Skip to content

Elaine Sturtevant, an American Conceptual artist whose work resembled that of Andy Warhol — and Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns and Keith Haring and a spate of other emblematic figures from the annals of contemporary art — died on May 7 in Paris. She was 89.

Her death was announced by her gallery, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, in Paris, where she had made her home since the early 1990s.

Ms. Sturtevant, known professionally simply as Sturtevant, was no forger. She was sometimes called the mother of appropriation art: the movement, which flourished in the 1980s and afterward, that makes new artworks by reproducing old ones. But with characteristic bluntness, she disdained the term, preferring to call her working method “repetition.”

“Manet had an intense dialogue with Velázquez, as did Picasso,” Bruce Hainley, the author of “Under the Sign of [sic],” a study of Ms. Sturtevant’s work published in January, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We don’t think of that as appropriation.”

As a replicator, Ms. Sturtevant was an original. A Sturtevant work is as instantly and uncannily recognizable as a Warhol silk-screen, say, or a Johns flag. But, at the same time, each in its own way is a deliberately inexact likeness of its more famous progenitor.

By holding up her imprecise mirror to a gallery of 20th-century titans, Ms. Sturtevant spent her career exploring ideas of authenticity, iconicity and the making of artistic celebrity; the waxing and waning of the public appetite for styles like Pop and Minimalism; and, ultimately, the nature of the creative process itself.

“In some ways, style is her medium,” Peter Eleey, the curator of a major exhibition of Ms. Sturtevant’s work opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this fall, said on Wednesday. “She was the first postmodern artist — before the fact — and also the last.”

The MoMA show, which runs from Nov. 9 through Feb. 22, represents the first significant exhibition of Ms. Sturtevant’s art in the United States in decades.

Although her early work, from the mid-1960s, was well received, she came to feel misunderstood by the critics (and by many of the artists whose creations she re-imagined) and stopped making art for about a decade.

Lately, Ms. Sturtevant has enjoyed a renaissance, with high-profile exhibitions at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt in 2004, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012 and the Serpentine Gallery in London last year.

She received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement from the Venice Biennale in 2011.

In the beginning, Ms. Sturtevant’s work was praised for its wit, sly humor and desire to expose viewers to a blizzard of epistemological questions. “I create vertigo,” she liked to say.

Her first solo exhibition, at the Bianchini Gallery in New York in 1965, featured, among other pieces, a George Segal-like sculpture, silk-screens à la Warhol’s “Flowers” series (an obliging Warhol helped Ms. Sturtevant make them by lending her his original screen) and an ersatz Stella. In that show, and in her subsequent work, Ms. Sturtevant tacitly asked: When is a Warhol not a Warhol? When is it one — and what makes it so?

One answer, her art suggested, lay in the prototypes, which were, per the artistic preoccupations of the day, often copies themselves. (Think of Warhol’s soup cans.) If one borrows an image that is itself borrowed, her work suggested, then perhaps neither is truly original.

Another answer lay in the differences between the prototypes and Ms. Sturtevant’s renditions. Take the “Segal” sculpture in her first solo show, as Mr. Eleey explained:

“It’s a man in white plaster that signals to us it’s a ‘George Segal’ sculpture, but it’s not based on any real sculpture,” he said. “Likewise, in her first solo show in Paris in ’66, Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl is something that he made as a print. She made it as a painting, and much larger.”

Ms. Sturtevant was, in essence, a composer writing variations on predecessors’ themes. But while no one ever took Brahms or Rachmaninoff to task for what they did to Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for violin, the rules for visual art, Ms. Sturtevant found, were different — and the consequences severe.

Where Warhol had been sympathetic to her aims (queried about his silk-screening method, he was reported to have said: “I don’t know. Ask Elaine”), other artists were less so.

When, in 1967, just blocks from where the original had stood, Ms. Sturtevant opened her version of Claes Oldenburg’s “The Store” — a pop-up emporium featuring sculptures of ordinary objects he had erected a few years earlier on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — Mr. Oldenburg was not amused.

“Oldenburg is ready to kill me,” Ms. Sturtevant told Time magazine in 1969. “It all makes him dive up a wall.”

Over time, critical consensus turned against her, and Ms. Sturtevant withdrew from the New York art scene. She produced little from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s, re-emerging in 1986 with a show at White Columns, the alternative art space in Lower Manhattan.

Though she freely inhabited the artistic skins of others, Ms. Sturtevant took immense pains to obscure the particulars of her own history. Early in her career, she shed her given name like so much distracting baggage; to the end of her life, she countered interviewers’ biographical queries with a two-word response — “Dumb question” — insisting they focus on the work alone.

Elaine Frances Horan was born on Aug. 23, 1924, in Lakewood, Ohio, near Cleveland. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, followed by a master’s in the field from Teachers College of Columbia University. In New York, she also studied at the Art Students League.

Ms. Sturtevant’s marriage to Ira Sturtevant, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Loren, and two grandchildren. Another daughter, Dea, died about 20 years ago.

In recent years, Ms. Sturtevant worked increasingly in video, producing installations — some incorporating footage shot directly off her television set — that bemoan what she saw as the de-racinated human condition in the age of digital reproduction.

If, at bottom, Ms. Sturtevant’s art was designed to raise questions about originality, uniqueness and posterity, then there was a telling indication not long ago that it had done its work.

In 2007, an original Crying Girl by Lichtenstein — to the extent that one print in an edition of identical prints can be called an original — sold at auction for $78,400.

In 2011, Ms. Sturtevant’s canvas reworking of Crying Girl — the only Sturtevant painting of its kind in existence — sold for $710,500.

Source includes:
Elaine Sturtevant, Who Borrowed Others’ Work Artfully, Is Dead at 89 By MARGALIT FOX,
MAY 16, 2014. (New York Times obituary).

Biography from the Archives of AskART