On the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, alone on a wall in gallery 18, is one of Jasper Johns’ most famous works: Target with Four Faces, from 1955, featuring a shooting target topped with four plaster casts of noses and mouths. One storey down, at the end of a hallway on the third floor, there’s another. The same target, the same mouths, the same hinged wooden door: even the most devoted Johns fan might have trouble seeing that it isn’t the real thing. But it is the real thing, just by another artist. It is Sturtevant’s Johns Target with Four Faces, from 1986 – and just one of dozens of slippery, sinister and perplexing works by an artist who looked like everyone but herself.
“To be a Great Artist is the least interesting thing I can think of,” wrote Sturtevant (née Elaine Frances Horan; Sturtevant, her single professional name, was taken from an ex-husband) in 1972. Yet here she is at MoMA, the temple of great artists and an institution that owns none of her works, but many of the sources for them. The exhibition Sturtevant: Double Trouble looks at first like a group show of some of the most famous figures of the last century: Beuys and Warhol, Lichtenstein and Haring. In fact they are all works by one artist, who recreated her colleagues’ paintings and sculptures with the same techniques they used, and not via photographic or digital means. (She never asked permission, though Warhol once lent her his flower silkscreen.) Marcel Duchamp’s Fresh Widow of 1920 is here too: seven of them, actually, all lined up in a row and all looking exactly like the ‘original’ Duchamp, which is itself a readymade, that MoMA displays upstairs.
Sturtevant, who died earlier this year at age 89, did far more than replicate, especially after she turned to video in the 1990s. But her chameleon-like renditions of other artists’ work defined her career – engendering violent criticism in the 1960s, and finding wide recognition only later in life. The easy and wrong conclusion about her art is that the other artists’ work is her subject matter: that the paintings at MoMA are copies for copying’s sake. But Sturtevant’s convincing yet imperfect repetitions aren’t exactly copies, and as the curator Peter Eleey observes in an authoritative essay accompanying the show: “the initial quick read of her work… is itself a form of repetition.”
Counterfeiters copy, and conceal they are doing so. Students copy, as artistic training. Assistants copy, as labour for more famous artists. But as Sturtevant shows, the border between original and copy, invention and plagiarism, is constantly up for negotiation. She was faking Warhol and Lichtenstein and Johns – but she was faking the act of faking them too, using the techniques of a parodist – or criminal forger – for much bolder ends. Philosophically sophisticated but not at all conceptual in execution, Sturtevant’s art actually hinges less on copying than on the big questions of authority, authorship, circulation and history.
It’s a fraught relationship, the original and the copy, and it has been a hallmark of debates around modern and contemporary art. Yet one can’t understand the stakes involved in copying without seeing how artistic originality itself came to have meaning at the beginning of the modern era. Albrecht Dürer painted, but he made his money as an entrepreneurial printmaker, selling woodcuts and engravings that he and his assistants produced on his own printing press. That the prints were not unique was irrelevant. They were all ‘Dürers’, proudly bearing his interlocking A-D monogram, and they were invested not only with his physical gestures but also something that Dürer called Gewalt, literally ‘force’. Here it means an innate, God-given, imaginative authority, or a genius for creation. And when he went after copyists, dragging them to court in Nuremberg and Venice (and in one case threatening to murder them), Dürer insisted that it was not just his labour they were stealing. He called them “envious thieves of work and invention”: copies infringed on his Gewalt, his name and his genius, and not his effort alone.
Before the 16th Century, artists rarely signed their names and usually clubbed together in guilds, valuing their work as much as woodworkers, goldsmiths, or other craftsmen. But Dürer, as far back as 1500, articulates a notion we now find commonplace: that the artistic and indeed financial value of a work of art inheres in the creative and imaginative impulses of the artist, rather than in the labour that produced it. It’s no coincidence that this development in art history coincides with the rise of the printing press in Europe. Printmaking, just like later reproductive media such as photography and 3-D printing, eliminated the trace of the artist’s hand from the finished artwork. Value therefore had to come from somewhere else: from an intellectual or even spiritual inspiration, and not from craft.
The 16th Century conception of artistic originality marked a big shift from earlier periods of art history, when, say, a Roman copy of a Greek statue was just as ‘original’ as its source. Now, to copy was to simulate something more than just form. It was to simulate an artist’s ideas too, in most cases fraudulently. And this is true even when the ‘original’ is not unique: in a series of prints, for instance. Does that still hold? Numerous philosophers and theorists in the last few decades proposed that modern media had killed the possibility of originality (such was Jean Baudrillard's contention) or that originality was a fraud (so insisted David Shields). But even an artist as slippery as Sturtevant, whose own Gewalt was so deftly hidden, suggests that the old tradition is still with us.
No work of art arrives from nothing, of course. Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, one of the grandest and most copied works of western art history, is based in large part on an Italian Renaissance print. Pablo Picasso (“good artists copy; great artists steal”) could never have painted his breakthrough works of the 1900s without recourse to African sculpture. So when Sturtevant used her colleagues’ art as source material, or in Eleey’s words “adopted style as a medium”, she was not really undertaking a radical break. She was simply turning up the volume on a more enduring artistic truth. As she once said, not very politely: “You'd have to be a mental retard to claim the death of originality.”
Sturtevant’s ‘copies’ are in fact studies in the differences that can arise through repetition. That’s one reason why her art does not amount to a copyright violation. To infringe on copyright, the later work must have the same intention as the original. Sturtevant’s replicas have quite different goals, and in any case require a degree of confusion in order to function. The possibility of originality endures – but only through replication. You can only make something new if you make something that already exists.
It was a commonplace, in the mid-20th Century, to insist that mechanical reproduction spelled the end of originality, or that the death of the author was upon us and that authorial invention was a fraud. But for all the sway of these ideas inside the academy, anyone who has pushed through the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, or for that matter who waited in line to see Jeff Koons’ pristine and hand-free sculptures, can tell you that the exact opposite has happened in real life. Mechanical reproduction has made ‘original’ works of art even more desirable, not less so, with many works achieving cult-like devotion. Another confirmation of this is the towering prices for art today, notably for photography and other easily reproducible artworks. Artists make art, out of whatever materials they need, and never in a vacuum; then the system and the market do what they will. As Sturtevant once said, “Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine – that’s the way to go.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.