Art Books

Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face

Bruce Hainley
Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face
(Semiotexte, 2014)

Prior to reading Bruce Hainley’s latest book, my gloss on Elaine Sturtevant would have gone something like this: Feminist appropriation artist remade iconic Pop works, raising questions about authorship. Pressed to say more, I’d have faltered into further generalizations. My ignorance and misreading are not unusual. Although Sturtevant is exactly the kind of artist I would normally geek out about, she had remained for whatever reasons comfortably outside of my attention, my interest teetering somewhere between recognition and cruising glances, a type of familiarity that leads to reading a Wikipedia article but rarely much else. Hainley notes this common dismissal. “Meanwhile,” one of the book’s two opening essays begins, (post-Didion quote, post-Anne Carson translation of a Euripides fragment), “not a few wished Sturtevant taken out.” Later in the book, a fellow artist, name left unspecified, declares, “I hardly remember an iota about Elaine.” Another, upon hearing that Hainley is working on a Sturtevant book, stops talking to him. Throughout the text, documents misspell Sturtevant’s name, and artists and critics regularly dismiss her.

Thankfully, Hainley is never so quick to move on. Thick and challenging and fun, Under the Sign of [sic] devotes its many strategies to the under-appreciated Sturtevant, praising her ability to “[cut] cognition from the habit of mindless recognition.” (Here, as elsewhere, it’s tempting to conflate the strategies of the artist with those of the writer, although the truth is more complicated than that.) Hainley begins with twinned essays, one running verso and one recto, that introduce the artist mostly by way of her The Store of Claes Oldenburg and her Relâche, the prior being a storefront filled with plaster sculptures of everyday objects and the latter a cancelled performance (of Satie’s Relâche, natch). It’s a fascinating read—the reactions and nonreactions to Sturtevant; a physical attack on the artist by a mob of schoolchildren, seemingly angered by the storefront; Oldenburg wanting to “kill” her in reaction to her work; a prepossessing moment in which Duchamp arrives to Relâche, views the cancellation sign, and returns to his taxi, which had been left running with his wife waiting inside. It’s also dizzying, the back and forth between each essay and page, but it’s a dizziness that seems both appropriate and slyly funny—“I create vertigo,” Sturtevant says. The writer, in his deft moves, concurs. Hers is an art that “overloads the network with unworkings,” that parts ways with the idea that art might be traced back to an expression of self. “A catalytic uncertainty principle, she, with her repetitions,” repetitions that cancel and short-circuit. She brings about “something akin to amnesiac effects.” “The artist’s art appears as what it’s not—which is what it is.” “Mindfuck,” he writes.

Sturtevant’s long play with repetition began in 1964, when she first borrowed Andy Warhol’s original silkscreens to make her “Warhol Flowers,” as well as a Jasper Johns flag, a George Segal sculpture, and similar work. The artists she selected were often friends, or at least acquaintances, and she slowly built a reputation that turned increasingly contentious in the New York art scene after The Store of Claes Oldenburg. By the early 1970s, the criticism at its harshest, she withdrew for roughly a decade, only showing again in the mid-1980s. Over the past few decades, she has continued showing new work from her project, including (among many others) the occasional recurrence of her “Warhol Flowers,” video of running dogs, blowup sex dolls, and a classic house of horrors with skeletons and a ghost train. Hainley gives this latest output comparatively little attention, focusing most often on the 1960s and 1970s, although the entirety of her ongoing work remains his topic.

His take isn’t exactly the going opinion in writing about Sturtevant’s art. The artist is gaining some late-in-life recognition. MoMA will have a major survey of her work this year, and in 2011 she received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. But Under the Sign of [sic] is the first book-length monograph of her art to appear in English, and Hainley’s insistence on the mindfuckery and prescient power of her work is rarely acknowledged in other criticism. Especially considering the nature of her project, it’s not surprising that the relationship between Sturtevant and “Art” is a regular topic in Hainley’s text. The artist herself claims that she has “no place at all except in relation to the total structure” (a structure that certainly extends further than any notion of an art world). That relationship, which Hainley finds to be a source of endless and endlessly enticing questions, upsets pretty much any easy notions of concept, aesthetics, medium, individuality, or culture. He notes that “her work, not unlike a bad flashback, produces a dissociative fugue state for the aesthetic status quo.” To keep that afloat,—with windowpanes and mushrooms providing metaphors in the text on more than one occasion—taking her work seriously (that is, taking it as her work, not the work of others) is like dropping acid, intimidating in its potential to disrupt what you believe; also like dropping acid, (if you talk to someone with the right constitution who has been on the right trip—in this case the writer, with his unparalleled ability to appreciate art) it’s hard not to eat some paper yourself.

Hainley has been writing this book for over a decade. (This devotion is fitting. Sturtevant did not decide on her own project in a glib moment, but committed to it for life, the seer that she is.) In the long years that he has been at work, he’s managed to construct formal structures and conceits that move the text beyond what we have come to expect of art criticism. The middle of the book takes the form of a script, an older art critic and a rentboy in arch conversation over Sturtevant’s “Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform)” and something like body politics. Hainley’s “I” only enters after these fictional characters have their say, his self complicating things with its presence in the succession of chapters that (almost) close the text. The final pages are a review of Under the Sign of [sic] by Pierre Menard, the fictional author from Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The review weirdly and wonderfully makes the first in-text mention of the cover, Sturtevant’s Haring Tag, pointing to the beginning and starting the whole thing over again.

His long devotion is also evident in the research, the hunt for information woven into the text like gumshoeing. In writing about Sturtevant’s choice to do one of Yvonne Rainer’s dances in 1967, Hainley is put in an absurd and telling position: Rainer doesn’t remember which dance Sturtevant did, and Sturtevant doesn’t think the dance was important enough to warrant identifying it to Hainley, claiming, “What’s interesting about the Yvonne Rainer piece is why I did it—not that I did it.” The information Hainley pursues is often not documented properly, or at all, making it feel at times as though he is singular in caring about it. It’s ridiculously charming, and of course makes it even easier to join him in giving a damn.

Writing about art is most valuable when it does just that thing that Hainley describes Sturtevant as accomplishing: the separation of “cognition from the habit of mindless recognition.” As in his poetry and previous prose efforts, this is exactly the experience Hainley offers. He does not let us think of time, of art history, or even of our own thinking in familiar terms. Instead, we get something repeated, cancelled, vertiginous, inappropriable, and fiercely animated. He busts through genre and provokes. Haring Tag, the cover image, is a mischievous face, tongue dangling and eyes luridly arching. It’s about to get up to something and, grinning, invites us along.


T Clutch Fleischmann

T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande, 2012).