Mixed Doubles

IN 1974, Elaine Sturtevant slipped out of the art world to play tennis with a man whose serve she couldn’t return. She said little about her decade-long departure from art, either about why she left or what she did during that period—“I was writing, thinking, playing tennis, and carrying on.” The American artist, best known for “repeating” major works by major men, had already proven herself a genius in the game of doubles. Let them catch up, she said, and switched to a game with different rules but similar design. 

Like fellow genius and tennis freak Anna Kavan, whose midlife adoption of her character’s name precipitated a radically different prose style, “Sturtevant”—the married surname the artist took on as professional moniker—was a self-invention that accompanied a new way of working. As Elaine, she painted “beautiful,” “muted” landscapes. As Sturtevant, she took on style after style, repeating choice artworks mostly from memory, using the same techniques and materials as the artists. This made her prone, she said, to the same errors. Emulating error: sharp adversarial tact. Her early exhibitions repeated works by members of the nascent Pop scene, many of them her friends: Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, George Segal, Andy Warhol. She did the flags and the flowers, the “Black Paintings” and white sculptures. The works are as close to the original as they are inexact, producing the quivery uncanny effect that became her signature. “The dilemma,” she would write, “is that technique is crucial but not important.” Well, of course. No one listens to Glenn Gould because he is the best of pianists; we care that he understood Bach. A great volleyist, Sturtevant was all style and instinct, internalizing the other and responding in turn. 

In his autobiography Open, Andre Agassi noted, “Simply knowing your enemy is a powerful advantage.” He meant, in part, knowing when and where to hit. The Store of Claes Oldenburg (1967), Sturtevant’s variation on Oldenburg’s famed Pop-emporium installation The Store (1961), opened a few days before his major show at Sidney Janis. Oldenburg was at the top of his game, with a boisterous swagger other, more “swish” contemporaries lacked. Sturtevant went for blood, puncturing the artist’s machismo with the elegance of a trained killer. The Store had been a breakthrough; The Store of Claes Oldenburg was the stage for a psyche turned inside out.

“She practices,” an uncredited reporter for Time wrote in 1969, “a kind of art that has made her one of the less popular artists in Manhattan.” This was an understatement. Oldenburg, she told a reporter, wanted to kill her; Leo Castelli bought works just to destroy them; friends dropped her. It was a turning point in the game, and one that had come at a cost. Trading her studio for the tennis court, she found another lonely practice of proprioception. When she returned to art in the mid-’80s, she was lauded as a pioneer, but she didn’t take long to change medium and course. Only a poor winner is bent on repeating her own victories. 

Janique Vigier is a writer from Winnipeg.