I FIRST MET Bruce Hainley late last summer at the restaurant Little Dom’s in Los Feliz. He had recently completed his new book on the artist [Elaine] Sturtevant, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face — the culmination of a decade’s work and the first English language monograph about an artist who, like Bruce, not only avoids easy categorization, but makes the muddling of categories her occupation. That night Bruce and I discussed everything from Sturtevant to contemporary poetics to the differences between our respective towns, Los Angeles and New York. Afterwards, I immediately regretted that I hadn’t recorded our conversation. This February, I corrected my mistake with an email exchange that we had about Under the Sign, now out from Semiotext(e).
As Hainley and I discuss in the following interview, Under the Sign of [sic] is a book that traces the evolution of Sturtevantian dynamics and theory over the course of her long, complex career. Sturtevant is an artist of electric, daunting complexity. Best known for her conceptual work in the 1960s, in the past she has perfectly replicated, [sic], the work of other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenberg, Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Yvonne Rainer. She rethinks the Big Questions of aesthetic theory by asking even bigger ones. As Hainley writes:
[Sturtevant] disrupts any habitual way of thinking, probing originality by cutting linear time and aesthetic conditions apart to instantiate weird loops shifting the seen to its conceptualization: her pursuit of art’s fundamental forces becomes something like the search for a string theory.
Though this search for such a theory has been met with everything from confusion to dismay, Sturtevant, in her long career, has responded with even more challenging work. And it seems that, finally, the art world is catching up to her. This fall, the Museum of Modern Art in New York will stage the first exhibition of her work in a major U.S. museum.
Sturtevant is many things: open secret, dowsing wand, aesthetic hacker. But above all else, she is a dynamo, continuously generating new ways of thinking about art practice.
Sturtevant is also an artist whose work repeatedly questions what it means to “be there,” a state of being (in both art and life) that Hainley tackles in his sprawling, formally innovative analysis that maps her work across its multiple platforms. Under the Sign ends in an essay on Sturtevant by Hainley as Pierre Menard, Borges’ imaginary author of the Quixote. Menard asks: “[S]ilence is no less a response than a declaration of love. How do we know when we are really living?” Now there’s a Sturtevantian question.
ANDREW DURBIN: Throughout Under the Sign of [sic], Elaine Sturtevant is a somewhat distant figure — obscured in and by history, often by her own design. Despite the breadth of your comprehensive and probing research into her work and (sometimes) her life, Sturtevant often feels absent — from her occasional "disappearances" from the art world to her occluded biography. However, your own tone in the book isn't so distant. In fact, it’s often rather intimate and close, even if your "I" never undresses itself before us to reveal Bruce, though occasionally, you do emerge in the first person. How did you think about your voice in relation to Sturtevant's as you worked on Under the Sign?
BRUCE HAINLEY: While it would probably be good to question what anyone means by being “present” or how “presence” is registered right now (e.g., 100,000 followers on Twitter: Who is being present to whom? Is anyone in that social configuration actually present or absent, or are both those conditions snared in some kind of technological scare quotes?), instead I’ll swerve to answer more directly. It’s Sturtevant, not “Elaine,” who was my study. I was trying to think about what she actually did with/to art and what her work does. Even if the biographical as pursuit is pretty much ditched in the book, it’s still easy with Sturtevant to fall into the trap of spending a lot of time talking about other artists and their projects, since her work often appears to be the work of someone else, which it isn’t. “Distance” and/or “disappearance,” if that’s what to call it, embeds itself in her art, but, I would argue, only to force consideration of what it means for someone or something to be “present” or “intimate” at all.
Living in Hollywoodland, apostle of the daily brilliance of dlisted’s Michael K, I laugh that anyone thinks paparazzi “stalk” only those stars who are most in demand and famous; more often, they “stalk” those who crave being seen — precisely those who feel they need to be “caught” in a certain “moment of spontaneity” for yet another career bump. How could someone possibly still believe that any picture of, say, Kim Kardashian, is ever, in the basic sense of the term, “candid”? Her “presence” is always an absence of anything other than the spectacle of cybercapital tediously (lumpily?) on the move. My presence, put into motion with the only devices a writer really has — “voice” and/or words; syntax as well as genre — is caught in a long pan shot: at the start, there is no first person, singular or plural, on view, but, by the end, “I” stumbles to attention, before slipping away again. Or, I guess, so it would seem. By tracking early-ish Sturtevantian goings-on as diligently as possible, then marking all the discrepancies I found in the historical record with a “[sic],” I hope reading the book psyches out what is taken to be “absent” or “present,” “serious” or “beneath consideration,” “now” or “then.” We see only what we are able or wish to, which doesn’t make what we see what was or, even, what is.
