Image: Sturtevant | review
Installation view of Sturtevant: Dialectic of Distance. Sturtevant Oldenburg Store at Thaddaeus Ropac London. 8 September – 29 October 2022. Photo: Eva Herzog. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.
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Sturtevant | review

9 September 2022

By Eddy Frankel 

I am so sorry to be paraphrasing Jack Black in an art review, but this is not the greatest exhibition in the world, this is just a tribute. 

In 1961, conceptual pop art maestro Claes Oldenburg opened a shop in New York and filled it with wobbly looking sculptures of burgers, dresses, eggs and cakes. It was a pop explosion of colour and mottled weirdness, a strident up yours to the commercialisation of art. Great idea, great execution, top marks.

Then, six years later and just a few blocks away, American artist Elaine Sturtevant (1924-2014) just copied it. Same concept, same objects, same poster, just with her name on it. And Oldenburg hated it. Was she mocking him? Criticising him? Stealing from him? Paying tribute? Taking the piss? 

All of the above. It’s just what Sturtevant did. In maybe the most post-modern move ever, she spent her whole career appropriating, twisting, morphing and reframing other artists' work. 

14 of the objects from her version of Oldbenburg’s store are on display here: a big burger, a little pat of butter, a blue and white dress, a neat little fried egg. Without his originals to compare them to, they exist in a sort of uncanny valley where it’s impossible to know how exact they are as recreations. Either way, they’re great: colourful, playful, fun.

But so were Claes Oldenburg’s. What makes Sturtevant’s different is how they exist as a commentary on what old Claes did. By going so heavily meta, she throws all of his ideas into new contexts, makes you re-question what he did, why he did it, what he meant, and asks hey, why do people make anything anyway. Every idea he had is here, but pushed further, forced into even sharper relief by being stolen and reframed. 

In another work here, she recreates a classic Paul McCarthy film, casting herself in his role. Now, all of his sinister, dark, malevolent weirdness is stripped out and replaced with high pitched cutesy silliness. She totally undermines him, shifts the whole focus of the work, it’s brilliant. 

The obvious accusation is that she’s just a thief. But what, all these great artists in history were all total originals who never stole an idea? Sturtevant calls bullshit on that. Of course Picasso stole, of course Monet and Bernini and Dali stole. She just makes stealing the whole point. 

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