As mass media exploded and the American art scene bloomed in the 1950s and 60s, Rosalyn Drexler and Sturtevant pushed back on corrosive cultural assumptions. Drexler's collage paintings dissect popular attitudes towards fame, violence, and women, and Sturtevant's replicas spur questions around originality, reception, and perception. Hear how each artist made her own way in her own words.
- Rosalyn Drexler, Put it This Way, 1963, Oil and collage of printed papers on canvas, 49 7/8 x 40 1/8 in. (126.6 x 101.9 cm), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966
- Sturtevant White Columns exhibition announcement, 1986, Elaine Sturtevant papers, circa 1960-2014, bulk 1990-2014.
Oral History Interviews Featured
[Theme music plays]
Rosalyn Drexler: So I said to myself, “You don't know how to paint. What are you talking about?” I said to myself, “I'll find a way. It seems like an interesting thing to do”. I said, “Well, the only thing—I've got to cheat.” I've got to trace. I've got to copy. I've got to cut out. And I'm going to do it, because at least I can get my idea out on a canvas somehow.
Sturtevant: The idea that people would call it copy when they know absolutely nothing about copy. How can you say it’s copy if you don’t know anything about copy? One of the dynamics of copy is that it has to have interior resemblance, and this is one of the factors of repetition.
Ryan Evans: Hi and welcome to Articulated, I’m Ryan Evans and I work as a lead archivist here at the Archives of American Art. This podcast receives support from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
After World War II, the United States saw massive economic and artistic growth. In a new age of mass consumption and ubiquitous media, the pop art movement emerged through the stylized lexicons of mass production and popular appeal. Marked by wit and magnified by glamor, pop art also opened a channel for critique as the globe experienced social and political upheavals.
In this episode, we will hear from two trailblazing artists who came into their own through pop art, Rosalyn Drexler and Sturtevant.
[Music fades out]
Ryan Evans: Born in the Bronx in 1926, Rosalyn Drexler has tussled a career through professional wrestling, painting, and writing. As new waves of pop culture flourished in the 1950s and 60s, Drexler made a name for herself through paintings that vivified and dissected social norms. Her method was to collage found images from magazines and newspapers and transform them on canvas with bold colors and stark compositions. She describes her artistic foundations in her 2017 oral history with Christopher Lyon:
Rosalyn Drexler: Because I know when I was a kid, my father took me to a museum, and the thing that appealed to me most was a Chardin peach. And it was so beautiful, and so fuzzy, and so juicy, and so perfect, that I did fall in love with the painting. What is it? You know, and stuff. And the other thing that moved me into painting was the newspaper used to have a special on prints, 25 cents a print, that their readers could get. And my mother bought me a Turner seascape that also—I said, This seascape, it's misty, and it's mysterious, and look at all the ships. They're not moving, but there's the weather and stuff. So that was another piece of art that I saw, the Turner. And my mother also—they had for about 25 cents or 50 cents, books. So she got me a Dickens. I'm not sure which ones. Maybe something Chuzzlewit?
Yes, because I didn't think I had anything to lose. See, I wasn't in anybody's loop with the art. I didn't go to Yale, or Black Mountain College, Provincetown with Hans Hofmann. And all these people learned how to speak about what they were doing, or what other people were doing, or what they should be doing.
And they're always like working under the aegis of some pundit that—like, say, Hans Hofmann who would—I can't imagine letting anyone come up to your work and paint over it. That's no way of teaching. Push-pull. Push what? I'll push you! You pull me, I'll push you! I mean, the whole thing is so—it's ridiculous in a way.
It's not like, say—Vuillard had a circle. And they all respected each other's work. And it was more or less different. But what they said mattered. You know, if you do a color, make sure it's a full color. If you want to do blue, do blue. If you want to do red—I mean, this is what they were saying even in—you know, right?