AD: Structurally, this book plays on the interchange of presence and absence. The first part is divided in two, with one part running on the verso page and the other on the recto. For me, this is very different from other instances of two-column form (like John Ashbery's "Litany" and Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory, to mention two authors whom I know have influenced your work). Your book maintains the expectation that one page will carry onto the next, but it doesn’t. And there is a repeated, almost dizzying effect when the reader's eyes move to the next page only to find that it does not continue from the previous one, even though the subject — Sturtevant — remains the same. What brought you to this form?
BH: That dizziness — Sturtevant digs and provides razzle-dazzle — is as close as I could manage to the point-blank effect of encountering her work. Recently, in a bookstore, the painter John Tremblay pointed to a stack of Under the Signs grinning on a table. “Look,” he exclaimed, wickedly, “they have your new book on Keith Haring!”
You mention two of my favorite and most revered living writers, the great Lady Ashes and the one-man intellectual firecracker committee known as Wayne Koestenbaum. Certainly, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about their work, and those two instances in particular. There’s also, of course, Derrida’s Glas and, very much, its instigation, the daunting dual-columned essay by Jean Genet, “Ce qui est resté d’un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés bien réguliers, et foutu aux chiottes,” which I’ll choose to translate as, “What remains of a Rembrandt ripped into small, regular squares, and fisted down the shitter.” Only the Genet text is invoked by name in my book. At one point, I tried and tried to write a crazy long sentence (inspired by Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence” and Hilton Als’s “The Last Interview,” his bravura twirl on Polly Jean Harvey) that snaked through some explanation of the Genet text and joined it to Yvonne Rainer’s elusive (never reprinted?) essay, “Don’t Give the Game Away,” whose argument about transdisciplinary simultaneities Sturtevant’s work and thinking anticipate — but I just couldn’t pull it off. The two-page thing is, you’re right, totally different from the dual-columned texts that inspired it, and it is crucial that, for all the differences going on, Sturtevant, the subject, as you put it, remains the focus. In the book, to go forward with the greatest speed or ease, you have to skip page after page, and then start over, slightly askew from where you were. I couldn’t come up with a better way to enact some crucial Sturtevantian dynamics (nutshell them this way: insisting upon repetition to perform difference) and, believe me, I thought about it for a long time, because figuring out that things should operate across two pages rather than in two columns of text on the same page wasn’t obvious, at least not to me, although I hope in the end it feels like it couldn’t be any other way.
AD: I love the story of when you first met Sturtevant in the early 2000s. You were both in the lobby of the then-new Standard Hotel in West Hollywood. You mention that she came into the hotel and enthusiastically remarked that it was “very L.A.,” which for me (also a non-Angeleno) it so is — however vague that phrase’s meaning. Yet, to push further into the region of vagueness, there is something about Sturtevant’s work that strikes me as “very L.A.,” too. In one sense, it’s her preoccupation with surfaces and simulation. In another, it’s her ability to absorb other artists. Like Sturtevant, Los Angeles subsumes (and multiplies) multiple cultures and identities into social, aesthetic, and geographical super-sprawl. Sturtevant also super-sprawls. There is even an image of her work in your invocation of “Hollywoodland” — the old sign in the Hills before it dropped the slightly redundant “land.” Sturtevant seems fascinated by redundancy and de-simplification. For me, these tendencies make up a large part of the “Sturtevantian dynamics” that informs the shape of your book. But Sturtevant remains an artist of many geographic and aesthetic “homes”— homes your book maps around the US and Europe. Do you think of her as having a particular place?
