“Art is not defined by the medium it employs, but rather by the questions that it asks,” wrote Sarah Charlesworth in 1983. More than 30 years later, the New Museum has organized “Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld,” the first major New York survey of her work. The exhibition presents a selection of her photographic series, each of which centers around certain questions regarding photography. By turns intelligent and romantic, stately and ethereal, utterly genteel and unabashedly seductive, Charlesworth’s photographs are both a salve and a challenge to the ways in which we see.
Like contemporaries Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Jack Goldstein, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince, Charlesworth, who died in 2013 at age 66, is lumped into the loose collection of conceptual artists known as the “Pictures Generation.” Making images versus taking images, media versus messages: These were the shared interrogations for a distinct group of artists who, in late-1970s–early-1980s New York, recognized what lurks beneath the image surface. Charlesworth’s earliest works were pictures of pictures, decontextualized and rephotographed to see what information popped out when an image was piled up on itself. About fellow Pictures Generation artist/rephotographer Sherrie Levine, Donald Barthelme once wrote: “She steps in the same river twice.” Charlesworth, however, honored the inimitable flow, dipping into the endless slipstream of images, placing the specimens she caught under her lens for closer inspection.
On view in its entirety for the first time in New York is Charlesworth’s harrowing and transcendent “Stills” (1980), a series of fourteen images of people falling, or perhaps jumping, from buildings. Appropriated and rephotographed from news sources, the works are printed a bit larger than human scale so that our bodies more directly confront these imperiled counterparts — some identified, most anonymous — surrendered to gravity, momentarily seized by the camera before their fate is met. Here the message is clear: Photography can stop time — preserve life, in a sense — yet it’s somehow always in cahoots with death.
Less disturbing, but no less pointed, are Charlesworth’s sumptuous “Objects of Desire” (1983–1988), a series the artist crafted by meticulously cutting images of objects from magazines, books, and other sources, and photographing them against laminated color paper. A black leather harness, a geisha’s face, a movie star’s satin evening gown, a Buddha statue: These and other fetishes float against rich, monochromatic backgrounds, returned from the flat image world as seductive, lickable surfaces. Consumption, erotics, spirituality: Is it the object, its image, or the artwork that most fully entwines these?
It may escape the notice of a post-Photoshop eye that Charlesworth’s images were created in-camera, without the assistance or manipulation of computer software, though she was acutely aware of the changing times. Perhaps feeling the limits of appropriation and rephotography — the artist claimed that every two years she immersed herself in a new question, a new strategy regarding art-making — in the early Nineties she began to make the subjects for herself. “Being in the wane of the age of photography, I was trying to talk about the age in which the world became organized through photography,” Charlesworth once explained about her 1995 series “Doubleworld.” For these photographs, she arranged tableaux of nineteenth-century antiques in a painterly manner, to perform as symbols for the means of seeing and knowing the world.
In Doubleworld, the series’ titular image, two stereopticons stand side by side, a slide portrait of two women clipped to the front of their lenses. The image obviously nods to a kind of voyeurism — an experience of double vision — yet there’s more here than meets the eye. Charlesworth created the photograph by means of double exposure — she could only find one stereopticon she didn’t think was “cheesy” — and the slide is a prop she made from a single found photograph.
There is an icy theatricality about this series, which prevents the photographs from creeping into oddball nostalgia. “I’m also very interested in the question of ‘What is time — what is this thing we call the past?’ ” she said in 1998. “How is it knowable, and is it actually knowable, and is it possible to transcend it for a moment, and if so, how?” In the ghostly pictures of “0+1” (2000), the subjects appear and recede, almost like vapor, alluding to time and its fragile, earthbound documents. As though in counterpoint, the auratic photographs in her final series, “Available Light” (2012), are bold and vivid, transforming light into near-solid matter, capturing moments when camera, object, eye, and sun all line up in harmony together.
Though stunning and inarguably considerate, the New Museum exhibition is, at the same time, brief and blunt — Charlesworth’s work is wrapped up too neatly, too tightly — especially in light of the fact that this will undoubtedly be her only hometown retrospective for quite some time. Part of the show’s lack of stretch and breath may be due in part to the exacting rigor of Charlesworth’s practice, yet the curators add little to the artist’s own prescriptions for the work. Is this approach a sign of respect, or complacency? This kind of party-line presentation isn’t uncommon in museum exhibitions of contemporary art, yet it’s clearly a slippery angle considering the private interests that continue to wind their way around the spaces for public art education. This isn’t to suggest a retrospective is an opportunity for aggressive puncturing. Rather, it should be an opportunity for nuanced and rigorous thinking alongside that of the artist herself.
There is an interesting challenge — an irony — that Charlesworth and others of the Pictures Generation pose to the form of the retrospective. These artists were and are keenly aware of the economy of images, understanding that pictures always accrue or lose interest over time. Images never go extinct, but their meanings can shift when references are lost or conversations change. To freeze these works, particularly Charlesworth’s early works, inside a singular, solid narrative is to inhibit their natural progression or erosion. To somehow articulate or activate the distinct half-life of the photograph would have been well worth the effort, particularly for Charlesworth, an artist devoted to the art of questions, a photographer for whom there was always something more to see.
Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld
Through September 20, 2015