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The work of Sturtevant is some of the most provocative and elusive in the contemporary period. Exclusively producing pieces that looked like original works created by other artists, Sturtevant drew from now-iconic art by Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Beuys, Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and more. A virtuoso with techniques and media, she mastered a dizzying variety of styles in a career that began in New York in the 1960s, and her oeuvre encompasses painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, film and video.
In Lichtenstein, Frighten Girl, Sturtevant has created a painting after one of Lichtenstein’s famous depictions of distressed women, in this case, Crying Girl. Lichtenstein’s version is a lithograph and was printed in 1963, but Sturtevant has rendered her woman in oil and graphite on canvas and in a much larger size. Differences aside, Sturtevant’s painting is strikingly similar to Lichtenstein’s print, from the color palette employed to the cropping of the figure, the style of the line and the use of Ben-Day dots on her skin.
Sturtevant’s work is not, however, an exact replica of the source artworks she selects. In Lichtenstein, Frighten Girl, Sturtevant has made calculated, if somewhat cryptic, changes: her female figure has bright blue eyes, part of the background is red instead of black and some of the detail lines in the hair and around the nose have been altered. One aspect that remains the same, though, is the emotional intensity and drama conveyed by both Girls with their wind-blown flaxen locks, plump cherry-red lips and matching nails and large glittering tears. The consummate embodiment of tragedy, Sturtevant’s woman expresses heartrending anguish, fear and panic with her eyes perpetually locked on the viewer.
We begin to get at the real impact of Sturtevant’s work with her explanation that, “The brutal truth of the work is that it is not 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” (E. Sturtevant, quoted in U. Kittelmann and M. Kramer, Preface to The Brutal Truth, exh. cat., Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, 2004, p. 19). In other words, Sturtevant was not merely imitating Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl, but was instead masterfully replicating the creative process that Lichtenstein used to get from his source material, a graphic comic, to a work of fine art. Understood through this lens, Sturtevant’s work is a sharp, self-reflexive exercise in examining the art-making process, and how the creative “leap” actually transpires. The question that she answers is why something was made the way it was, in the time that it was, versus using a different method. This line of investigation is made even more complex when we consider that she chose to make Lichtenstein, Frighten Girl a unique, large oil painting, while Lichtenstein produced editioned lithographs. As curator and Centre Pompidou director Bernard Blistène comments, “It is not a question of having, on one side, the model and, on the other, the duplicate. Not a question of some sort of crutches or other: lines, grids, square, tracing, projection…or other such devices. But of summoning with sufficient intensity the memory of images viewed in order to be able to recreate and invent them. Not stubbornly worrying about the resemblance alone but working towards an absent original in a convincing manner. Taking the same tools and the same colors. Understanding why and how it is done. Attempting to convoke the observed details” (B. Blistène, “Label Elaine,” ibid., p. 37).
Other points raised by Sturtevant’s work are the provocative, much-debated issues of authorship and originality that have persisted from the origins of mechanical reproduction to the contemporary era’s proliferation of digital images. Through her practice, Sturtevant dismissed long-held notions of original versus copy, and the myth of the artist as a romantic, individualized creator. Her content and techniques largely imitated those pioneered by others, but she thought of and presented her art as original pieces that she authored. And, Sturtevant questions, why shouldn’t we think of her work as a unique piece, if it was made with its own artistic intentions? In an insightful distinction, the artist “correctly and repeatedly points out that a ‘copy’ is something bereft of energy, something that is anaemic [sic] and has nothing in common with what she does” (G. de Vries and L. Maculan, “Interview,” in Sturtevant: Catalogue Raisonné 1964–2004, Painting Sculpture Film and Video, Frankfurt, 2004, p. 35).
The artist’s works, like Lichtenstein, Frighten Girl, are also differentiated from the art they pay homage to by their removed location in time and space. Their identities are necessarily informed, at least in part, by the later date of their creation and their immediate context, and Sturtevant’s practice is closely bound up with the idea of the passage of time. In revisiting already-existing works, Sturtevant both creates new art of her own, and breathes new life into the works that came before her, developing them further and opening them up to new interpretations—in effect, changing “the work’s past and future in a very dynamic way” (U. Kittelmann and M. Kramer, Preface to The Brutal Truth, exh. cat., Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, 2004, p. 20).
One of the greatest testaments to Sturtevant’s eye for “replicating” work made in a radical way is the fact that much of the art she created now references iconic works by some of the most seminal artists of this era. Looking to her contemporaries for inspiration, she formed her work in response to artists who had yet to gain recognition and who were still emerging. Boasting an oeuvre that includes everything from Warhol’s Flowers to Gober’s sink sculpture or Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl, it is certain that Sturtevant had an undeniable knack for identifying talent. She was especially drawn to Castelli’s stable of artists in the 1960s, which is where Lichtenstein had exhibited his comic-inspired paintings in 1961.
Remarkably, Lichtenstein’s and Sturtevant’s work actually operates in similar ways. Both artists used source materials that had been deemed unfit for fine art, and they made objects that dared to claim otherwise. Through this comparison, it becomes even clearer that Sturtevant’s work belongs in the canon of the avant-garde, alongside artists who consistently pushed art beyond what others had thought was possible. In a way, Sturtevant seems to have presaged the current climate of the internet age and the pervasiveness of images that can be duplicated and shared without any hint of their origins or author. Lest we get mired in the weight of imagery that already exists or art that has come before, her works like Lichtenstein, Frighten Girl demonstrate how new ideas can be created from what is already there, and how recycling is a generative process.