Sarah Charlesworth @Paula Cooper

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 photo-based artworks, dating from 1977–84, hung on the gallery’s white walls. All works are posthumous with estate stamps; each is available in the edition specified by the artist during her lifetime, variously 1 + 1AP, 3 +2APs, or 7 +2APs. The works include:

  • 3 black-and-white mural prints, mounted with color adhesives and lacquered wood frames, each 68 x 50 x 1 5/8 inches framed
  • 9 black-and-white mural prints mounted with lacquered wood frames, ranging in size from 50 x 50 x 1 5/8 inches to 86 x 50 x 1 ¾ inches
  • 1 black-and-white mural print in lacquered frame, 49 7/8 x 65 7/8 x 1 5/8 inches
  • 1 group of 26 black-and-white prints, each 23 ¾ x 16 ½ x 1 ¼ inches framed
  • 1 black-and-white mural print, 78 x 42 inches framed
  • 4 Cibachrome prints with lacquered wood frames, each 20 ½ x 15 ¾ x 1 ¼ inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Like most Americans of her age and background, Sarah Charlesworth (1947–2013) was raised on the mass media of her time—a postwar, pre-Internet cornucopia of pictures, still and moving, provided daily in newspapers and magazines and on film and TV. “I find myself living increasingly in a world made of images, photos, television, movies . . .” she wrote in 1983. “I lived through war I never saw except through photographs and broadcast news reports. I saw the president of my country shot on TV and I saw his assassin shot live on TV.”

By the 1980s, Charlesworth was one of a cohort of artists—among them Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, and Sherrie Levine—who used photography or rephotography to question the supposed banality or neutrality of the images around them. Through appropriation and recontextualization, their work illuminated how those images reinforced gender roles and class divides, and enabled ideological, political, and commercial agendas.

In the past five years, Charlesworth, who died at age 66 of a brain aneurysm, has been the subject of a traveling survey organized by the New Museum (reviewed here) as well as several smaller shows devoted to individual series. This beautifully produced exhibition focuses on her work from 1977 to 1984, a seminal period in the artist’s development.

The show largely reprises Charlesworth’s 1982 exhibition at CEPA Gallery, Buffalo, called “In Photography.” A play on Susan Sontag’s 1977 essay collection On Photography, the title of the CEPA show reflected Charlesworth’s ambition, expanded on in a short artist’s statement, not to approach the subject of photography from without, but to embark on “an exploration which is enacted on the field of the image itself, from within.” It captures the artist in transition between her conceptual work of the 1970s and the “Objects of Desire” photographs for which she is best known: pictures of clothing, furniture, antiquities, and the like scissored from glossy magazines then rephotographed, individually or in pairs or groups on bright monochrome backgrounds, printed as shiny Cibachrome prints, and framed in lacquered frames.

Charlesworth’s art career began more than decade before the CEPA show, when, as a former student of conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, she saw curator Seth Siegelaub’s seminal “January 5–31, 1969” exhibition of Conceptual art, featuring works by Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner. She subsequently spent much of the early 1970s as an affiliate of the New York branch of the Conceptual art group Art & Language and as a co-editor, with Kosuth—who was by then her romantic partner—of the Marxist journal The Fox.

An early example of Charlesworth’s “Modern History” newspaper series of the late 1970s opens the exhibition. Herald Tribune, November 1977 (1977) consists of individually framed reproductions of a month’s-worth of International Herald Tribune front pages, from which the artist removed all the text except the masthead. The images remaining, largely of white men, are shown in their original positions on the page and at their original scale, reflecting the editors’ decisions about the relative importance of each story. (Antecedents for this piece can be found in works by politically inclined conceptual artists such as Martha Rosler, who also explored the biases embedded in documentary and advertising photography.)

From here, the show traces Charlesworth’s steps as she methodically examines, “from within,” how photography functions in the world. Her excising of text in the “Modern History” series seems to have led naturally to the presentation of single newspaper images in her next series, “Stills” (1980, 2012).

For this group of works the artist sourced pictures of people falling or jumping from buildings—either in the act of killing themselves or escaping the fire—cropped them, and reprinted them at human scale. As in Charlesworth’s “Modern History” series, images are removed from their context. In the single example here, a silhouetted man twists in midair between a building and what seems to be the ladder of a fire truck, his probable death forever delayed; our response forever based on projection rather than knowledge.

“Stills” marks a turning point for Charlesworth, whose focus from this point on is increasingly as much on strategies of display as on content. From her 1982 series of six photographs, “White Lady,” three are shown here, one of the planet Venus, one of a cave opening in the shape of a woman, and one of lightning crisscrossing a night sky; they have been cropped and blown up to the same monumental scale. Not only does the artist’s choice of pictures seem far more personal than before, the photographs, with their inky backgrounds, glossy finishes, and matching black frames, they are as much objects as images.

Charlesworth next began fragmenting her decontextualized images, often in ways informed by the image itself. A picture of a car exploding is torn into bits, rephotographed, and turned into a large-scale mural print; a still from a samurai movie, sliced into curved sections as if by a sword, is enlarged and presented in a blood-red frame.

Charlesworth’s process became more complicated the following year, when rather than breaking her images apart she started to present them contained within the silhouettes of other images. For example, a photograph of De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg’s modernist masterpiece Café l’Aubette is rephotographed through a cutout mask, the shape of which is taken from a geometric painting by Doesburg’s contemporary, Vilmos Huszár.

The final works here are the high point of the show: they are four dislocated images, each isolated on a bright red background—a fashion model, the actress Natalie Wood (here seen through the shape of the Marlboro Man on his horse), a gang of laborers wielding pickaxes, and an ancient vase. Shortly after making these, the artist would move on to work that was more personal, if no less observant of the dynamics of consumer culture.

Spanning what was perhaps the most generative period of Charlesworth’s career, this important show finds her making works that—though cerebral—are nevertheless attuned to mystery, and that—though they critique our commodity fetishism—function as desirable commodities themselves. Keenly aware of the ways in which photographs shape our individual and collective consciousness, Charlesworth had, at the same time, a lifelong fascination with the medium’s visual and physical properties. The pieces here map her early seduction.

Collector’s POV: Prices range from $35000 to $150000, based on size. Charlesworth’s work has a relatively thin secondary market track record, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $12000, but these few transactions may not be entirely representative of the true market for her best work.

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