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Obituary for Sturtevant

It was already midnight when Sturtevant appeared at my Frankfurt apartment with flamboyant hair and dressed to kill. What an extravagant, outrageous lady! This was a decade ago, but for some reason I remember that it was 4:20 in the morning when she and curator Udo Kittelmann, who had brought her, finally left in a taxi. That was nothing special in those art academy days, when nobody ever wanted to go to bed, but her stories about playing tricks on Marcel Duchamp and embarrassing Andy Warhol with dirty jokes made quite an impression. Some weeks later she gave a weirdly robotic talk for the students of the Städelschule, where I was then director, and dismissed every question from the audience as too dumb to even consider. She had just opened a major retrospective at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, and was spending a few weeks in our German town. At that opening she was in the best possible spirits and treated me as a friend. Fans from all over the world had arrived, and I remember being introduced to critic Bruce Hainley, the true expert on her work. He was working on Under the Sign of [sic], the brilliant book that has finally appeared and which anyone interested in Sturtevant’s work should read.], (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014).]

Many artists were there to pay her homage. Michael Riedel arrived with a white lily that he placed on the table in front of Sturtevant without uttering a word. Those were the days when Riedel was confusing German audiences, drawing them into a world of echoes, afterimages, and replicas. Using strategies of doubling and inversion, he created a kind of parallel universe—simulacra that were never merely mechanical copies but rather creative restagings of entire exhibitions by others. Sturtevant seemingly had no clue what the flower on the table signified or who had put it there. All the same, in an articulate conversation with Hainley the year before, she had succinctly spelled out what our present artistic condition is all about and how it makes art like hers (and Riedel’s) pertinent: “What is currently compelling is our pervasive cybernetic mode, which plunks copyright into mythology, makes origins a romantic notion, and pushes creativity outside the self. Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine—that’s the way to go.”

I remember reading this conversation later and realizing that Francesco Bonami and I definitely should have included her in our “Delays and Revolutions” that formed the center of the 50th Venice Biennale, and started with Warhol’s screen test showing a wry Duchamp (1964–66) and his doubling of the screen in Outer and Inner Space (1965), and culminated in works by Cady Noland and a vast gallery full of Richard Prince’s rephotographed Cowboys. How could we have overlooked Sturtevant in this labyrinthine meditation on repetitions, duplications, and simulacra? Unforgivable! I didn’t know her personally then, but I had seen her work as early as 1989 at Christian Leigh’s legendary “The Silent Baroque” at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac in Salzburg. A few years after this extravaganza Leigh himself disappeared mysteriously, like Duchamp’s original urinal, now known only as a photograph. The last sign of him I can remember was a ghostly portrait in the New York Times and a story about some vanished artworks and his own disappearance. No one knew what happened to him, not even Sturtevant, and to me his strange fate become part of her simulacral art, with all its enigmas and uncertainties:

Dear, dear Christian, with his keen and intense face—so clever, so fast, so funny, so bad. He played out fantasies in the murky art world that would have played out better on the dramatic stage. He was a super talented guy, with critical panache, who made twisted turns that sucked him up—and that was that. As for where he is now: Maybe he’s a master samurai in Tokyo.

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