Sturtevant, Study for Yvonne Rainer’s “Three Seascapes”, 1967. Performance view, 222 Bowery, New York, May 16, 1967. Photo: Peter Moore/VAGA.

WE CAN'T GET ENOUGH. We love to rediscover STURTEVANT, to relive her relentlessly recombinant logic. We love the way her work multiplies, whether as hyperspeed sexed-up video clip or scandalously wholesale copy or the readymade we never really knew. And we’ve probably reinterpreted the legendary Paris-based artist as many times as she has reinterpreted the work of others. But over the past several years, Sturtevant has seemed to outstrip even the manic proliferation suggested by her reproductions of Warhol Marilyns and factory-line sex dolls. Her recent videos and theatrical environments unleash a terrifyingly decadent spawn of images and information. This is a system about to explode its limits, to consume itself—perhaps the apotheosis of what the artist deems “our pervasive cybernetic mode.” The fantastic screen-orifices in Sturtevant’s Trilogy of Transgression, 2004, and Blow Job, 2006, find new echoes in the amusement-park tunnel that swallows visitors in House of Horrors, 2010, and in the anthropophagic graphics of Pac-Man (working title), an animation piece currently in progress. The latter will debut—along with other new works and a refabrication of her Duchamp Fresh Widow, 1992—at the artist’s survey show opening at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this month.

The heightened speed and force of Sturtevant’s recent work are actually reminiscent of her little-known, earlier embrace of performance in the 1960s. So on the eve of her latest retrospective, Artforum asked contributing editor BRUCE HAINLEY, Sturtevant’s frequent interlocutor, to unearth the artist’s long-obscured engagements with live action, choreography, and Happenings. What follows is a tale of missed encounters, epistolary exchanges, kinetic reenactments, dances of dances. But such a recursive loop is not only historical. It gives us that strange Sturtevant thrill, again.

Sturtevant, Study for Yvonne Rainer’s “Three Seascapes”, 1967. Performance view, 222 Bowery, New York, May 16, 1967. Photo: Peter Moore/VAGA.


Elaine—Have gone to Calif. Don’t despair. Keep working. You know the dance. In 2 days I shall send you complete details of the continuity plus program info. Sometimes one has to run away from everything. Yvonne.

Cue thinking about Sturtevant dancing.

What does it mean to “know the dance”? What dance? What is a fact? How does something come to be a fact? Sometimes facts run away from everything.

“COMPLETE DETAILS of the continuity plus program info.”

Complete details fascinate. Of course they do.

But at the get-go it seemed that complete details about Sturtevant dancing had run or danced away: Other than within the distracting static of rumor, there appeared to be only a single reference in the printed record to Sturtevant’s dancing—a lone chaîné of substantiation, accomplished in no small part by the editorial machinations of Genesis P-Orridge. (Yes, Genesis P-Orridge.)

In the first edition of the encyclopedic reference work Contemporary Artists, published in 1977 and edited by P-Orridge and Colin Naylor, Jane Bell noted: “For Sturtevant has from the beginning of her career [sic] as an artist made work by other artists—paintings, sculptures, films, dances and performances that have been exhibited before [sic], by such people as Claes Oldenburg, Man Ray, Duchamp, Eadward [sic] Muybridge, Yvonne Rainer, Roy Lichtenstein and others.”

Sturtevant’s Rainer rested in the historical record, but without complete details or program info—no title, no date, no specifics of any sort—and without continuity: There is no Sturtevant entry in any subsequent edition of the book.

As far as can be determined, the artist has never publicly revealed any specifics whatsoever about the dance Rainer knew she knew, but the postmark of the postcard Rainer mailed to “Elaine” provides a date (“May 4, 1967”) around which to begin to choreograph a search for more information about a Sturtevant dance that, Rainer’s note makes clear, was being rehearsed for a performance soon to happen—and in front of an audience. Thus the jitters-calming “Don’t despair. Keep working” from a highly trained professional dancer to someone who wasn’t.

Rainer never recalled what Sturtevant performed in 1967, but about the communiqué itself, she remarked:

Very odd, that postcard. The date tells me exactly when and why I went off to CA but the rest of it is a mystery. I dimly remember that Elaine had asked to learn something of mine, but what it was and if she ever did it . . . .???? Have you asked her? I hope she’s alive and well.

“You know the dance.” What dance?

I didn’t know her well. She was an anomaly to me: fashionable upper East Sider, part of Rauschenberg’s entourage (as I was for awhile), and her art that consisted of reconstructing other people’s work. Ahead of her time, obviously, now with all these “re-makes” around. I once went to a dinner party in her townhouse. I remember what I wore and I remember she often wore a slim white quilted rancoat, Courreges-like [sic]. I also visited her Oldenburg “store” on the lower east side. Didn’t take her too seriously at the time.

Sorry I can’t be of more help.