Be out there. And of course, Vuillard, his early intimate work I really love. And he got a little freer and more comfortable with the later work, which was different, more open. But I do like his airless rooms and family. His mother sitting there in the bedroom. But it's beautifully painted. And his sister leaning against the side of the room. And it was so intimate,
and it was so still. And I often wondered—he never got married, lived with his mother. So did Ensor, I think.
Sculpture, I—when the gallery closed, then I wasn't doing that anymore. And I didn't know that women were not bankable, and that's part of the reason I couldn't find a gallery. I said, Oh, it's because I'm doing this sculpture. Nobody wants it. I'm going to be a painter. They want me as a painter. You know, it's so childish, but maybe that's a good thing. It's like, trying to figure it out, but there are no answers, as a kid would do. So I said to myself, You don't know how to paint. What are you talking about? I said to myself, I'll find a way. It seems like an interesting thing to do. And so then I said, Well, the only thing—I've got to cheat. I said, I've got to trace. I've got to copy. I've got to cut out. And I'm going to do it, because at least I can get my idea out on a canvas somehow. And I got some movie posters. I cut things out of magazines—
Christopher Lyon: Is that because the figures in the movie poster would already be of a certain scale?
Rosalyn Drexler: Possibly. Or I saw it—where I would place it on a canvas, and what kind of a meaning this image would have.
Christopher Lyon: Did you also have images statted up to increase the size? Just to—
Rosalyn Drexler: Oh, yeah, sure, sure, sure. I did repeats, I did shrinkage. I did expandage. Whatever I had to do in order to play with it.
Christopher Lyon: The backgrounds of these are so fascinating. The—let's see if there was one that caught my—well, here's the Chubby Checker one as an example.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah, yeah. I had a success with that. And then it seemed—there was the original. They found that, which I feel they revealed my—now I'm really going to be punished. But little did I know it would become a whole thing called appropriation. Yeah, you said it. You said it.
Christopher Lyon: Yeah, exactly.
Rosalyn Drexler: But I needed to appropriate. I wasn't doing it for any—yeah, so you see, I used all of these—somehow I made it into a—it's a beautiful, big painting. I mean, it was hanging in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in some show. And when you first get off the elevator, I saw it. And it was sparkling.
Christopher Lyon: That's great.
Rosalyn Drexler: It was lovely.
Christopher Lyon: That's great.
Rosalyn Drexler: So I was happy with that. But, you know, this idea of—that's Marilyn Pursued by [Death,]—
Christopher Lyon: This is terrific. That's really—
Rosalyn Drexler: Thank you. The Whitney has that. They had something from early, early on, when the Whitney was the old Whitney, called Day at the Races. Big, beautiful painting.
Christopher Lyon: One of the things that—I mean, you can't help but be struck by, is the paneling of of these.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yes. Other people are in the same story, but not at the same time.
Christopher Lyon: On the one hand, it reminds you a little bit of those predella panels at the base of Renaissance altarpieces, where they'll have the big picture and then these little ones that tell you the story of how the saint got there.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
Christopher Lyon: Except you're not dealing with saints here, are you? You're dealing with sinners, maybe, a little bit more.
Rosalyn Drexler: I think sinners are saints, occasionally.
Christopher Lyon: Yeah?
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah.
Christopher Lyon: So the notion of these monochrome backgrounds, did that—
Rosalyn Drexler: I wanted to bind the image in a warm cloak of artistry. Paint. So that—you know, the whole thing is—I captured the image, and then I sort of embalmed the image. Like I captured it to be there for all time, and—so.
It's all a film thing. This would be a film medium shot. Then here's the action. And then here's what's causing the action, is this aggressive, criminal. It's a story plate for me. It had nothing to do with artistic decision of—nothing to do with Barney Newman.
Christopher Lyon: Not driven by art history, but by just your narrative—telling a story visually.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yes, it's an ordinary thing. If I were—maybe if I did it again, I would put sprockets so people wouldn't make that mistake.
