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Radical, provocative, and often irascible, Elaine Sturtevant (or simply Sturtevant, as she preferred to be called) was a groundbreaking, boundary-pushing multimedia artist.
Born Elaine Horan in Ohio, she earned a BA from the University of Iowa and an MA in psychology from the Teachers College of Columbia University before also studying at the Arts Student League in New York. She was then briefly married to an advertising executive named Ira Sturtevant and chose to keep his name after their divorce. Sturtevant’s foray into the art world began in the 1960s when she started reproducing works of her (mostly male) contemporaries like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and others, challenging notions of originality and authorship, questioning the ideas of representation and reproduction, and exploring the very structure of art itself.
In the beginning, Sturtevant’s work was met with resistance but, gradually, some artists she borrowed from would help her to imitate their work, giving her instruction and even showing her their techniques. Warhol once famously answered a question about the process of his silkscreening with “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.” Her first solo exhibition was held in 1965 at the Bianchini Gallery in New York but by the early 1970s she decided to take a break from making art due growing hostility toward her work. Sturtevant reemerged in 1986 when the world was more prepared to grapple with the ideas behind her creations.
Sturtevant moved to Europe in 1990 and by 2000 began shifting toward different modes of expression such as film, video, advertising, and internet-based images. She went from repeating other peoples’ works to focusing on the constant repetition of experiences in the digital age. Though her chosen media shifted, the essence of her work remained the same over her decades-long career in its constant exploration of authorship, originality, and authenticity. Sturtevant was awarded The Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm held a retrospective of her work in 2012 titled Sturtevant: Image Over Image.
As art historical canon expands and younger generations of artists, critics, and collectors embrace the idea of appropriation as a technique, the understanding and appreciation of Sturtevant’s indelible impact on contemporary art continues to grow.