'In one sense, we live in a regular three-dimensional image world, and in another sense, we inhabit an entirely different image-world,' said Sarah Charlesworth (1947 – 2013), who found in the latter a common vocabulary for history and popular culture, creation and reception, artist and viewer. The first major New York survey of her work, 'Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld', on view until 20 September at the New Museum in New York, probes and celebrates the landscape of images, at once mining its terrain and savouring its glossy surface.
'Sarah was interested in engaging with photography as a problem rather than a medium,' says Margot Norton, a curator at the New Museum who organised the exhibition with the institution's artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni. 'That spoke for a generation of artists that were immersed in the image culture which we all exist in and heralded a change in the way that artists used photography.'
Bridging the conceptual art of the 1970s and the 'Pictures Generation', Charlesworth favoured making pictures to taking them, drawing upon her own vast cache of images (culled from newspapers, fashion magazines, pornography and textbooks) not as mere collage fodder but as a means for transforming photographs into something closer to objects. The 50 works in this exhibition reveal Charlesworth acting as both artist and linguist, decoding the grammar, syntax and lexicon of photography.
A work from her 'Modern History' series of 1977 – 79 (though it was added to in 1991 and 2003) brings together the front pages of 29 American and Canadian newspapers on the day of a total solar eclipse. Swept clean of their headlines and body text to leave floating images of the Moon-obscured sun, the black-and-white broadsheets (reproduced at the same size as the original newspapers) become a visual glossary, demonstrating the differing prominence afforded to the cosmos on a particular day in a particular town.
The provocative power of familiar images unmoored from their original contexts is also apparent in Charlesworth's later 'Objects of Desire' series (1983 – 88), in which images of different objects – a goat, a golden bowl, a Buddha, a disembodied satin dress – are cut out and isolated against shiny, colourful backgrounds. This approach gives way to an entirely new set of associations with 'Stills', the 1980 series of 14 outsized images that each show a single human figure in free-fall. The viewer can only intuit that it is an act of escape, whether from danger, from life, or from a combination of the two.
'When seeing the 'Stills' today, after the events of 11 September 2001, the images take on an even more emotional and haunting power,' says Gioni. 'It's a sober beginning for an exhibition that resonates with faith and skepticism, and the power of photography and the power of images.'