Ryan Evans: Drexler was attuned to effect of celebrity and the fixation on specific women and their images in mass media. Marilyn Monroe, a symbol of excess and allure for pop artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselman, finds a more human form in Drexler’s 1963 painting Marilyn Pursued by Death, where the cultural obsession is embodied as a sinister stalker rather than a devoted fan.
Christopher Lyon: Yes, Marilyn Pursued by Death…
Rosalyn Drexler: It impressed me that she always had that fear in her. And she lost her mother, and she was—I don't know, brought up by who. She was always afraid of something was going to get her. And all this baby stuff, and wanting to better herself, and going to the Actors Studio, that was a whole important endeavor in her life. It didn't quite take. I mean, this Arthur Miller thing—there was the intellectual in her life. Great. Then Joe—was it Joe DiMaggio?
Christopher Lyon: Joe DiMaggio, yeah.
Rosalyn Drexler: Then there was the athletic thing in her life. And I mean, it was like—and then she had all the political guys. The two Kennedys.
Christopher Lyon: Jack Kennedy, yeah.
Rosalyn Drexler: No, Jack and his brother Robert.
Christopher Lyon: And Robert? Oh, my goodness.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah, yeah. But all the time this was denigrating to her, actually. But she couldn't stop it, because that was her calling card. I don't know, why are we—oh, we're talking about my painting. So I always had this feeling, that—so when this event happened at the Miller's property, and she was running away, I thought it was a—something—someone died in an accident on the grounds or something. And then this must have been her bodyguard trying to catch her from—you know, she was running away screaming. So but I changed it to Marilyn Pursued by Death. And so—
Christopher Lyon: It's very effective.
Rosalyn Drexler: It took me a while to paint that picture. I don't know why. Harder for me to paint that picture. But I got it done.
Ryan Evans: In Put It This Way, a 1963 painting currently on view in an eponymous show at the Hirshhorn Museum, Drexler captures the moment just after a man has seemingly struck a woman against a saturated royal blue background. In the follow-through of the slap, the man is positioned in the center of the canvas, with the woman below him and her face and hair flung out dramatically to provide the audience a full view of her neck and decolletage.
The man is in an athletic stance, with his shoulders set and his hands splayed. Surrounded by blue, the two figures are painted in gray shades, expect for a pop of turquoise down the man’s tie and the sumptuous golden yellow of the woman’s dress. Drexler offers an emblematic moment from a sequence, like a raw still frame from a film, as she unravels the glamorization of violence against women in pop culture and the glorification of chauvinism.
She talks about that painting as well as the communal draw to fights and how she approached their depiction:
Christopher Lyon: this is a little more sophisticated, the poster for Toys in the Attic with Dean Martin smacking Geraldine Page around or something.
Rosalyn Drexler: A lot of fun that was. God.
Christopher Lyon: And then you made a painting of that- was a really effective picture. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit?
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah, I don't think you'll see that subject played out in art before or after. I don't know. Even the—that you actually see it happening. It's almost like an action painting. And she's taking it, and he's just delivered the blow. And it's a kind of violence. It is violence.
Jack Newfield, the journalist, was a good friend.
Christopher Lyon: Oh really? Oh, I'm a big admirer of him.
Rosalyn Drexler: Really?
Christopher Lyon: Yeah, I grew up reading him in the Village Voice and everything.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah. So he was a good friend of mostly Sherman, but me too. And they would have these—Jack would have these—every time a big fight came up, everybody was invited to his house in the Village. And they enjoyed—they were fight fans. I hated it.
Christopher Lyon: Really?
Rosalyn Drexler: I don't like—
Christopher Lyon: But you—you picture fights in your paintings.
Rosalyn Drexler: That doesn't mean I love them just because I—like, I might do toreadors, but that doesn't mean I—I can't—I want to see a bull killed or I want someone to fall—you know. But I'm interested in the activity in another way. You know, how does it look? Can I use it in a picture, and where would I place it? Whatever, you know. It doesn't mean I love it. I mean, I did professional wrestling for a while. I didn't love it. I hated it. But it was interesting.
