#Hashtags: Political Abstraction – The Revolution is Us

In a 2012 essay for e-flux, After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social, Gregory Sholette asks whether there can be a role for abstraction within the flourishing new discipline of socially engaged post-conceptual art practice. This remains a valid question given that most activist art is still understood to be representational, based on precedents from the Civil Rights era such as the Black Arts Movement and Mission Gráfica, which themselves draw on Social Realism as well as various folk-art traditions. Still, possibilities do exist for abstract and dematerialized forms as political art. Rather than cite the obvious, I will instead make a case for abstraction as ubiquitous within contemporary art, maintaining its capacity for political engagement and transformation, even as its manifestations (as Sholette admits) have been all too readily reabsorbed into the halls of power.


Sturtevant. Warhol Flowers, 1964–65; synthetic polymer screenprint on canvas; 22 1/16 × 22 1/16 in. (56 × 56 cm). Estate Sturtevant, Paris. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris–Salzburg. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

In considering the politics of abstraction, it bears noting that imagery has been decoupled from representation in contemporary art since the 1960s. Pop Art’s rampant appropriation, reiterated in the ’80s by the Pictures Generation, confirmed the status of images as simulations of depiction, as far removed from the things they show as a painting is from a Campbell’s Soup can. Therefore we should not simply think of abstraction as the absence of recognizable imagery à la Ad Reinhardt or Jackson Pollock, but instead consider how representation can itself be made abstract. The work of Elaine Sturtevant is exemplary in this regard.


Sturtevant. Warhol Diptych, 1973/2004; synthetic polymer screenprint and acrylic on canvas; 6 ft. and 11 7/8 in. × 10 ft. and 6 3/4 in. (213 × 322 cm). Pinault Collection. Photo: Axel Schneider, Frankfurt am Main. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

Sturtevant, now the subject of a major posthumous retrospective at MOMA, made her name by remaking the work of her more famous male contemporaries. Working only twenty years after Hans Hoffmann famously told Lee Krasner that her painting was “so good you would not know it was painted by a woman,” Sturtevant elected not to make her body the subject of her work as did feminist contemporaries like Carolee Schneemann. Even so, her body is a constant presence in the work. She renders her politics abstract by inserting her female self into the action of making the contemporary canon afresh, such that the resulting artworks, already sanctioned, cannot now have their status revoked. In doing so, she questions how images circulate and how value is conferred upon them by the political and economic systems that govern the art world. Her Warhol Flowers (1964–65) are subversive precisely because they are decorative; her Warhol Diptych (1973/2004) of Marilyn Monroes is a poke in the eye to misogynist art critics. Creating Study for Muybridge Plate #97: Woman Walking (1966), Sturtevant inserts herself as the titular woman, taking control of the gaze while subtly reminding us of her physicality. Linda Nochlin asks, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Sturtevant replies, “Is the work of great men artists still great when I make it?” She confidently claims the mantle of greatness denied to countless women throughout history. Layering appropriation on appropriation forces us to see canonical images afresh, separated from the biographies of celebrated men that so often serve to legitimate borrowing as invention throughout art history. Sturtevant returns “thingness” to these artworks, situating them as objects within systems, divorced from the social context of their makers.


Sturtevant. Study for Muybridge Plate #97: Woman Walking, 1966; photograph; 7 3/4 × 8 1/4 in. (19.7 × 21 cm). Glenstone. Photo: Alex Jamison. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

Sturtevant’s forebears, Duchamp and Beuys, each understood the fiction that lies at the heart of every celebrated artist’s biography. Both artists, like Warhol, were masters of self-invention. These artists treat persona itself as abstraction, separated from any factual biography or self. Performance artists like Allan Kaprow and Yvonne Rainer applied similar ideas to their use of the body in live art. Distancing physical human form from social space, these artists apply “thingness” to performative beings in the way that Sholette attributes to the “human mic” at Occupy Wall Street. Happenings comprising bodies in motion disassociate collective action from social interaction. Bodies become systems, networked nodes rather than interactors. These approaches directly inform the pedagogical space defined by Beuys, Kaprow, and others that gives rise to what we today call “social practice.”


Sturtevant. Beuys La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, 1988; screenprint on paper; 37 5/8 × 20 1/16 in. (95.5 × 51 cm). Collection of Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris–Salzburg. Photo: Arpad Dobriban. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

Perhaps, contrary to Sholette’s suggestion that “itness” need be inscribed on the narrative of this emerging field, we would instead do well to recognize that the form of social practice as a post-conceptual strategy fundamentally emerges from an ethos of objectness and materiality applied to the interactions of bodies, images, and personalities. It is, therefore, a discipline grounded in principles of political abstraction. The introduction of such ideas is not a curative for neoliberal instrumentalization of creative expression, and it is not a defense against absorption of radical ideas by establishment institutions. Not abstraction, but connection, will be necessary to carry the day. Only through empathy—engendered by the pathos of Sturtevant’s naked body and by the confidence of her stride—can we stem the tide of exploitation. Indeed, the future will be carried not by things but by people, connected and supported through social networks. Once more let us heed Beuys’ revolutionary call to arms: “la rivoluzione siamo noi (the revolution is us).”

Sturtevant: Double Trouble is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through February 22, 2015.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.