Sturtevant Sturtevant is the first solo exhibition in an Italian public institution devoted to Sturtevant (1924-2014), one of the XX century’s most influential artists. Beginning with its title, in which the artist’s name is repeated twice, the exhibition, has been constructed around the concept and practice of repetition, understood as a collective device in which the uniqueness of the subject is merged with other possible personalities. In this sense Sturtevant is perhaps the twenty-first century’s first real artist. In her repetitions of works by other artists, she pioneered, over the last fifty years – which also saw the affirmation of the post-modern aesthetic and defined the digital revolution – possible ways of overcoming the jurisdiction of copyright, the idea of intellectual property and the supposed uniqueness of the creator subject. In 1964 Sturtevant began to “repeat” the works of some of the most iconic artists who were her contemporaries (from Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, all the way up to Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Anselm Kiefer and Félix González-Torres, to name only few). In this she was well ahead of her time in exploring concepts such as “authorship” and “originality” in relation to the mechanisms of production, circulation, reception and canonization of contemporary artistic imagery and imagination.
Since the beginning Sturtevant’s works will have been perceived by the art world as violent and unspeakable as are almost all forms of anticipation. They are therefore never copies but so many originals, being thought in action which focuses on a field of experience in art whose essence she comes to analyze, destabilizing its order of representation and designation. As the artist herself wrote: “The decision makes other artists work and use them as catalysts to reveal the powerful understructure of art is both surprising and terrifying. Surprising in its validity and truthfulness, terrifying in its possible consequences. My intention was to work on issues that, in their current aesthetic, would probe the concept and limits of originality.” This reveals the meaning of the provocative title The Brutal Truth given to her solo show at the MMK Frankfurt in 2004, one of the most important and seminal of the last decade: an exhibition consisting only of works by artists that Sturtevant had replicated. Yet they were not copies but rather brutally real questions about time and memory, in which the past, without losing its guise as historical fact, rediscovered its own validity of conception in its present proposition, in which repetition should not be understood as the death of the original work, but its new rescripting beyond conventions, genres and styles, and in which art rediscovers its status of “showing what makes us see” and “thinking about what makes us think.” Remaining isolated for decades, this research, which since the nineties has been expressed mainly through video (with references ranging from Hollywood movies to TV and advertising imagery and digital communication), is today not only paradoxically all original but above all absolutely anticipatory, in her constant interest in grasping what defines a work of art as such, leaving spaces for the vertigo of still possible contemporary invention and, in the final analysis, therefore, to quote the artist, the “silent power of art.”
In her manual repetition from memory, for example, of Duchamp’s Nue descendant un escalier or Fresh Widow, of Beuys’s The Revolution is Us or his performative actions, of Warhol’s Flowers, Marilyns or Silver Pillows, of Oldenburg’s Store Objects, Johns’s flags, numbers and letters, Lichtenstein’s paintings inspired by graphic comics, Stella’s minimalist and post-painterly abstraction and Gober’s Partially Buried Sinks (a true sampling of Conceptual and Pop Art, with their various authors, who since the mid-sixties have also presented significant exhibitions and cycles of works in Naples, as in the case of Beuys or Warhol), Sturtevant set at the center of her research the issue of the autonomy of art, of difference, of a critical relationship to art and to its media and signifying context. It should be noted in this respect that Sturtevant almost exclusively referenced artists contemporary to her, with effects of simultaneity between the work and its often disquieting repetition. An aesthetic and intellectual research that short-circuited the logic of Pop Art itself and superseded the criteria of the languages of Appropriation, which emerged later in the eighties, and which the artist not only anticipated, but from which she differed by the deep roots of her practice in the thinking of the twentieth- century philosophers of difference (from Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze), going so far as to foreshadow, in her analysis of the power of art and images, the impact of cybernetics, the principles of cloning and the scenarios of the digital sensibility, opening the door to the realm of the simulacrum and its simultaneous contemporary dissemination.