Ryan Evans: Drexler was a success novelist and playwright as well, winning Obie awards for her stage work, and she also wrote the novelization for Rocky based on Sylvester Stallone's screenplay. She drew from her time as a professional wrestler for her novel To Smithereens and reimagined Gregor Samsa from Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis into a play, playing between media and life throughout her artistic career.
She described the interconnectedness and serendipity of her work across forms:
Christopher Lyon: But it seems like your career has been so interwoven with, you know, art, and writing, and performance, and all your different activities, and I didn't—I don't want to neglect anything that you might want to talk about.
Rosalyn Drexler: It's the same mind. The humor and the intensity, once I get into a project. Just the actual enjoyment of doing the thing, see. And many opportunities opened up for me that I accepted. And it was like a charmed, creative—like, I have not received, like, some bad rejections. You know, like, my first book, it was very interesting. A friend of ours, William Klein, the—
Christopher Lyon: Oh, yeah, the photographer?
Rosalyn Drexler: Yeah, yeah. He's not French, he just went over there and stayed there. But he's from the Upper West Side, New York. So, a friend of ours. And he had another friend who wanted to go into publishing. And he showed him just the—all I had was a paragraph or two, and this guy said, "I want to publish you." I said, "Okay." He said, "I'll be back in two years, and get me the book." I said, "Oh, okay." He came back in two years. He's a guy—and he had published Unsafe at Any Speed with Nader.
And he said, "Well, where's my book?" He said, "I'll give you a contract, okay." I said, "Okay." I said, "But you do know that I've never written a novel, or, you know, any extended—I've written some articles." He said, "Well, you will." And so I had this contract. The guy was serious. And I said to myself, Okay, you're a great reader. Now you have to write. So I said, What is the most important thing in writing? Honestly, humor, and invention. And memory, of course. Of course, first books more or less have some biographical content in them, you know. So I did this. I found a way to amuse myself in the writing so that I enjoyed it, and I laughed at it, and I found it honest.
Christopher Lyon: Anyway. The suggestion, if one wanted to make the extension, is, you know, that you are not hiding anything. That you are—everything is there—that one wants to know is right there to be seen.
Rosalyn Drexler: Yes.
Christopher Lyon: Does that seem correct?
Rosalyn Drexler: Unless there's more that people can't get to. I don't —the surface is always connected to the underground, anyway. The surface is—unless it's the turf grass, you know, some golf course, fake. But maybe there is no such thing as what you're saying, as just the surface.
Christopher Lyon: Umm, ok.
Rosalyn Drexler: I mean, you know, the idea of surface comes to you. Where does it come from? It comes from an idea. And where is that idea anchored from? So something you can say is just on the surface, but then somebody comes along and says, "Well, this looks a little—gives me ideas about what this sentence means."
Ryan Evans: Elaine Sturtevant was born in 1924 in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Sturtevant, as she was professionally known, made her mark in New York through inexact repetitions of other artists’ work, transmogrifying the art world as it bloomed around her. She courted controversy through her practice, as many artists and critics were incensed by the replicas, but Sturtevant carried on. In the 1960s, she began with replicas of works by Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and others. She worked from memory after seeing exhibitions, and she achieved notoriety with her series, Warhol Flowers, silk screens that she created after Andy Warhol gifted her one of his famed Flowers prints,
a series that were themselves based on other artists' photographs.
While questions of originality brewed around her work, Sturtevant insisted on the intellectual and perceptual aims of her practice. She elaborated on those foundations in her 2007 oral history with Bruce Hainley and Michael Lobel:
Michael Lobel: A lot of people ask questions about how much you involved the artists early on.
Sturtevant: Not at all; absolutely not at all. The only person I ever asked, which was under the [Galerie] Paul Maenz, was [Anselm] Kiefer, because I was doing the Kiefer plane, which is very big and very expensive to do, and Paul was very afraid he’d freak out and get the work destroyed – because he’s a big figure in Germany and he’d have no problem doing that.
