Questions About Sturtevant

Niels Olsen talks to Bob Nickas

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Niels Olsen:  Production Re: Production was the first presentation of Sturtevant's work after her disappearance following her solo show at Onnasch Gallery in 1974. Her participation in your group show in 1985 was followed by her solo show at White Columns in '86, her so-called "comeback."

Bob Nickas:  I was interested in appropriation in '84/85 because of the work of Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and Mike Bidlo. When I first came to New York at the end of '84, I worked part-time for David Bourdon. He had been the art critic for Life magazine in the '60s, was a champion of Pop art and was good friends with Christo, Andy Warhol, Les Levine and many others. I must at some point have mentioned Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo to him, and he told me that someone else had done it first, made works based directly on other artist's works: Elaine Sturtevant. I went to the MoMA library and looked for whatever information I could find on her. That's what you did before the internet—detective work. I didn't find much, but I did come across a reproduction of a Sturtevant painting and in the caption it was identified as: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Schwartz, New York.
I next went looking for them, and it wasn't long before I found them. They had been collectors of Pop in the '60s, and of Frank Stella's work, and by the mid-'80s they had become interested in artists of my generation, like Peter Halley and Jeff Koons. It wasn't long before I got to meet Gene Schwartz and I liked him immediately. He had a huge enthusiasm for art, and was excited that I was interested in Sturtevant. I don't think anyone had asked him about Elaine in a long time. I'm not sure if they were still in touch at that point. But I had also thought to look for Elaine, and just opened up the telephone directory and searched for her name. Not only was she listed in the phone book, she lived on Thompson Street, which is where I live. I called her up, mentioned that I had recently met Gene Schwartz, was very interested in her work, told her briefly about the appropriation that was being made and shown in the galleries, and asked if she would meet me. I told her that we were neighbors. We got together a few days later for a drink at her apartment. I remember that her versions of paintings by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Stella were hung in the living room. That provided quite a backdrop for the conversation we had. I asked her if she would participate in the show that I was organizing, because then, as now, what's important is to make connections between generations. In fact, through this show she met Philip Taaffe and Mike Bidlo, and reunited with Gene Schwartz. They had a very warm reunion, and of course from there Gene helped to set up the show at White Columns, which really opened things up. My show hadn't gotten a lot of attention. I don't think there were reviews, but it was seen by a lot of artists and word had begun to spread.

NO:  The myth says that she stopped exhibiting and producing art for a decade, as she felt that the discourse in the '70s wasn't ready to critically receive her practice, and the work would lose it's power as it was diluted and dissipated. What did you think of Sturtevant at the time? Did you see her as a pioneer of the upcoming appropriation art?

BN:  I think she may have stopped because there was a lot of resistance to what she was doing. My understanding is that some of the artists who had at first helped her—Lichtenstein with his Ben-Day technique, Warhol lending her silkscreens, and so on—later were not so happy once she began to make a career out of what she was doing. Lichtenstein was possibly the most sympathetic to her. Oldenburg, on the other hand— at least according to what Elaine once told me—felt that people were buying Sturtevant repetitions of his works thinking they were original Oldenburgs. Only later did I come to understand that people had been aggressive with her. It was not a time for women in the art world, for one thing. I remember how much David Bourdon disliked her. He did not remember her with any fondness, you can be sure. Keep in mind that she only made art based on the work of male artists, so it was implicitly a critique of the system at that time. I mentioned this to John Miller recently and he corrected me. Elaine had apparently re-created a dance piece of Yvonne Rainer's, although this was obviously an event so there is no attendant object, as you have with a painting, a sculpture or a drawing, which accounts for it being little-known. I'm not sure if I've even seen a poster.
You ask if I saw her as a pioneer. How else could she be seen? In terms of contemporary art, she did it first. You could say that as far as this gesture is concerned, and the post-modern, her work predates post-time in that it was completely concurrent with Pop—which established art as a strategy of parody and appropriation—and overlays itself upon its source. Sturtevant's work, in this sense, is a painted version of Levine's and Prince's photograph of a photograph.

