“What floor is the copycat exhibition on?” I recently overheard a museum visitor ask this of a security guard, presumably hoping to locate <a href="http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1497" target=_blank>Sturtevant: Double Trouble</a>. At first glance, the exhibition appears to be a group show of 20th-century masterpieces—a Jasper Johns flag painting here, an Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe there—until you realize that these are all by Sturtevant, an American artist best known for making her own versions of the works of her contemporaries, including Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Keith Haring, and many others. And if you’ve already spent the day thoroughly combing MoMA’s galleries, you may start experiencing some of the double trouble at which the exhibition’s title hints.
Sturtevant’s Warhol Cow Paper (1996) at the entrance to the exhibition might look familiar if you entered through the Education and Research Building.
So might Johns Target with Four Faces (study) (1986), to those who spent time admiring Jasper Johns’s <a href="http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78393" target=_blank>Target with Four Faces</a> (1955) in the fourth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries.
Did you spot Marcel Duchamp’s <a href="http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=81028" target=_blank>Fresh Widow</a> (1920) on the fifth floor? You’re unlikely to have missed the seven versions of Duchamp Fresh Widow (1992/2012) in the Sturtevant galleries.
If you were surprised to find a gallery devoted to video games—including <a href="http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=164917" target=_blank>Pac-Man</a> (1980–81)—in MoMA’s Architecture and Design Galleries, you may have been even more puzzled to encounter Sturtevant’s version from 2012.
Among the many wallpapers featured in <a href="http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1495" target=_blank>Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor</a> is his Male and Female Genital Wallpaper (1989). Among the many wallpapers featured in Sturtevant: Double Trouble is Gober Genital Wallpaper (1994/95).
So if the “original” works of art are already on hand, why host a “copycat” exhibition at all? Sturtevant began creating her own versions of other artist’s works in 1964, and from that moment until the current day this question has been raised, along with a dubious eyebrow or two, about her project. It’s easy to call her works copies and leave it at that. But as is often the case in art and elsewhere, greater rewards await those willing to dig a little deeper.First off, unlike how they are shown above, you won’t find Sturtevant’s works in direct, side-by-side comparison with the originals. Even if you’re deeply familiar with, say, <a href="http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78393" target=_blank>Target with Four Faces</a>, you have to hold the image of the work in your mind’s eye while looking at Sturtevant’s version. And you may decide they’re not the same at all. But Sturtevant herself was very clear that exact replication was never her goal. In a 2005 interview, she explained (talking here about her versions of Johns’s <a href="http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78805" target=_blank>Flag</a>, one of the first works she repeated), “It has to look like a Johns flag so that when you see it you say, ‘Oh that’s a Johns flag,’ even though there’s no force there to make it exactly like a Johns. Quite the opposite—the characteristic force is lacking. So when you realize it’s not a Johns, you’re either jolted into immediately rejecting it, or the work stays with you like a bad buzz in your head. You start thinking, ‘What is going on here?'”
I come back to this thought—what Sturtevant elsewhere referred to as “that radical leap from image to concept”—because it’s such a great starting point for figuring out how to think about Sturtevant’s work. If it makes you feel confused, or suspicious, or frustrated, that’s fine—as long as it triggers some tougher questions on your end.
After seeing the exhibition, a friend of mine remarked that Sturtevant is an artist who makes you meet her more than half-way, which I think is true in a positive way. “My work terrifies people, and part of that is the power, and that power comes from intention,” she said in 1989. “It is not something you can swallow and say, ‘now I understand.’”
Sturtevant: Double Trouble is on view in the third-floor Special Exhibition Galleries, and Gallery 5 of the fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries through February 22, 2015.</p>