So he insisted that I go talk to Kiefer, and I didn’t tell him what I was going to do, but I met him and said what I was thinking about. And then he said, “Of course you can do it,” and then Paul and Gerd de Vries both said he doesn’t think you’re going to do it; that’s the only – my not going to be able to do it – this is the only reason he said you could do it.
But he was very generous because when I finished, he said “I would think that was my work, except for the nose of the plane” The very end of the nose! And I did that at least 12 times. I could never quite get it to laisser tomber.” But so he was generous about it because that man is very, you know, that was very – that must have taken a lot of guts to say, “Okay, that’s good.” And he said, “I would have thought it was mine.”
Bruce Hainley: But you did talk to Andy about, at least, for the Flower stencil.
Sturtevant: No, but that’s a very interesting question, because there’s this girl in Germany who is writing her Ph.D., okay. No, no, it’s another girl, another girl. She already has her Ph.D. and she does this work – she’s into that terrible area of copy and law?
Bruce Hainley: Copyright, yeah.
Sturtevant: Copyright law, and these people are just so rigid that you’re wasting your time to talk to them. So normally, I would not have met with her if I had not – she did not reveal that that was her area. And then I was also very sick. I had just come from the doctor and I was full of medicine, so I said, “I really can’t do this interview with you, but I’ll give you 15 minutes.”
This interview, this 15-minute interview, was so interesting because if I did not give her the answer she wanted, she’d move to an area that insisted in a different way that this is what I did. It was incredible. So she kept saying things like – she would not – she kept saying, like, you must have had the artist’s permission, and then, you know, initially, I explained.
And then she put it a different way and a different way and she kept saying – Andy Warhol, he must have known what you were doing. And do you know that I don’t actually remember? My premise is that I think Andy knew what I was doing, and I just said, “I want your Marilyn, or the Flower,” initially, and he said, “Sure,” you know. But I didn’t say I was going to do it, and I didn’t say what I was doing.
Sturtevant: So the other thing is, after all this time, and I’ve written so many papers and I know what I’m talking about, you know? And everyone calls it – it’s decreased very much. I said, “The idea that people would call it copy when they know absolutely nothing about copy.” How can you say it’s copy if you don’t know anything about copy? One of the dynamics of copy is that it has to have interior resemblance, and this is one of the factors of repetition, and you don’t know that. And if you don’t know that, you know – so this, it’s very short, but then it gave – and it’s true. They don’t know what copy is, but they insist on calling it copy, and so that’s a closing of the mind.
Oh, you know the great subway here in New York where it says, “Watch out for the closing doors?” I want to record that. Maybe I can get somebody to do it while I’m here. I want it for the beginning of a lecture. I want to say, “Watch out for the closing minds.” [Hainley and Lobel laugh.] It’d be great, wouldn’t it? For an opening of a lecture?
Michael Lobel: I’m always reminded of this – that you’re intensely engaged with thinking and philosophical discourse. We were talking about Spinoza and Foucault. I’m just curious for myself – about, for instance, your philosophical, theoretical, conceptual, whatever you want to call it, engagement with these issues, let’s say copy just to begin. Where did that come from?
Sturtevant: Well because that’s, you know, that goes way back, copy.
Michael Lobel: To what?
Sturtevant: Oh, it goes back to the Greeks. Probably even beyond that, you know? So there’s this very established thing about copy. Copy was not always demeaned; copy was, at some point, at a very high level. And yes, that would be the beginning, but copy then, however – I don’t know – it’s about copies and anything you copy. So people are not involved with the – firstly, copy doesn’t have any dynamics, okay? So that’s number one.
Michael Lobel: But how did you come to this? I mean here you were, was it – did it come out of your particular reading? Did it come out of your engagement with art at that time? Or a combination of the two?