BH: Perhaps a few more facts about her visits to Cali to try to circumnavigate her “place”:
1) Sturtevant’s first show west of Manhattan opened at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, in Santa Monica, in 1987, not much more than a year after what’s taken to be her return to the art world, her landmark exhibit at White Columns in 1986. One of the best eyes in the business, Dan sold a few works from the show that eventually made their way into MoCA Los Angeles, which was, until very recently, the only American museum to have works by Sturtevant in its collection. The artist Jim Isermann drove Sturtevant around while she was visiting; knowing Jim’s amazing taste in music, I’ve tried to imagine what tunes he might have had playing on his tape deck while they cruised the coastline. Some B-52s? Maybe Marie Wilson’s Showpeople? X?
2) My friend, the art historian Michael Lobel, and I met Sturtevant at the Standard on the Sunset Strip and took her out to dinner. She was in absolutely up to the then hip glamour of that venue, striding in with her short carefree silver coiffure, elegantly manicured, brightly painted nails, and wrapped in her “Beuys” shearling. Michael was a fellow at the Getty and Sturtevant was in town to give two lectures at the Getty Research Institute (this would have been in early 2001). Helping her organize her slides for her first lecture — a dramatic and thrilling overview of her works, always projected in tandem, two-at-a-time — became a crash course on the ferocious smarts and sense of humor coursing through her aesthetics. Michael and I strong-armed Thomas Crow into throwing a splendid dinner for Elaine at Les Deux Café, which was still very much in its heyday, under the watchful eye of the inimitable Michelle Lamy.
Unruly ronin as well as troubling double agent of the simulacra, Sturtevant remains for me a quintessentially American artist. But since I’ve long been convinced that L.A. is the test site for everything the rest of the country will soon become, and with your acute perception of all that Sturtevant’s project, not unlike L.A., subsumes, is her “place,” if she a GPS could get a fix on her, “Los Angeles”? Yes, um, totally. A Los Angeles of the mind, dude.
AD: I’m also curious as to your place, where we find you — as critic, writer, academic, poet? You also live in a Los Angeles of the mind, but like Sturtevant, you (and your book) swerve away from easy categorization, the convenience of genre — and place.
BH: Wary to answer this question but not trying to be coy, I can state only that I think of my project as one of writing and attempting not to be bored, or boring. If I fully understood what it meant to write or why, I’d probably stop doing it. Wow, that sounds ridiculously precious. Let me reconnoiter. I’ve always admired the tale Padgett Powell — a writer whom, some might be surprised to discover, I completely prize — tells of studying with Donald Barthelme. After pointing out that Barthelme’s aesthetic got him “tired of certain pedestrian storytelling, whether for good or ill,” but that his mentor’s impatience with the predictable didn’t include an impatience with emotion, he addresses Barthelme’s observations of this strange endeavor, writing. “We have a wacky mode,” Powell recalls Barthelme saying to the students of the class he was in. “What must the wacky mode do?” Apparently everyone in the class sat silent and flummoxed. Barthelme declared, “Break their hearts.” I guess there are those who might find it odd that I have chosen to apply Barthelme’s advice, received second- or thirdhand, to what might be mistaken for “criticism” or “art history.” Oh, well.
AD: Bartheleme’s advice is so apt for thinking about your work, which often embeds a powerful emotional response to art in your writing about it. This is true throughout Under the Sign of [sic], especially at the end, where you write so eloquently on the limits of love — and writing — to address its subject. Writing can often be such boring, repetitious work, but the “wacky mode” — Barthleme’s, Sturtevant’s, yours — refreshes, even if the specifics of that mode — what makes it it — are somewhat unclear. I am reminded of a line from Ashbery’s new book, Quick Question: “Because if it’s boring / in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.” He lifted the sentence from Susan Sontag, who said it to him while they toured the Soviet Union together in the 1980s. The writers on tour had to attend endless, repetitious state operas, which Ashbery could finally no longer stand. He told the group he couldn’t sit through another. To his complaint, Sontag responded with the line now found in his poem. This seems like an apt thesis for Sturtevant’s work — and the differences that work generates. After so many years of intensive research and writing, what kept Sturtevant so fresh, different, not boring for you?
BH: Oh, I hope the book demonstrates that with love at first sight boredom’s never going to be an issue and that if I manage to “explain” anything I certainly don’t explain it away. My devotion is just an opening serve in what I trust will be an exciting volley between others about what Sturtevant’s work accomplishes, how it responds to the untimely and the instantaneous. I should not forget to point out, given your question: Barthelme never clarifies whether the “wacky mode” breaks your heart because it succeeds or because it fails.
