“Objects of Desire: 1983–1988,” Sarah Charlesworth’s first solo exhibition since her death last year, was a fitting tribute to the conceptual artist’s esthetic and intellectual rigor. This series, probably Charlesworth’s best-known, was one of the iconic projects produced by the group of 1970s and ’80s artists dubbed the Pictures Generation. The works here were dynamic and pulsating with color, looking as fresh as if they’d been made yesterday.
Like her contemporaries Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine, Charlesworth appropriated photographic images, but she considered her use of photography to be incidental—or, as she put it, “an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.” By taking images from popular sources and setting them in different contexts, she was able to comment on the way visual culture reflects our values and commodifies desire.
“Objects of Desire” included sourced images from publications ranging from fashion magazines to archeological textbooks. Cut out and rephotographed against fields of pure, saturated color, the clippings were often placed in provocative diptychs where one image appears subtly to recede, hinting that there’s a text and a subtext. In Figures (1983), for example, a movie star’s clingy silver gown is matched with a satin bondage suit, conveying the sense of an uncomfortable eroticism beneath the dress’s superficial glamour. The other diptych on view, Bowl and Column (1986), was more open-ended. Its simple golden bowl and iconic Greek column are symbolic of female and male: both are bathed in a yellow light on an ultramarine background and are presented as equals.
Art reflects the particular culture in which it was made—but as we’re increasingly bombarded with new imagery, the investigations of the Pictures Generation seem to have stayed current. With its lush color and graphic punch, this show was intense enough to attract a generation brought up on the Internet. And yet, for those with longer attention spans, the humor and sociological depth of the series rewarded deeper study.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 96.