In Johns Painting with Two Balls, 1987, Sturtevant reimagines Jasper Johns’s tour de force with arresting precision, capturing the vivid, brimming expanse and the anatomically tongue-in-cheek spheres of Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Executed one year after her return from a decade-long hiatus from making art, Johns Painting with Two Balls exemplifies the conceptual nature of Sturtevant’s practice that baffled critics during the first half of her career. A descendant of early 20th century appropriation art, first initiated by the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, Sturtevant closely associated with and used work from her fellow mid-century appropriators as source material itself, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and, of course, Johns. Using the same materials and practices as he did, Johns Painting with Two Balls exploits the supposed individual genius present in contemporaneous masterpieces, accentuating that despite the work’s meticulous likeness to Johns’, “there’s no force there to make it exactly like a Johns. Quite the opposite—the characteristic force is lacking” (Sturtevant, quoted in “Sturtevant, with Peter Halley” Index, September/October 2005, p. 48).
Sturtevant Johns Painting with Two Balls, 1987
When selecting pieces to reinterpret, Sturtevant would look for ones that were “immediately recognizable” because “you have to know it’s a Johns,” Sturtevant explained, “for the work to function” (Sturtevant, quoted in Bill Arning, “Sturtevant,” Journal of Contemporary Art, vol. 2, no. 2, Fall/Winter 1989, p. 41). However, she did not revisit the masterpieces of the distant past but instead selected works from the previous few decades, scrutinizing the objects in the interim between their completion and their sanctification into the canon of art history. By interceding during this indeterminate period, Sturtevant obliged the viewer to contemplate the authorship and ostensible irreplicability of the works that will be framed as the paragons of 20th-century art. “Although she can reproduce a painting to the line,” Douglas David elucidated, “these works are not really copies. Their intent is to seize upon iconic ideas and images now at large in the world and use them as though they were common, not private, property” (Douglas David, “Country Art and City Art,” Newsweek, March 11, 1974, p. 91).
I make reproductions in order to confront, in order to trigger thinking – Sturtevant, 2004
Raising further inquiries into conventional notions of authenticity is her process; she chiefly worked from careful memory, aspiring not to produce exact replicas but rather to execute originals that challenged post-Dada understandings of the mythologized and mystical power of the artist’s hand. Though Sturtevant never asked artists for permission before recreating works, their admiration of this logic was implied considering that Warhol lent her his silkscreens so that she could easily reenvision his Flowers and that Johns owns multiple pieces by her.
Sturtevant Johns Painting with Two Balls, 1987 (detail)
When Johns created Painting with Two Balls, Abstract Expressionism was still present but losing steam as Pop Art became the prevailing movement in New York. Typically considered a masculine enterprise, Abstract Expressionism bemused Johns, a reserved man who had little regard for its brazen machismo. With his unabating propensity for satire, Johns approached the surface of Painting with Two Balls with a mocking vitality and tauntingly vibrant palette before inserting the overt anatomical reference between the top two panels. Sturtevant’s version was executed almost thirty years after Johns’s parody of the hypermasculinity of Abstract Expressionism, a crucial interval that saw the rise and apex of second-wave feminism. Despite her vehement resistance to being pigeonholed as a “feminist artist,” Sturtevant—who consciously stopped using her first name, Elaine, in order to obfuscate her sex—must have been all too aware of the gender dynamics of the art world as a woman reinterpreting pieces by better-known male artists.
“In some ways, style is her medium,” the curator of Sturtevant’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Peter Eleey, espoused. “She was the first postmodern artist — before the fact — and also the last” (Peter Eleey, quoted in Margalit Fox, “Elaine Sturtevant, Who Borrowed Others’ Work Artfully, Is Dead at 89,” The New York TimesTimes, May 16, 2014, online). Indeed, from reconceptualizing a close friend’s chef-d’oeuvre in Johns Painting with Two Balls to using Pop Art’s predilection for appropriation against itself in her versions of Warhol’s iconic imagery, Sturtevant is credited with launching a new era of art exploring queries of authorship and originality. Eleely further expounded, “[b]y faking faking, she showed that she was not a copyist, plagiarist, parodist, forger, or imitator, but was rather a kind of actionist, who adopted style as her medium in order to investigate aspects of art’s making, circulation, consumption, and canonization” (Peter Eleey, “Dangerous Concealment: The Art of Sturtevant,” Sturtevant: Double Trouble, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014, p. 50).
Amanda Lo Iacono
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