AD: The second section of Under the Sign takes the form of a dramatic poolside gabfest at the Chateau Marmont that splits the discussion of Sturtevant’s work into multiple trajectories, and touches on much of her work after the 1970s. The play, titled Hounds of Love, is a conversation between Severin (a man about town for whom “art is his serious avocation but not his business”), Bo du Jour (an international escort), and Rick Genest, a.k.a. Zombie Boy (perhaps best known from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way music video). I’m curious as to the thinking behind your decision to “stage” a critical discussion of Sturtevant’s work and to split your “I” into three distinct voices, before it’s had its own moment in the third section of the book?
BH: Well, at some point in working on the first section of the book, I was, like, Bro, basta with the historico-critical rigmarole. Such maneuvers had, seemingly, to be put to the side so they could return in the third section, albeit finally vocalized with all the problems the first person entails. Wanting to hear different voices and strike a breezier tempo; needing to unhinge things with Jetztzeit; and being the kind of faggot who still finds fortification not only in Wilde’s theoretical insurrections but also in his messy erotic life, which included, along with wife and children, many rentboys, Bosie being only the surliest and most costly, I decided to embrace the form of his latter-day Platonic dialogues, but pushing it to ape a play, or at least a Hollywood-adjacent playlet. Do I agree with everything put forth about Sturtevant by Severin, Bo, and Rick? No. When a Sturtevant painting appears to be a Haring tag, does that mean that she “agrees” with Haring or his motivations? No — but it also doesn’t simply mean she “disagrees” with him either.
AD: The characters in Hounds circle around Sturtevant’s Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1995, which restaged Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 piece shortly before he died. Your characters touch on the “burden” of the AIDS narrative that formatted Gonzalez-Torres’s work at the time of his death, a narrative that Sturtevant unburdens him of in order to — as Severin also says, though slightly earlier in text — size up “the brutality of our moment,” a moment defined by the various controls (narrative or biological) placed on the gay male body and its messiness. In Gonzalez-Torres Untitled, Sturtevant makes “a different kind of platform, on which and by which to dance this mess around.” It’s a reminder that Sturtevant’s work has a sharp politics to it, a politics not only of authorship, but also of how the body (of the artist, of the work) gets bodied and mortalized (to say nothing of its immortalization). Sturtevant calls into question how we think about the mortal body — and how we mourn it, too. Severin:
Her great health, her total enchantment of being, counters or checkmates something as dubious as the new virginity with an antibody, simultaneously body and its anti-, as well as its ante. There’s a vaccinal potential in her aesthetics. The dancing replenishes man, overcoming his “perpetual exhaustion,” allowing “man” to go, to be ongoing, with purpose and vitality, go-going — and then gone.
Does all this suggest (to put it oh-so-crudely) that Sturtevant’s work is optimistic — and that this particular optimism might continue to matter amid other crises of the body and consciousness, such as our ecological one today?
BH: Difficult for me to feel grumpy or pessimistic when looking at her art in action. I mean …
Sturtevant, Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-GO Dancing Platform), 2004, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Photo: Axel Schneider, Frankfurt am Main. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise.
Sturtevant rallies life-force, always catalyzing thinking, resistance, and unruliness, all of which are under attack. She’s stated, unequivocally, “truth is now to kill, to hate, to conceal falsity.” At some point, Severin asks Bo, “What do we want to talk about when we talk about art?” That’s really the question for me, period. I don’t really want to talk about money and opening parties. Even more than Lorde, I’m over getting told to throw my hands up in the air for a system — collectors, curators, editors, and critics, as well as artists — that incessantly makes it seem that such corporate sponsored glad-handings are what matters or what art produces or why it’s made. Fuck that. Hudson, the great life-force behind Feature, Inc., recently died, and one obituary netted, in a brief quotation, some of what he thought anyone seriously committed to art should do: “They need flee from hipness and the current notion of art as fun.” He went on to ask, in a question that isn’t merely rhetorical, “What ever happened to the museum as a place of study, aesthetics, and the subjective, or the quiet time wandering about a museum deep in thought or ecstatic with emotion?” Brute or soigné, rinky-dink or fancy-pants, instamatic or epic, art, art worth the name, should test the forms of our current imaginary and ask us to consider, among other matters, what life is, how it is — and if it is actually being — lived. The artist might probe such difficulties with the grace of facts or with the relentlessness of artifice. Summoning a lighter touch than I’m mustering, Jack Smith conveyed such aesthetic fundamentals long ago: “No one wants to miss an enjoyment and it is important to enjoy because it is important to think and enjoying is simply thinking — Not hedonism, not voluptuousness — simply thought.”