NO:  There's an interpretation of Sturtevant's disappearance from the art world, that she repeated Duchamp's "silence"—the period when he played chess and stopped producing art. Thinking of this it's quite interesting that you paired Sturtevant in the same exhibition with Duchamp. What did she show and how did you place it in relation to the other works?

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BN:  I didn't have a work by Duchamp in the show. I had Mike Bidlo's version of the Bicycle Wheel of 1913. This was installed next to Sturtevant's 1967 Candy Rack, from her re-creation of Oldenburg's The Store. I also had a piece of Elaine's, Duchamp Eau & Gaz, from 1970, which was hung on the wall on the other side of the Bidlo sculpture. These works, and all the works in the show, were meant to be seen as assisted readymades, and I should add that nothing was sold. I was a kind of failure as a salesman, which is why I became a writer instead. In terms of her repeating Duchamp's "silence," I can't agree. Things happen to artists and they make certain decisions, to stop, for example, or the decisions are made for them. They don't have a choice, or at least that's how it seems to them at the time. If an artist's work is a big part of his or her identity, and they stop working, in effect they bring an end to themselves. Not to be overly dramatic, but it's a form of taking your own life, or taking your life back, a kind of self-possession. You no longer belong to others, and are no longer vulnerable to others. When you come back, it's a sort of "life after death." But I would warn against ascribing any great meaning to the act of stopping as if it was a work. The only person for whom that is true is Lee Lozano, with Dropout Piece, which she "performed" for the rest of her life after leaving New York and the art world behind. With Sturtevant, it's possible that she simply said, "Fuck it." And she may not have said it in silence.


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NO:  The title Production Re: Production suggests a repetition and immediately brings to mind the work of Sturtevant, that follows the idea of the repetition of other art works. Did you think of this relation?

BN:  I never choose titles for shows or essays casually, and I didn't organize this exhibition as a showcase to bring back the work of Sturtevant. In fact, the original ideas for the show came out of conversations I had with Olivier Mosset, who was living in New York then, and was a friend of mine. I was interested to show one of his stripe paintings, which of course people reacted against in France and Switzerland when they were first shown, because it was in many ways an appropriation of Daniel Buren's motif. I had also hoped to show a stripe painting of Sherrie Levine's, and Sherrie and Olivier were close at that time. But there were no stripe paintings of Olivier's in New York, and I couldn't afford to ship one from Europe. I had absolutely no money for that. And don't forget that Olivier will not make a work "for order" for a show, so he wasn't going to produce a new stripe painting for me. I don't remember why Sherrie did not participate. She may not have been too interested to show with Sturtevant. So a really important aspect of that show—the Mosset/Levine works—was absent, along with the extension of the assisted readymade towards conceptual painting, and I don't see Strutevant's canvases in exactly those terms. Some may disagree with me, but that's their right, and their problem.
In the title of my show, "Re:" stood for "regarding," and that serves as a fulcrum between the repetition of the word "Production." Think of a seesaw on a children's playground if you want to immediately visualize this. "Regarding" calls into play seeing, interpretation and also misinterpretation. By placing "Re:" before the word "Production," you have the word "Reproduction," the image printed in a book or a catalog, or as a cheap print or poster. "Reproduction" calls up the whole circulation of images, though Elaine would have hated the idea that her works were reproductions. She always refused almost every single term that could be applied to what she had done. This used to bother me, how insistently she contradicted critics and curators and their readings of her work. That reminded me of students in art school, who can only ever tell you what they are not doing, rather than what they are doing. That said, don't underestimate the importance of certain positions in the '60s. Susan Sontag's collection of essays, Against Interpretation had been published in 1966, and was influential. I'm not sure if we have that proximity today, both physically and intellectually, between artists and writers who are contemporaries. It's just as important to remember that the art world from which Sturtevant emerged, and Warhol and David Bourdon, that whole scene, was very much antagonistic towards being defined by the system. This was a very '60s New York thing, in some ways a gay thing. There is something queer about Strutevan't art, and because of it I would go on to refer to Sherrie Levine's work and to Philip Taaffe's as engaging in "asexual reproduction." You read my exhibition title along those lines even if it really hadn't occurred to me until later on.