Sturtevant: Well, it’s a very long time thinking. See, for instance, when I’m doing those drawings, I’m figuring it out, because I had not – firstly, it was terribly, terribly frightening, not because you’re going to do the work but that concept which is so simple would really, really work. I mean you have to. You know, you step back and you’ll say, “No way.” So this is long-term thinking, and then I realized because it absolutely did work and because that’s what helped me to fight all that nonsense that I encountered, because actually someone I guess last year said, “How did you hold up under all that abuse and all that hostility?” I said, “It’s because I knew what I was doing,” you know?
So this one guy – [laughs] – this one critic kept saying yes, yes, but what else? I said, “Have you ever never met a strong, sexy woman?” [They laugh.]
Bruce Hainley: I see your work as really being this intense gaze of what changes from Abstract Expressionism, particularly through the filter or the conversation of Johns and Rauschenberg, and to Pop’s arriving.
Your work is the best philosophy of what that shift is about, and that the work has continued to go on to bigger shifts, but that that was a major turn that we’re still theorizing. I see so much of your work – because of how it activates itself, looking like something else – being the meditation that the work was many, many years away from receiving, and yet you were doing it in the moment.
Sturtevant: You know, other than when people confronted me after the Bianchini show and they’d be so insistent, because it went both ways – one way that, you know, is disgraceful, it was copy, it was la, la, la, la. I could answer that very well, so that only made it worse. If you could really respond to these people and with very valid answers and positions, it just made it worse, because they wanted it to be copy, you know?
Bruce Hainley: If I had not been brought, surrounded by Pop and by Abstract Expressionism, I would not have been able to conceive this philosophical concept.
Ryan Evans: Sturtevant's first exhibition was at the Bianchini Gallery in New York in 1965, and it featured repetitions of Andy Warhol's silk screen prints, Frank Stella's abstract paintings, and Claes Oldenburg's store installation of plaster replicas. Through the rest of the decade, she found new interlocutors for her omnivorous practice, especially the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, whose groundbreaking book Repetition and Difference came out in 1968:
Michael Lobel: I mean art and art history are based on discussions around imitation and resemblance, right, and copy. So I’m just wondering, in terms of what Bruce is asking you about, Were you also reading certain philosophical texts at the time?
Sturtevant: No, not really. No that – you know what came out? The reason I found – see I can’t remember how many years, and no matter what I said, it just somehow didn’t work, you know, and then I kept thinking a critic would come along that could write about it. So then because my ground basically was Nietzsche and Spinoza – not Spinoza, I read Spinoza but he was certainly – [laughs] – translatable as far as I was concerned. But let’s see, Nietzsche and then Hegel and Kant, people like that.
So when I had to start writing, when no one came forth, then I started reading Foucault and Deleuze and found the answers there. I mean, they’re a perfect support for my work, so – that is not why I was reading them. I read them and then found that they provided a ground for me to work on and to talk about it.
Michael Lobel: Were you reading Nietzsche and Hegel, et cetera,
and Kant prior to this time?
Sturtevant: Oh way before, sure.
Michael Lobel: Like by the ’50s?
Sturtevant: Oh, I wasn’t reading Nietzsche in the ’50s. I may go back to him once in a while. Frankly, I don’t think I was reading. I think I was really trying to work it through up here, you know, in the head. No, no, no. I’m talking about – I don’t know what I was reading. Probably trashy novels. [Laughs.]
Bruce Hainley: Yeah, well, I read, you know, I read – Robbe-Grillet. When we used to go to Ibiza for the summers and I took a dictionary and his book and read it, which is not a good way to read a book. [They laugh.] Or this is like I read Deleuze’s Repetition [Différence et répétition] and – what is it –
Michael Lobel: Difference.
Sturtevant: Difference, yeah [Difference & Repetition] . And so I couldn’t find it. It hadn’t been translated yet, so I took the French and, you know, I spent a summer reading it. Then the English came out and I said, “Whoa – this is a whole different book!” [They laugh.]
