“As you say, Andy Andy Andy. Not everything has been said about him, but everything has been said. Whatever. However. I actually saw more of Andy in the high-tension time of the Factory. Later I had some great encounters of a close kind with this vulnerable and distant-but-there man who desired so much. We met at dinners, openings, parties, clubs. And that was better – once you know Andy, there is not much more to know but a lot more to see.”
A close friend of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Elaine Sturtevant was a vital part of New York’s art scene in the 1960s. Her work, produced under the moniker Sturtevant to avoid gendered assumptions in a male dominated world, constitutes one of the most unusual contributions to Twentieth Century art, and demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the cultural zeitgeist that has eventuated in the “appropriation art” of the present day. Imitating and repeating the original works of her male contemporaries, Sturtevant unsettled the artistic establishment, challenging the prevailing Frankfurt school notion of an art work’s “aura”. The relationship between the original and the notion of originality was challenged; in Sturtevant’s words: “I make reproductions in order to confront, in order to trigger thinking” (Sturtevant cited in Bernard Blistene, ‘Lavel Elaine’, in exh. cat. Frankfurt, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Sturtevant - The Brutal Truth, 2004, p. 36).
Indeed, the examination of uniqueness in an era of mass production was prevalent in New York in the 1960s. Leo Castelli’s stable of artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, was particularly pioneering in this field. The academic artistic establishment’s interest was also piqued, with Alan Solomon, the chief curator of MoMA at the time, questioning the difference between a Johns painting and an actual flag. Sturtevant took this one step further. Although she carefully selected immensely recognizable and iconic works of the post-war era from a variety of artists, it was with Andy Warhol’s work that Sturtevant found her closest and longest lasting subject, to the point that when confronted with one of her works, we can reasonably question not only its authorship, but the role of the artist’s hand in making it.
In 1965, when Warhol started to concentrate on filmmaking, Sturtevant approached him with a proposition. She wanted him to give her the screens he had been using at the factory to replicate his work. Warhol immediately saw the significance of Sturtevant’s artistic and conceptual approach, and the Factory was put at her disposal. After a series of Warhol Flowers, Sturtevant turned her attention to perhaps his most iconic works – his series of screen-prints produced upon the death of Marilyn Monroe. Unable to find the stencil, she searched instead for the original Hollywood still. She succeeded. In her words: “One chance in a million and I found it. I took it to Andy’s silkscreen man and it was perfect. A Warhol screen from my photo which was his photo” (Sturtevant cited in Patricia Lee, Sturtevant: Warhol Marilyn, London 2016, pp. 19-20). Later, Sturtevant would claim that when asked about his artistic process, Warhol would shrug and tell people to “ask Elaine”.
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn series is one of the most iconic bodies of work from the post-war era. And yet, the image itself was not produced by Warhol. By copying the work, Sturtevant underwent a meta-appropriation: appropriating Warhol’s appropriation. She addressed the cultural significance of both Warhol and Monroe, in order to identify this as a work of art, as well as the consequence of celebrity culture in art practice. Is there a genuine appreciation of the artwork? Or is the work primarily an identification with ‘brand of the artist’ within popular culture? This is the key distinction between Sturtevant and the appropriation artists that followed her. Unlike Richard Prince, for instance, whose paintings of pulp fiction covers and photos of advertisements play on our inherent nostalgia for an image, Sturtevant’s Warhol Marilyns participated and contributed to the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Moreover, her work is inherently gendered, as the artists she copied were exclusively male. Titling her works through a contraction of the original artist’s name and the title of their work, Sturtevant examined the significance of the name in consideration of a work’s value, and exposed the entrenched imbalances in the gendered makeup of New York’s contemporary art scene.
Playing with the myth of the art work itself in conjunction with the hand of the man that made it, Sturtevant’s work, which would later shift its focus to men now considered titans of the 1980s, has proved catalyst to a wide ranging and vitally important movement in contemporary art. Indeed her foresight in carefully selecting the works of Anselm Kiefer, Robert Gober and Felix Gonzalez-Torres before their rise to prominence has led many to question how it was that she could so reliably predict whose styles would become iconic in the years to follow. However, in the light of her emergence during the Pop Art era, and her fundamental understanding of the cultural zeitgeist, Sturtevant became a consummate insider whose influence ranged far beyond the art movements of her time. As exemplified by the present work, which forms part of her most significant series, Sturtevant’s oeuvre constitutes the apex of appropriation.