NO:  The discourse of Sturtevant's early repetitions claims that they are about examining underlying structures of art works. What is the fundamental meaning of it? What is the structure? At the time Pop Art was dominant and Pop is always about surface. So Sturtevant repeated iconic Pop Art works, like Warhol's Flowers, and tried to analyze what is beneath the surface. Do you have a similar reading of her work?

BN:  I'm not so sure how far down you can go to examine the underlying structure of a work that is, as you say, about surface. I'm reminded of the Warhol joke, when he said, "I'm a deeply shallow person." That's still funny all these years later. The thing about anyone repeating an image created previously by someone else, is that it's much more difficult to invent an image, even an easy image like an American flag, than it is to repeat that image. If Johns hadn't painted the flag, would Sturtevant have? I would say that eventually it would have occurred to someone at some point. But it only occurred to Sturtevant to make her own version of a Johns Flag.
I'm someone who thinks that art can basically be reduced to two activities: choice and problem-solving, observation being implicit in both. In the '60s and '70s, Sturtevant can be said to have chosen well—super iconic images such as Marilyn and the American flag. When she came back to making art in the '80s, she continued with Pop images. After all, comebacks almost demand that one returns to "the scene of the crime." But she made new choices, as well. There are Keith Harings and Anselm Kiefers. One could say that she chose badly, and choosing badly is a very unfortunate situation for an artist. Maybe she thought that Keith Haring was a Pop artist for our time. He wasn't. Maybe she thought that Kiefer was an extension of the Germanic Beuysian tradition, since Elaine had made works that referred to Beuys. I don't necessarily agree. At the time she was showing with Paul Maenz in Cologne, and Maenz showed Haring and Kiefer, which is already sort of incredibly schizophrenic. She was possibly influenced in the direction of these artists because of her gallerist. Who knows? It's not the first time this would have happened to an artist. But you never know. You can always ask Paul Maenz. In any case, numerous bad choices, to my mind, did not reflect well on her return to art. Maybe these later choices were not about surface, but simply too thin.

NO:  In the '80s Sturtevant started to use the term "cybernetic imposition," which is about the reversal of hierarchies in the digital age. One could say she was a pioneer of today's "Post-Internet" debate. With her film works she then transformed the notion of repetition to mutation. Mutation could be the logical continuation of repetition in the digital age.

BN:  What's called "post-internet" art doesn't interest me in the least, and Elaine's later works along these lines are not exactly my favorites. There is one film of a dog running, and this is interesting in relation to her Edweard Muybridge walking photos. But her re-make of Warhol's movie Empire is probably her ultimate filmed work. Warhol's film has always elicited a confused, annoyed reaction from the public. "Why would anyone film the Empire State Building for all those hours? And why would anyone watch!" Sturtevant's gesture must seem even more incomprehensible to viewers like these: "Why would anyone do that again!" And so her version is a real achievement in this respect. That it will always bother people, whereas her Flowers paintings will be received as eternally pleasing, big, bright, pretty colors, and so on. The museum-going public, which is not necessarily a sophisticated art audience, responds to certain artworks while rejecting others. They know what they like, or what they are supposed to like and accept as important. I'm not putting them down as an "art professional," it's just the truth of the matter. If you think of the art experience as an essential to the whole game, and of the viewer completing the work, as Duchamp would insist, then you have to admit that where the audience is concerned there has not been much of a mutation in the past half century, not much of an advance after all this time.

Fig. 1
Sturtevant, The Store of Claes Oldenburg, announcement, 1967, and Oldenburg Store Object, Candy Rack, 1967

Fig. 2
Mike Bidlo, Not Duchamp (Bicycle Wheel, 1913), 1985

Fig. 3
Sturtevant, Oldenburg Store Object, Mu-Mu, 1967

Fig. 4
left to right: Mike Bidlo, Not Duchamp (Bicycle Wheel, 1913), 1985, Imants Tillers, Higher Beings Command: Paint the top right hand corner black!, 1984, Louise Lawler, Baselitz and Hanging Lamp, Rumson, New Jersey, 1983