Elaine Sturtevant remains one of the most enigmatic figures of postwar art. Born in 1924 in Ohio, she moved to New York in the early 1960s and became part of the city’s artistic epicenter. In 1964, Sturtevant began to build on the legacy of Marcel Duchamp with her exploration of appropriation. This caused her to start reproducing works of art by memory, focusing on works by her contemporaries such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Sturtevant challenged the accepted canon of twentieth century art with her rigorous appropriations which came at a time when the Abstract Expressionist vision was being replaced by a fascination with mechanical reproduction, mass media and consumerism, concepts which inspired new thinking among Pop artists.
Among Sturtevant’s most celebrated works are her Warhol Flowers, which she began in 1964, the year Warhol created his Flower silkscreen prints and first exhibited them at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Sturtevant’s floral series continued until 1971 and consists of 95 copies of varying sizes. She added a further 19 paintings to the series in 1990. Rather than reimagining the subject, Sturtevant famously used a silkscreen that Warhol had given to her to create further versions of the compositions and to memorise his process. Warhol had himself appropriated a photo by Patricia Caulfield (which appeared in a Kodak advertisement in the June 1964 edition of Modern Photography) by cropping the rectangular image of seven flowers to a square silk screen with four blossoms. However, in Sturtevant’s flower series, her brightly silkscreened hibiscus flowers float over the canvas and were reproduced from memory. Describing her work as “repetitions” as opposed to mere copies, she once said, “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”.
After Sturtevant’s first solo show at the Bianchini Gallery in New York in 1965, critics dismissed her works as meaningless copies which lacked originality. However, Sturtevant’s conceptual investigation of authorship goes beyond that of reproduction into what she termed the “under-structure of art” and the very nature of the image in itself. Sturtevant spent hours studying the techniques these pop artists used to create their process. This encouraged artists to question what is unique about their work and what lay beneath the surface. When Warhol was asked about his own technique, he answered, “I don’t know. Ask Elaine”. Sturtevant’s ambition was to “make reproductions in order to confront, in order to trigger thinking”, thereby leaving room for subjectivity and imagination.
As MoMa Curator Peter Eleey has noted, ‘In Sturtevant’s hands, Warhol’s image draws greater attention to the limits, edges, and qualities of his authorship, already stressed by the appropriated and delegated aspects of his screen-print paintings’ manufacture…while pointing back further to the woman whose image had passed from her own camera, through Kodak’s advertising agency, to a magazine, and then to a high-contrast crop at Warhol’s Factory, before moving to his screen maker, and finally on to Sturtevant’ (Peter Eleey, Sturtevant, Double Trouble, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, 2014, p. 49).
Even though Andy Warhol endorsed and supported Sturtevant’s early career, misinterpretations and criticism caused Sturtevant to stop exhibiting until the 1980s. In 1986, her career revived with her show at White Columns in New York, for which she reproduced works by Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein and Joseph Beuys. Sturtevant’s reinvigoration attracted acclaim which was heightened by the rise of post modernism and other appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine, Mike Bidlo and Richard Prince. The artist later extended her repertoire to contemporaries such as Keith Haring, Anselm Kiefer, Felix Gonzalez - Torres and Robert Gober. Besides painting, Sturtevant kept pace with the changing tides of the avant-garde by mastering other disciplines, notably sculpture, film and photography, as these would enable her to represent the work of her contemporaries more accurately.
In the 2000s Sturtevant’s work was the subject of major retrospectives at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, the Serpentine Galleries, London, and the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Her last show in 2015, “Sturtevant: Double Trouble” at the MoMa reflected her newfound reputation and presented Sturtevant as a catalyst in the exploration of notions of originality, authorship and authenticity.
Artists have always been influenced by their predecessors and contemporaries, yet we do not view this as appropriation. Artists have reinterpreted and translated countless subjects and styles onto their canvases, e.g. Velazquez’s influence on Monet or Picasso. However, in an era of increasing reproduction, Sturtevant’s “repetitions” compel the viewer to look beyond the surface. She remained in constant dialogue with her Warhol Flowers and in 1991, Sturtevant dedicated an entire show to this series. In 2019, the New York Times Style Magazine cited her Warhol Flowers series as one of the “25 Works of Art That Define the Contemporary Age,”
Sturtevant’s recognisable motif, is a loving homage to her predecessor and a symbol of her artistic genius, which contradicts her modest expectations about how her art would be received. As she once said; “to be a great artist is the least interesting thing I can think of.”