Sturtevant Talks to Bruce Hainley
BRUCE HAINLEY: Before we launch into the ’80s, a little back story. When you mounted your landmark exhibition at White Columns, in New York, in 1986, on the heels of your being in Bob Nickas’s 1985 show “Production Re: Production,” it had been over a decade since your last shows–“Studies for Warhols’ Marilyns Beuys’ Actions and Objects Duchamps’ Etc. Including Film,” at the Everson Museum of Art, in 1973, and your Joseph Beuys show the following year. Were you making art during that period?
STURTEVANT: Totally, totally out of the art world from 1974 until 1985 or so. I was writing, thinking, playing tennis, and carrying on. My art, with its burden of being devised by conceptual thinking, was not banging against my head but in silent red alert.
BH: Well, something sounded with the White Columns show! It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how thrilling it must have been, after so long an absence, to encounter your Warhol Gold Marilyn  and Warhol Marilyn Diptych , your Lichtenstein But It’s Hopeless  and Duchamp Fontaine , and one of your huge Beuys copper-fat-and-felt pieces. How did you decide what to put into that show? How exactly did it come about?
S: That great White Columns show. It happened with the devotion and commitment of Eugene Schwartz, as curator, and the churning openness of Bill Arning, the director. Together we produced a show of high intensity and polemics that jolted and bounced in all directions. Fortunately the appropriationists were hanging out at the time, which gave me a whole new space for potent dialogue. This was very crucial, as it allowed entry into the work by negative definition–a valid, powerful position. Then again, the appropriationists made me a precursor, although refusing to be jammed into that category immediately put me back in hot water. The dynamic difference was that Sherrie Levine, leading the pack, brilliantly used the copy as a political strategy, whereas the force of my work lies in the premise that thought is power. What is currently compelling is our pervasive cybernetic mode, which plunks copyright into mythology, makes origins a romantic notion, and pushes creativity outside the self. Remake, reuse, reassem ble, recombine-that’s the way to go.
BH: The notorious impresario and curator Christian Leigh was another big supporter of your work. Could you say a little about him?
S: Dear, dear Christian, with his keen and intense face–so clever, so fast, so funny, so bad. He played out fantasies in the murky art world that would have played out better on the dramatic stage. He was a supertalented guy, with critical panache, who made twisted turns that sucked him up–and that was that. As for where he is now: Maybe he’s a master samurai in Tokyo.
BH: You participated in one of his most extravagant exhibitions, “The Silent Baroque,” at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, in 1989. How do you think that show, coming at the end of the 1980s, summed up the decade, the good and the bad?
S: The silence in “The Silent Baroque” was not very silent, but the baroque was very baroque. It was an event, a performance, a challenge to spectators–elaborate and much elaborated, all exceeding the frame. It anticipated the turn of the object to description, of concept to narrative, and of subject to content, which has the perverse, simultaneous double trouble of being ahead and being behind.
BH: One of my favorite pieces of yours from the ’80s is your plan to repeat Michael Heizer’s Double Negative [1969-70]. Could you comment on that idea–why Heizer, and why that work? It seems so amazing, so weirdly fitting, that although you got to the point of surveying land out west, the project was never realized. To double Double Negative, both negating and nonrealizing it, seems one of your most radical gestures.
S: Ah, yes, Double Negative. But I did that piece in the ’70s, not the ’80s. I was probing a repetition that conceals a terrifying paradox: To fold Heizer’s piece back on itself, or to fold it forward, is to negate its being, or to bring its being to a higher power. …