Sturtevant in front of her work
Pac Pobric writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Sturtevant’s retrospective exhibition at MoMA, claiming that her redundant practice copying the works of Modernist masters lands her in the realm of artistic provincialism. If you’ve seen Sturtevant’s retrospective, you’ll know that she has made exact replicas of works by canonized artists such as Rauschenberg, Warhol, Johns, Stella, and more.
“Grand ideas, great art, were done with. Hoping to become a great artist, Sturtevant once wrote, was “real medieval thinking.” So in place of expansive concepts, she offered one small regional observation, like a surveyor with a map. In every instance, in each imitation, her provocation rides a single polemic, a critique of originality that does not breathe. This is her postmodern provincialism: that her idea does not expand, that it is a town with a population of one. Her art does obvious, monotonous work. It draws repeatedly from the same wellspring without recognizing that the result is an intellectual drought…She may have been the originator of a now well-understood polemic, but that makes her the god of a very small province, one with narrow possibilities. “Nobody wants a retrospective,” Sturtevant said in 2007. “Once you’ve had a retrospective, you’re done.” But Sturtevant was done long before her MoMA show.”
I can’t help but think that Pobric doesn’t get it. Sturtevant’s redundant one-liners aren’t a source of weakness, but power. It’s understandable that the redundancy of Sturtevant’s practice can be confused as a weak point–we’ve all seen artists who have a difficult time diversifying their practice and continue to make work in the same vein for most of their lives. But in Sturtevant’s case, it seems rather that her entire artist persona is part of her practice. She is known for her brash comments (that wanting to be famous is “real medieval thinking,” is but one example), and for extremely overpricing her works, asking for hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, which led to much of her work never selling. There’s something about Sturtevant’s inflated self-importance that is so over the top that it’s theatrical. It’s the inverse performance expected of the older female artist. Perhaps what Sturtevant is demanding is what all famous male artists are afforded–a ridiculous amount of money and attention. Further, there’s something uncanny that happens when a person of one subject position, (say, older female) demands to be treated like another (say, middle-aged man). This usually gives us a cringey feeling–why can’t you be happy with what you’ve been given, and make the most of it? It’s this feeling that she so expertly rides. Sturtevant does everything that an artist is supposed to not do, and be everything an artist shouldn’t be: old, female, pathetic, redundant, greedy, egomaniacal, etc. It’s through these negative attributes that we can begin to feel the limits of social propriety in the art world–two unlikely bedfellows that are unfortunately intractably intertwined, despite our best efforts.
I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts on Sturtevant and Pobric’s analysis.