I have nothing new to say about Sturtevant. This feels almost fitting, given the artist’s own vexed relationship to newness. Her perfectly imperfected “repetitions” of other artists’ art, ignored for decades, have in recent years inspired an avalanche of interpretation, much of it superb and none of it able to pierce the rattling mystery of her work’s origin and abiding prescience. As if cautioning potential reviewers, the press release for an exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery—her first solo show in New York since her Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 2017, the year she died, aged eighty-nine—publicized the famous list she wrote of everything her work isn’t. Yet, never a mere exercise in negation, her profound gesture registers today as an affirmative force in a world too eager to believe that art is no longer possible, that life is a lie, and that everything that can happen already has.
Warhol Flowers, 1990, greeted visitors to the show, and hearkened back to Sturtevant’s very beginnings. In 1964, she asked Andy Warhol for the silk screen he used to make his “Flowers” series, then still fresh; he gamely obliged. Enjoying newfound status as the “mother of appropriation” after years of self-imposed exile, Sturtevant reprised his blossoms, this time eschewing their garish apple greens and hot pinks for more nocturnal hues, much as she traded the Byzantine gold of his Marilyns for a palette of ash. With its dark-violet blooms bobbing against a ground of obsidian grass, Warhol Flowers advertises the limitless, rupturing repetitions underpinning the real and the Real. It felt slightly heartbreaking to see those beloved hibiscus petals tipped fully into the abyss that Andy only hinted at. And despite Sturtevant’s insistence on the “power of thought,” her work also augurs a time—ours—where feeling is the highest truth.
Sturtevant’s “Warhol” glistened across from Duchamp Man Ray Portrait, 1967, her version of the wonderful photograph, ca. 1924, depicting the Frenchman’s hair soaped into the shape of the winged helmet of Mercury. Duchamp’s spirit carried into the main room, which contained renditions of Jasper Johns’s 1957 Gray Numbers painting, a Keith Haring Mickey Mouse tag, a Robert Gober sculpture, and Sturtevant’s 2010 video collaging stock footage from internet libraries and titled, simply, Simulacra. These first three works were not only afforded their own wall but were struck by spotlights, as if to dare each of them to sustain their aura/anti-aura. Gober Partially Buried Sinks, 1997, repeats a sculpture made ten years prior comprising a pair of identical sinks with two unseeing holes-for-eyes—where the faucets should go—half “buried” in a large, brilliant strip of Astroturf spanning the length of the gallery. Gober painstakingly made his Duchampian fountains-cum-tombstones by hand during the height of the AIDS crisis, devising them as meta-metaphors for the “impossibility” of cleanliness while also riffing on Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, itself a makeshift monument to the victims of the Kent State massacre, which occurred four months after Smithson created the work on campus. Gober sought to reinvest the vocabularies of Minimalism and the readymade with human pathos, creating objects that dwell in uncertainty between the “uselessness” of art and the reparative power of mourning. In doubling his sinks, Sturtevant doubled and deepened their questions, too, like what is the difference between similarity and difference, how does artifice reveal reality, and what does it mean to use another artist’s uselessness?
It’s been pointed out that Sturtevant’s work—long misconstrued as copies, fakes, mockeries, and appropriations—can rarely be credibly passed off as that of other artists. Surely, the meltingly elegant brushwork of Johns’s Gray Numbers is absent from Sturtevant’s Johns Gray Numbers, 1991, whose encaustic scarcely covers the newsprint base; Haring Tag July 15 1981, 1985, lacks, among other qualities, the illegal frisson of early Haring graffiti. “I am not saying anyone can do it,” she once wrote. She was saying, perhaps, that no one can. Attempting to retrace the deep contextures of thought, feeling, and fate that facilitate the making of recognizable artworks, she ended up with her own unique signature, something not unlike a memory: invisible, expanding, unrepeatable.
— Zack Hatfield