Taking Copycatting to a Higher Level

Written on November 14, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

momaThe first thing you see in “Sturtevant: Double Trouble,” the Museum of Modern Art’s taut and feisty retrospective of the American artist Elaine Sturtevant, is work by artists far better known than Ms. Sturtevant herself.

Right at the start is the familiar 1972 photographic portrait of the German Conceptualist Joseph Beuys, in his porkpie hat and flak jacket, striding toward the camera. A bit farther on you’ll find Jasper Johns’s 1955 “Target With Four Faces,” a combination of painting, collage and sculpture and a MoMA treasure. Near it is Eliot Elisofon’s classic 1952 time-lapse photograph of Marcel Duchamp descending a staircase.

But wait a sec. Back up. The clothes and the pose in the Beuys image are right, but the face is wrong. Treasure or not, the Johns piece is in rough shape, with bits of paper lifting away from the surface. Plus, there’s something funny about the four cast plaster heads poking out of compartments on top. The faces look different from the originals, more severe. And you don’t need even a second glance to know that whoever’s descending the staircase in that photo is not Duchamp.

In the Beuys and Duchamp works here — and maybe in the Johns? — the figures and faces belong to Ms. Sturtevant, who devoted the better part of a long career, almost up to her death this year at 89, to treating art as a kind of theater. In it she temporarily assumed the roles of existing artists and made sometimes very close but always inexact versions of their work, in the process creating a complex identity of her own, in which she was both hidden and revealed.

What was hidden was her past, personal data that she felt distracted attention from her art. Not that the past was dramatic. She was born Elaine Horan in Lakewood, Ohio, near Cleveland, in 1924. (The precise year has been disputed.) She studied psychology at the University of Iowa and at Teachers College, Columbia University, married an advertising executive named Ira Sturtevant, had two daughters, and got divorced. At that point she dropped her first name, kept his last name as her only name, and started making art.

This was around 1960, when Abstract Expressionism was still the New York house style and young artists were looking for an exit. If AbEx was about painting as a baring of the soul in a symbol-stoked world, what would the opposite be? Not painting at all was one option; Duchamp chose that. Focusing on plain, unromantic subjects was another, picked up from Mr. Johns and Claes Oldenburg. Manic mixing — high, low, paint, trash, sculpture, dance — was the route taken by a dynamo named Robert Rauschenberg.

Continue reading in The New York Times


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