Sarah Charlesworth, Modern History @Paula Cooper

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 photographic works, variously framed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller side gallery, and the entry area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 1 pair of black and white prints, 1979/2003, each sized roughly 16×13 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 black and white print, 1978, sized roughly 23×14 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 Fuji Crystal Archive print, 2003, sized roughly 22×14 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 set of 36 black and white prints, 1991, each sized roughly 24×16 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 pair of black and white prints, 1979, each sized roughly 25×17 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 27 black and white prints, 1979, varying sizes each approximately 22×16 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 25 photostat prints mounted on wood panel, 1976-1977, each sized roughly 7×5 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 25 photostat prints, 1976-1977, each sized roughly 10×8 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 1 set of 12 photostat prints (from an original set of 26), 1977, each sized roughly 14×11 inches, unique

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Like many of the artists who would later be grouped under the moniker of the Pictures Generation, in the mid 1970s, Sarah Charlesworth was interested the increasing power of images in mass media. So in 1976, she began experimenting with using the front pages of newspapers as a potential artistic medium. Over the next year or so, she tried out several approaches, including following the same story across time and the same event across different newspapers from around the world.

By 1977, with some trial and refinement, she ultimately hit on the visual formula that produced her now-iconic Modern History works – making multipart series that used the front page of newspapers from consecutive days (for an entire month), leaving the masthead and the imagery but removing all the surrounding text. The blanked out pages created a visceral white absence, and starkly highlighted how powerful the selected images were as a communication tool. Her most notable work from the series intervened in an entire month of front pages from the International Herald Tribune in September of 1977, creating a mysterious parade of world leaders (almost all male) and events.

This tightly edited show expands our understanding of Charlesworth’s approach by providing the surrounding context of the larger project, displaying nine different works from the series. In the smaller side gallery, three of Charlesworth’s initial efforts are on view, showing the progression of her ideas. Her first two tries used political unrest in Chile (between 1970 and 1976) as her ostensible subject. In the first, she selected 25 issues of the New York Times over that period, each having a story about Chile on the front page; she reduced each page to a small photostat and mounted the images on wood blocks as an array. But this iteration didn’t make her artistic point with enough clarity, so in a second version, she highlighted the Chile stories with darkened text and imagery, so they would stand out from the other surrounding stories. This was better, but still not pared down enough. A trial proof for her 1977 Herald Tribune work shows her making the critical change to masking out the text, leaving just the isolated images. While some of the original trial photostats have been lost over the intervening years, the essence of the idea refinement is clear. Seeing all three early works hung together smartly marks her methodical step-by-step progression from initial concept to more streamlined execution.

In the main gallery, the 1979 work Movie-Television-News-History, June 21, 1979 finds Charlesworth continuing to refine the formula. Instead of following a sequential time series of front pages, Charlesworth instead traces how a single event was shown in 27 different American newspapers. For her subject, Charlesworth chose the public shooting of ABC news reporter Bill Stewart in Nicaragua; Stewart was following Sandinista rebels marching toward the capital of Managua, and when he was rounded up by Nicaraguan National Guard forces, his cameraman filmed the back-and-forth, including his eventual execution. The footage was widely shown in the US media, and many newspapers ran stills from the video reproduced from television broadcasts.

In making her version, Charlesworth has reproduced the front pages at actual size, and again masked out all of the other content aside from the masthead. This isolation forces us to see and consider the choices made by the various editors, from the size and placement of the images to the variants, closeups, and supporting pictures used to better tell the broader story. Large images above the fold tell one story; small images pushed to a lower corner tell another; headshots and background images personalize the dead man; and prominently featuring the actual gun-to-the-head execution moment creates an altogether more viscerally violent impression. And it is these details and their implications that Charlesworth wants us to wrestle with.

Other simpler works in the series from the late 1970s show additional paths of conceptual experimentation. In Verbs (from 1978), Charlesworth edits the text on a single New York Times front page, leaving behind only the verbs and creating an active and action-oriented subset of reporting. In Reading Persian (from 1979), she starts with an Iranian newspaper front page from the day the Shah was deposed and splits it into two pieces – one with only the text, and one with only the central image – essentially letting us choose between alternate visual interpretations. And Charlesworth used this side-by-side approach again in United We Stand/A Nation Divided (from 1979), a work pitting simultaneous (and opposing) headline interpretations of political events in Scotland against one another.

Charlesworth’s Modern History series appeared to end there, that is until the events of the 1991 Gulf War brought her back to the ideas. Herald Tribune, January 18-February 28, 1991 recalls the original visual framework of front pages with mastheads and isolated images, and applies that filter to the reporting on the US invasion of Iraq. In day after day (for a total of 36 days), photographs of serious leaders (again nearly all male), angry insurgents, and military firepower blanket the pages, asking us to question how our perception of the war was transformed by the images we were provided.

The enduring power of Charlesworth’s Modern History series lies in the sophisticated ways that she focused our attention on “reading” the images. By paring away all of the other visual distractions, Charlesworth asked us to consider how the photographs were communicating with us as readers, and how the specific decisions made around the ways those very particular pictures were presented were influencing our reactions to them. Not only were her works elegantly straightforward, they packed a brainy punch that bluntly revealed our typically passive consumption of news imagery. This smart show fills in some of the historical gaps around how Charlesworth worked her way from concept to end product in this important series, providing yet more evidence of an artist armed with a richly incisive and intellectually rigorous system for art making.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $25000 and $175000. Charlesworth’s work has a relatively thin secondary market track record, with few examples of her best work coming to market, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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