Michael Lobel: You know Bruce was talking about this hinge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop, and – or between Abstract Expressionism and Johns and Rauschenberg. Do you – since we’re having a conversation here on the record, Elaine – do you –
Sturtevant: You think you’re going to trap me, don’t you? [They laugh.]
Michael Lobel: There are no traps here. Do you want to say anything about the type of art that you were making prior to the Bianchini period and prior to those drawings that we’ve been talking about?
Sturtevant: First, let’s talk about Abstract Expressionism, because that was the first step to the surface, to the outside, because that was all about emotion, okay. And then Pop was also the outside, so that, of course, was a very big trigger in terms of thinking. Is art all exterior now? Is art as, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, it triggered thinking. And you can still ask that today, because it progressed very rapidly, and that show I did at [Galerie] Hans Mayer [Düsseldorf] I don’t know when, called –
Bruce Hainley: Powerful Reversals.
Sturtevant: – Powerful Reversals was about that. It was about how very dramatically art had made this – and it was preceded by other examples – had made this very sharp turn.
Ryan Evans: At the heart of Sturtevant’s practice was the matter of perceiving and making art objects as complex temporal and embodied experiences. While appropriation was a significant artistic method of the period, Sturtevant was adamant that her practice was grounded in the human thought sparked by reception and perception rather than the end of originality.
Resonating with Deleuze, she emphasized her repetition as a mode of active synthesis, arguing that the replicas make transformation visible as they break free from habitual ways of seeing:
Sturtevant: Oh boy, it’s supposed to trigger thinking, not craziness. [Laughs.] Yes, no, no. But you see, there’s something – there are a lot of factors here. One of which – people are very resistant to change, and that’s a very heavy-duty thing to try and move. So I think that’s one of the strongest forces that keeps it locked into this persistent idea.
So – and secondly, if there are no frames of reference, it’s hard to get hold of, and at that time that I was doing it for many years afterwards, there was no reference. So that’s – which we’ve talked about – where the Appropriationists were so important for me because it gave a frame of reference and you could give negative description and that was very crucial and very great. Yeah – which I must tell you, in the Palais [de] Tokyo [Paris] , in the [Steven] Parrino show – so they have four of my very large black Stellas, because the director said that I was one of the people that influenced him. So then later I said to him, “Are you sure about that?” Because I don’t think I did. [They laugh.]
Anyway, so it’s in a room with Warhol on one wall, Stella on one wall, and me on the third wall.
Michael Lobel: : Wow.
Sturtevant: So it’s the first time I’ve ever been placed with icons, okay. So it’s very strong. Outside – we went to the show with Udo Kittelmann, who came to Paris, so just next to the entrance they have this big wall of writing, okay. I never read these things. So Udo caught up and he said, “Elaine, go back there and read that.” So it says about Warhol and it says about Stella and then it says, “Sturtevant, who is a Reappropriationist.” That’s incredible. [Laughs.] That is so remarkable.
I love it. I just absolutely love it. Imagine you’ve gone from precursor to someone who is now redoing appropriation. Can you believe that?
Michael Lobel: And can I just clarify? When you say that’s incredible, you’re not happy about that.
Sturtevant: Oh no, no. I think it’s incredible, because you’re always talking about what the phenomena are that is going around you and how people place things, so I mean why – if I influence this guy, you say, “Sturtevant, blah, blah, blah.” You don’t have to say Reappropriation. [Laughs.] And then, of course, a student is there taking notes on my paintings and then she’s outside, so she’s going to think about me as someone who – and then it says the date of the paintings, 1989 and ’90, when I did the black Stellas – so she’s going to say Sturtevant is someone who redid – not redid – someone who did the appropriation just years after they started. I mean, God, this is incredible in terms of how they place you.
That’s the whole point of the work is to trigger thinking, so – and if it brings up questions, then you’ll have to try to seek to find an answer. Yeah, no, I find it quite remarkable.
