New Paris Exhibition ‘Sturtevant: Dialectic of Distance’ Recreates a Notorious Appropriation

Above: Sturtevant, The Store of Claes Oldenburg, 1967. 623 East Ninth Street, New York. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

The advent of sampling in music in the early ’80s gave rise to all manner of questions in regards to the very concept of the ownership of one’s work and fair use. That debate still rages today, especially as hip-hop’s entire sonic foundation was built on borrowing and recontextualizing.

But more than five decades ago, enigmatic artist Elaine Sturtevant began a series of reproductions of works by other well-known artists, including the considerable likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist and Jasper Johns. Andy Warhol, perhaps recognizing something of his own working methodology in her intentions, actually gave her a silkscreen so that she could intentionally reproduce his Flowers.

Sturtevant, Dark Threat of Absence, 2002. HD cam – metallic tape, two camera video
4/3 and 16/9, full wall projection displayed side by side with small gap between
videos, RT: 14’37’’. Variable dimensions. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

But generally her concept was quite understandably met with hostility (it’s likely that was partly her intention), especially by super dealer Leo Castelli. Specifically, he objected to her 1967 restaging of Claes Oldenburg’s landmark 1961 work The Store, just blocks away from where the original was first presented in a then quiet sketchy East Village, in New York’s art damaged “Downtown.” She cleverly retitled it as The Store of Claes Oldenburg – and now Thaddaeus Ropac‘s Paris Marais gallery has reassembled it under the banner Sturtevant: Dialectic of Distance, which opened this week fifty-five years later to the day of its first staging.

The incomprehension by even the art-world cognoscenti of the time came on the heels of Oldenburg’s work already being accepted as a landmark critique of the commodification of art. Warhol and his Pop Art ilk had already begun suggesting this new commercial context in a most provocative way. But Sturtevant seemed to take the critique and turn it on itself, possibly being incorrectly taken as an offense or parody by the very people who should have best been able to fathom her objectives.

Sturtevant, Oldenburg store object, Hamburger and Lettuce on Plate, 1967. Chicken
wire, cloth, plaster, enamel. 18 x 16 cm (7.09 x 6.3 in) (diameter). © Estate
Sturtevant, Paris. Photo: Charles Duprat.

Most remarkably, in those pre-internet days, the items featured in the updated “store” were recreated by her from memory, arguably giving it an even more meaningful authenticity. The motive was to take the questioning of the “ownership” of creativity to a logical end, challenging the very notion of original “ideas.” (In the early ’90s Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s The KLF, or Kopyright Liberation Front, would take up the same critique – and may have even possibly been influenced by Sturtevant.)

Of course, in the digital age ownership of imagery and creativity has been once again turned on its head. And though her work is still open to interpretation, shortly before her death in 2014 Sturtevant left us with this observation: “The appropriationists were really about the loss of originality and I was about the power of thought. A very big difference.”

Sturtevant: Dialectic of Distance is on show at Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Marais through June 11.

Sturtevant, The Store of Claes Oldenburg, 1967. Offset print on postal stamp (April
18, 1967) on cardboard. 17.7 x 13.7 cm (6.97 x 5.39 in) © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

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