ambition, luscious surface quality, and sensational clarity of Jasper Johns’ original. From within the pre-ordained parameters dictated by the flag’s strict design erupts a tightly controlled chaos of sharp staccato strokes. A handful of terse drips subtly disobey the boundaries set forth by the alternating stripes, while small unpainted areas among the spells of thickly encrusted impasto concede the newspaper surface that lies beneath. Employing Johns’ signature encaustic technique, Sturtevant swipes her brush in quick, discrete strokes that upon drying bear the conspicuous record of their own making. With each of the forty-eight white stars firmly planted at their customary coordinates, the terrain of swift blue strokes in which they are embedded encircles them, disrupting their purported regularity: as the blue imperfectly borders on the five-point perimeter of every star, Sturtevant’s hand trespasses the perfectly straight lines, covering some edges while leaving around others some hint of the raw support. The sheer inability to distinguish Sturtevant’s Flag from the original is nowhere better reflected than in the legendary story behind the creation of Robert Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit, today in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rauschenberg submitted Short Circuit for an annual exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1955, incorporating works in his combine composition from artist friends Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Stan VanDerBeek, and Susan Weil. The miniature Flag painting that Johns made for the combine was stolen 10 years later, following which Rauschenberg asked Sturtevant to create a reproduction of the Flag as a replacement. To this day, the original Johns has never been found, and Sturtevant’s replica remains affixed inside Rauschenberg’s historic painting.
Just as Johns selected the readymade image of the Flag for its pre-determined format, Sturtevant’s replica of Johns’ image compellingly extends this history of appropriation of found imagery. Johns was interested in the potent symbolic power of the American flag, but also famously stated, “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags, 1996, p. 15) A copy of a copy, Sturtevant’s Johns Flag critically questions notions of originality and artistic authenticity. Possessing what has been called one of the most literal painterly minds, Johns conflated image and objecthood in his Flag so as to entice the viewer into a carefully calibrated cerebral game of verisimilitude and concomitant anti-illusionism. Meanwhile, Sturtevant engages the viewer into a further permutation of this infinitely cyclical illusion; her Johns Flag is similarly both a flag and a material representation of a flag. In this complex web of references, Johns Flag destabilizes the binary boundaries between reality and representation. Engineering an extraordinarily painterly facsimile of an image that is aggressively direct, Sturtevant’s Johns Flag makes strange something that is universally familiar as both art historical object and universal image. Moreover, the painting’s materiality is made veritable by its densely defined surface, with the pliable encaustic paint conveying a fleshy and corporeal dimensionality. Achieving the same effect that Johns strove for, the luscious surface of Sturtevant’s Johns Flag draws our notice and makes us look again with renewed curiosity and bewilderment, emphasizing the metaphysical tension between what we see and what we know. The flag—a predetermined format in the 1950s of forty-eight stars and thirteen alternating red and white stripes with fixed internal proportions—became a vehicle for Johns to explore how an image is made through medium and method, concentrating thoughtfully on the means of picture-making rather than the end. Sturtevant depersonalizes the act of creation even further, distancing herself from Johns’ artistic innovation by directly copying the artistic signature with which Johns imprints his representation of the readymade image. In her version, Johns assumes the readymade and Sturtevant, in turn, becomes the renegade. A monument to Sturtevant’s piercing intelligence and brazen relentlessness, before Johns Flag we witness the very moment that this artist became a true original.
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