Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld @New Museum

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition containing 124 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and hung against white walls in a series of 5 rooms on the second floor of the museum. The exhibition was curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Margot Norton.

The show includes images from the following bodies of work, with the number of prints on view, their processes, and associated dates as background:

  • Modern History: 34 black and white prints, reproduced at the same size as the original newspapers (1 set of 29, 1 diptych, and 1 triptych), 1979
  • Stills: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1980/2012
  • Objects of Desire: 19 cibachrome prints in lacquered wood frames (8 single images, 5 diptychs, 1 triptych), 1983-1988
  • Figure Drawings: 40 Fujicrystal archive prints, mounted and laminated with lacquer frames, 1988/2008
  • Renaissance Paintings: 3 cibachrome prints in lacquered wood frames, 1991
  • Doubleworld: 5 cibachrome prints in mahogany frames (3 single images, 1 diptych), 1995
  • 0+1: 4 Fujiflex prints with lacquered wood frames, 2000
  • Neverland: 1 cibachrome print with lacquered wood frame, 2002
  • Work in Progress: 2 Fujicrystal archive prints (1 diptych), mounted and laminated with lacquered wood frames, 2009
  • Available Light: 6 Fujicrystal archive prints (4 single images and 1 diptych), 2012

A catalog of the exhibition (published by the museum) is available from the bookshop for $55 (here); it includes an introduction by Lisa Phillips and essays by Johanna Burton, Hal Foster, Kate Linker, Margot Norton, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, Laurie Simmons, Sara VanDerBeek, and Cindy Sherman.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Surgical isn’t a word we usually associate with artistic retrospectives. Sprawling, expansive, comprehensive, overstuffed – these are the modifiers we normally choose for summing up long and productive careers and the exhibits that celebrate them. And yet Sarah Charlesworth’s overdue retrospective at the New Museum is quintessentially surgical – it’s tight, pared down, and ruthlessly streamlined, with every single ounce of excess fat removed, a lifetime of her most sophisticated photographic thinking shoehorned into five precisely managed rooms. Given Charlesworth’s cerebrally smart analytical approach to her art, she probably would have felt right at home.

While this exhibition isn’t organized chronologically, there are several lightning strike conclusions to be drawn about Charlesworth’s career that are only uncovered when her projects are put in step-by-step order. The first is that roughly the initial half of her working life, particularly the period between 1979 and 1988, was astonishingly innovative and productive. In that short decade, she strung together four roundhouse power punches that hit one after another, knocking us around with disruptive photographic thinking again and again. In Modern History, she removed all the text from newspaper front pages, leaving behind only the mastheads and imagery, showing us the underlying language and structure of image presentation and the implicit decisions behind them. In Stills, she enlarged falling bodies drawn from newspapers to larger than life size, infusing tumbling balletic mid-air flight with the implicit dark horrors of suicide jumpers and fire evaders, cropping them down to snippets of inconclusive claustrophobic dissonance. In Objects of Desire, she probed a saturated, high gloss brand of objectification, isolating resonant items in commercial slickness and fetishizing our broad consumptive urges. And in Figure Drawings, she excised us down to a hierarchy of elemental postures and gestures, reducing the human body to an encyclopedia of formal silhouettes, from gods and demons to soldiers and belly dancers. Seen back to back in these intimate connecting rooms, it’s hard not to come away mightily impressed by this consistent run of biting imagination.

What I came to see when walking through these galleries is that Charlesworth was a consummate remover. While we often talk about appropriation being what many of the notable artists of this period were doing, it wasn’t so much the taking that was interesting for Charlesworth – it was the re-presentation. These projects were executed with rigorous precision, each one a meticulous job of subtracting, extracting, x-acto knifing, decontextualizing, and rephotographing. In some cases, what was left behind was what was intriguing; in others, it was how Charlesworth showed us these images in new ways. Her works from this fruitful period are full of photographic codes and conventions being pulled apart and put back together, using intense conceptual attention to uncover and amplify both new and hidden meanings buried in the source media.

Charlesworth has famously said that she didn’t consider herself a photographer, and if her career had ended in 1991, I think she would have had a fair case for that assertion – up to that point, she was mainly examining the functioning of images rather than their first hand creation. But in 1992, she was seduced by the dark side, and went behind the camera to make primary photographic works. My second major insight derived from this retrospective is that this potentially overlooked moment was an important watershed for Charlesworth. She never again questioned the presentation of imagery with the same fervor (at least in her own artworks), and was instead drawn down the rabbit hole of photographic thinking – light and dark, cameras and tools, setups and staging. While perhaps a natural evolution, I think this was an unfortunate turn of events – her work was never again as incisive or brash.

This is not to say that Charlesworth’s later work doesn’t have its merits; that’s not the case. In Doubleworld, she skewers the tactile preciousness of 19th century photographic vision, with its velvet curtains, brass handles, burnished wood boxes, and vanitas still life objets. An entire gallery is filled with the works from the 0+1, Neverland, and Work in Progress series, diving deep into the essence (and limits) of photographic whiteness and the formal qualities of her studio tools, particularly her bulky box camera. Her last project, Available Light, follows a similar path, creating solitary object arrangements lit only by pure unfiltered light.

All of these exercises were executed with unmatched technical perfection and a sublime economy of vision, but their aestheticism seems to trump their ideas – nice to look at to be sure, but not nearly as combative, astringent, or durably important as her earlier work. She seems to have fallen inside the photographic bubble and been entranced by the siren song of its internal mysteries, so much so that like Odysseus, she forgot (at least a little bit) where she was going. Turning inward toward photography made her look harder at the trappings of the medium itself, turning away from the thornier implications and consequences of how images function out in the world. Given the true genius she showed in her earlier career at picking apart photography, maybe she would have been better off as an avowed outsider.

But even if Charlesworth’s later work ultimately falls short of offering the same level of penetrating critical thinking that her earlier work exhibited, this in no way diminishes the overall sweep of her many accomplishments. As seen in this sharply edited show, her early work was superlative, deserving to be included among to top rank of work done during that time, and over the years, her intellectual thoughtfulness about the nature of the medium was equally and unapologetically hard hitting. While Charlesworth’s influence as a teacher and mentor is well known, her best works certainly merit wider renown. This excellent retrospective should help bring her the credit and adulation (even posthumously) that she has so obviously earned.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Sarah Charlesworth is represented by Maccarone in New York (here). Her work has only an intermittent secondary market track record; recent prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $12000, but this data only reflects a few transactions in any given year in the past decade and therefore may not be entirely representative of the actual market for her best work.

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