AD: One way that Sturtevant considers the imaginary and life is through her exploration of the pleasures of the body as a thing moving in space — whether it’s a go-go dancer or her own, as in the case of her Study for Yvonne Rainer’s “Three Seascapes” and her self-portraits as John Dillinger in Dillinger Running Series. The Rainer piece and the Dillinger photographs challenge her own reticence to appear “directly” “as” herself by introducing the (alternative) selves she can perform or embody, bringing a lived-in otherness to the fore. You have different strategies throughout the book of addressing this body of work, her body, but I’m wondering how her pieces “about” the dynamics of movement challenged you?
BH: Any body’s pleasures as well as its burdens, but also Sturtevant’s body’s and her mind’s movements, various catalytic transpositions — all of these clarify the importance of action to Sturtevant’s endeavor. Such dynamics were in no way obvious to me when I started the project. There’s a funny, relay-race-like baton hand-off going on: some of the material consequences of her body organize the first section of the book, which closes with her Rainer dance; that Rainer dance gets utterly transposed and transformed in the go-going that oscillates wildly albeit centrally in the second section; if that second section stages a conceptual meeting between her body dancing and her making sure another body’s dancing is observed, in both its thereness and its absence, by the third and, essentially, final section of the book, I gumshoe, my body gumshoes, the trace of her body moving through the wild, wild west, then through the changing dynamics of the Big Apple’s art world, only to observe her going off the radar completely, circa 1974, for more than a decade. Does it make any sense to say that my methodology, I hope, engages historical materialism by tracking her puzzling discontinuities, her acute activation of immaterial, invisible, and dematerialized structures through repetition? Maybe? I don’t know.
AD: Threaded throughout the book is a particular critical language that draws on a vocabulary normally used in cybernetics theory — and how we think and talk about the internet. In an exemplary sentence from early in the book you describe Sturtevant’s work “as a confrontation […] with the commercial sublime of Pop as well as the cybernetic virus — call it digitized alienation or malaise or whatever was starting to be hacked into ‘the nervous system of man.’” This vocabulary, so perfectly apt for our internet age, isn’t often used when describing pre-internet art and yet it provides such a useful framework for describing and understanding what Sturtevant does. She hacks and uploads. She overwrites, she leaks, she changes privacy settings, she goes viral. She memes. It seems that Sturtevant’s work and its ideas have particular force today in light of the heavy circulation of these verbs. It’s a force that seems derived from her perceptive understanding of systems that only now our culture is catching up to. Does her work predict some of the aesthetic tendencies we’ve seen over the past few years in art that addresses our networked, digitized lives?
BH: Does anyone really still say “totes”? Sturtevant has been tracing, in her words, “that dirty little trickster called simulacra” for a long time; this tracing, along with the thinking and work it instigated, made her preternaturally attuned to cybernetics and its many drastic reversals. Why Sturtevant now? Why has it been in the last decade or so that she’s finally garnered the attention her studies deserve, first in Europe but culminating in her exhibition at MoMA, later this year? Certainly, the immersiveness and/or invasiveness of the digital in almost every aspect of existence as well as younger artists in various ways responding to or using being online provide new spaces for urgent dialogue and engagement with her pursuits — even if at the get-go by negative definition, since Sturtevants frequently look like exactly what they’re not. She’s summed it up this way: “Our pervasive cybernetic mode […] plunks copyright into mythology, makes origins a romantic notion, and pushes creativity outside the self. Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine — that's the way to go.” It’s a little longer than a proper tweet, but, dude, put it on a T-shirt, get some hottie wearing it to take a selfie, and Instagram it.
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat Books 2014) and several chapbooks, including Believers (Poor Claudia 2013).