Bruce Hainley: But isn't it also, I mean, it's a question of language, but it also seems to me, especially when you, a term like reappropriation, which is just, I don't, first of all, I don't exact. I mean, I know what that means, but on some level it's like, I, wow.
I don't know what that means.
Sturtevant: It doesn't mean anything. Exactly.
Michael Lobel: I often think that you are more closely connected, or at least there is a very strong connection between you, and, for lack of a better term, conceptual art, in this emphasis on language and thinking.
Sturtevant: I would totally disagree with that because of who I am. The presentation is different. And so because the – well, the base is so different. It is a totally different area of thought and thinking. And then, of course, at some point, you know, it was very interesting because I had to really go a little crazy to get the point across, I guess. At a lecture in Berlin, someone said, well, you are a conceptual artist, and they became very determined about it. And I said, are you talking about conceptualist thinking, or are you identifying as conceptual artist. And he said, yes, you are a conceptual artist. This is totally 100-percent wrong. I have nothing to do with conceptual artists.
Yeah, their emphasis on language is totally different, where they want to go is different. They never wanted to make objects. I mean, the premise was not to make objects, even though they made objects. So basically I said to this guy, I make tons and tons and tons of objects. [Laughs.] I cannot be conceptual. But it was – and then it would be written in many critiques that I was a conceptual artist, but not about thinking – they are talking about as a conceptual artist I don’t know. These kind of confusions – I have no idea what kind of brain work is going on. [Laughs.] This has caused major confusion.
Sturtevant: So that’s trying to trigger thinking, again, so it’s always trying to make the work function at a very high level, at a higher level, or to articulate, which is interesting to me because now the videos that I’m doing are really about articulation of visibility, very strongly, so it’s a continuation in a different way.
Michael Lobel: And when you say articulation of visibility –
Sturtevant: So you’re trying to get it so that the visibilities become thought or can be representative of thought, okay? Yeah, they articulate visibility, yeah, looking, seeing, but seeing, not so – then seeing becomes thought.
Michael Lobel: Which is so – which is really interesting, and again, important to me and something that I wanted to write about, and I mentioned very briefly in that Parkett piece that a lot of people, because of this idea of appropriation, would claim that your work is totally what Duchamp would call anti-retinal, that it’s not visual at all, and I think – I personally think that’s a misreading of your work.
Sturtevant: That’s a very big misreading because if you take it from the very first works, you know, then, I mean, you can just trace it all the way through to the present, and then it is, very definitely. But retinal is “to see,” not seeing, or vice versa. It’s not visibility. It’s about visible, which is very different. So that show that I did at Ropac called Interior/Exterior Visibilities
is–which you did not actually see the photos because it was all photographic. What you saw was projection of the photos. So that’s trying to remove seeing, okay? So, yeah, no, that – and I think when he’s talking about retinal or any of those people are talking about retinal, they’re just talking about “looking at,” you know. Something funky like that, maybe.
No, no, no, because I don’t think trying – no, I don’t think that was based on copy at all. This is because this was based on the dynamics of repetition, which is nothing to do with copy. And so, repetition is – you have to – repetition is displacement; repetition is difference; repetition is – what else is repetition? Repetition is pushing the limits of resemblance and limitation – repetition is – it has some other factors or dynamics. So it’s not like – it’s not like saying you repeat. See, the interesting thing is, for instance, Andy Warhol repeated, but he did not do repetition. And his brilliance really lies in the fact that he was – because repeat is surface. You’re just talking about the surface. He managed to take repeat and make it into a very, very dynamic thing. So I mean, for me, that’s where his brilliance lies. But repetition has nothing to do with repeating. So I think that’s a basic premise that people do not –
But I'd like to get off this copy, this copy nonsense, you know, if we could, because, uh, it's, it's, for me that's really a finished subject and I don't care whether they think it's copy or not.
[Outro music plays]
Ryan Evans: This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman at the Archives of American Art. It was edited by the team at Better Lemon Creative Audio
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