But what particularly concerned Sturtevant was the reversal of values and hierarchies of reality and its artistic representations, in which Warhol’s becoming a machine, his serial and superficial codes, “reflect our cyberworld of excess, of fetters, transgression, and dilapidation,” which absorbs reality without suppressing it. In this respect, the central axis of Sturtevant’s production is to be found precisely in two key XX century figures: on the one hand Andy Warhol, whose logic Sturtevant is perhaps the only artist to have completed and taken to its extreme conclusions, and the other Marcel Duchamp. The logic of Duchamp, in particular, in his condemnation of taste as the interdiction of the word and the immobilization of thought, guided Sturtevant in her critical selection of artists and works to which she turned her attention, indifferent to biographical criteria, groupings or aesthetic coherence, being concerned rather to plumb the deep structure of the artwork, its “real power,” the intensity and the energy of the invention of every form and image. From this emerges an idea of contemporariness as something which precludes chronological criteria or adherence to a context that transcends its contingent time: the Duchampian revolution, which Sturtevant again is one of the few artists to have fully grasped, lies not in its conceptual articulation in objects, but in its revolutionary leaps of meaning or its resistance to common sense, and therefore its lack of interest in the pursuit of creativity, novelty and recognition by the art world in favor of indifference towards them and the sabotaging of the notion of the work of art itself, unique and authentic.
The exhibition at the Madre also devotes great attention to the video production of the last fifteen years, presenting all the major video and filmic works by the artist. In The Dark Threat of Absence/Fragmented and Sliced (2002), starting from the American artist Paul McCarthy’s video The Painter, Sturtevant literally fragments and slices up the great globalized factory of contemporary images. In Elastic Tango (2010) we witness a frantic re-montage of preceding images and installations by the artist herself, further reassembled in the multiple projection Rock&Rap, a true self-analytical and self-methodological exposition, like the installation Dillinger Running Series (2000), in which the movement of the famous American criminal, reinterpreted by the artist, coincides with the circular motion of the projector: an idling movement, as in Duchamp’s bachelor machines, which constitutes a filmic loop-architecture, continuously repeated. These images of fearsome mutilations or, on the other hand, of exaggerated ecstasy reflect our instinctual mechanisms as globalized viewers, our condemnation to suffer a serial repetition (hence the artist’s interest in the language of pornography) which, with respect to the quantity and intensity of the impulses we receive, prevents us from feeling pleasure, condemning us to frustration. Sturtevant’s interest in technology is that it offers exactly the possibility of escaping from the will, of entrusting ourselves to the creative automatism of the machine, freed from judgment and choice. Far from being alienating this contemporary condition is the basis of an installation like Vertical Monad (2007), set at the center of the exhibition, which enables us to understand in exemplary fashion Sturtevant’s relation with language and the meaning of art itself, once freed from external constraints such as individual singularity. In a monochrome deep blue-gray space a large plasma monitor emits the reading of a text in Latin, the opening pages of the Ethics of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). A total experience, an image both physical and mental, almost an image of synthesis, external to the networks and internal to ourselves. Faced with the contradictoriness and constant and progressive flattening of the systems of representation and information as well as of ways of understanding and evaluation (of art but also life), Sturtevant shows us a way out: in Vertical Monad we witness the appearance of a reality finally revealed beyond the frailty of individual limits, looking out at a bewildering and dazing horizon where there is neither past nor future, neither original nor copy, but only the “brutal truth” of the “silent power of art.”
Winner of the Leone d’Oro at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, in 2014 and 2015 two of the most important American museums, the MoMA–Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the MoCA–Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, presented Sturtevant’s first North American retrospective, following major solo exhibitions, as those at the MMK–Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2004), Le Consortium, Dijon (2008), Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris (2010), Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2012), Kunsthalle, Zurich (2012), Sprengel Museum, Hannover (2013) and the Serpentine Gallery, London (2013).