The Picture Generation Artist Who “Plundered” on Paper

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Sarah Charlesworth, Allegory of the Arts, 1995, from the series DoubleworldCourtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone New York/Los Angeles, © 2017 The Estate of Sarah Charlesworth

“I’m trying to let the image reveal its own nature,” insisted Sarah Charlesworth. As her striking work is spotlighted in a new LA exhibition, we consider her legacy

Who? “I think of myself as a robber,” Sarah Charlesworth once declared. “I plunder and pillage on paper... I possess these things and give them my own meaning.” With peers like Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler, Charlesworth was one of the key figures of the Picture Generation, a group of New York-based conceptual artists working in the 1970s and 80s.

Charlesworth began her career as a painter, graduating from Barnard College in 1969, but when she attended an early exhibition of conceptual art which made her feel “nauseous” she decided to turn instead to photography, studying at the New School under Lisette Model. She, like the rest of the Picture Generation, soon became preoccupied with the manner in which images shape society, and set about disrupting those she encountered in her day-to-day life.

In 1981 she co-founded the cultural magazine BOMB and her artwork and design featured on the very first cover. Editor Betsy Sussler remembers her as a “stunning blonde who puffed cigarettes from a long black holder as if she were wearing white gloves,” with a desk that often held nothing but two rulers and a bottle of Chanel No5.

What? This autumn, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition Doubleworld brings together photographs which span Charlesworth’s career from 1977 to 2012, presenting a unique opportunity to view the influential artist’s oeuvre in its near entirety. The title, taken from a 1995 piece of the same name, captures something of the distorted gaze that Charlesworth perfected throughout her lifetime. “I’m trying almost to cast into imagery a specific feeling,” she declared in one interview,

Her compositions certainly recast the stage for familiar visual tropes; they provoke a double-take, deconstructing the very conventions of photography, and questioning the visual language of the media from which they originate. No source material was safe from Charlesworth’s touch; she reworked everything from images of human bodies falling, or the path of an eclipse, to the finest Italian Renaissance paintings.

Why? Charlesworth believed every choice in art, from size, composition, and especially colour, had a specific “psychic charge”. “I’m trying to let the image reveal its own nature,” Charlesworth once said of her work. “In the process, it reveals mine.” She was often overshadowed by her contemporaries, but Charlesworth’s work remains a crucial influence on many contemporary artists, and her handling and manipulation of images created a dialogue that exists to this day. “It’s like a reformulation of language, a recreation of a new metaphor,” she once said.

Ultimately all Charlesworth wanted her viewers to do was to look closer at the images the world served up on a daily basis – she wanted to teach her audience to find new ways of seeing. “Frequently these loaded images or objects are used by me without my attaching a particular significance to them,” she said. “In other words, what I’m doing is letting whatever power, whatever effect they have, work on its own.” In an age so saturated with images, Charlesworth’s request that we sit and stare feels like a necessary revelation.

Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld runs until February 4, 2018 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.