If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” then American pop artist Sturtevant (who goes by just her surname) is more flattering than most. You might mistake “Sturtevant: Double Trouble,” her recently opened retrospective at MoMA, for a blockbuster group show with pieces by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Marcel Duchamp, among others, only those familiar canvases are actually Sturtevant originals, her versions of iconic works that explore and challenge what it means to make truly authentic art.
These “repetitions” come from her practice of borrowing freely from well-known artists’ styles and techniques, a practice she describes “as close as possible without copying.” And there’s no doubt that the work here is all her own, with her point of view (and in some cases, her likeness) evident in every piece.
You enter the third floor gallery space through a long corridor where her “Warhol Cow Paper” (1996) lines the right side and a large horizontal screen displaying “Finite Infinite” (2010) along the left. This is our first introduction to Sturtevant’s use of repetition and loops, original and replica, and the concept of legitimacy. In the subsequent rooms, Sturtevant’s range as a fine artist is evident in a variety of paintings, sculptures, and films created over the course of her 50-year career.
The museum makes a point of connecting Sturtevant with a singular style that’s been an obvious influence on her work. With “Duchamp L.H.O.O.Q” (1969), “Duchamp Wanted” (1969), and “Duchamp Relâche” (1967), Sturtevant demonstrates her admiration for the work of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaist approach in general. The exhibition continues on the fifth floor in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries, where “Duchamp Rotary Discs” (1969) and “The Dark Threat of Absence Fragmented and Sliced” (2003) are situated next to the work that it responds to: Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” (1913/1951) and “Fresh Widow” (1920).
While some might see her as merely reappropriating others’ work, I side with art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s assessment that Sturtevant was practicing “hands-on art criticism,” only reimagining art that she felt was important to a larger cultural conversation. Reflecting on Keith Haring’s work in particular, she’s said:
“People who look at art see it as a detail, a painting, or a group of paintings by a specific artist. They rarely see art as part of a total phenomenon. They don’t use horizontal thinking.”
Through her process, artists’ original work is given added value—to be given Sturtevant’s treatment means there was real significance, an inherent worth, in the work already.