Expo Chicago 2014

‘Challenged to Encompass Everything’: Friends Remember Sarah Charlesworth at the Art Institute of Chicago

Sarah Charlesworth. Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980.COURTESY AIC

Sarah Charlesworth. Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980.

COURTESY AIC

Last night Matthew S. Witkovsky, the chief photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, stood on his museum’s stage and introduced a panel of friends and colleagues of the late Pictures generation photographer Sarah Charlesworth, who died in June 2013 at the age of 66. They were on hand to discuss her life and work, and they spoke in the order they met her.

First up was artist Laurie Simmons (introduced to Charlesworth on the streets of Downtown Manhattan in 1982, via Cindy Sherman), followed by critic and activist Kate Linker (shortly after, as a young writer), artist Liz Deschenes (in the 1990s, when they were using the same printing lab, then as fellow teachers at the School of Visual Arts), and artist Sara VanDerBeek (who became friends with Charlesworth after interviewing her in 2007).

The event was to mark the opening of the Art Institute’s new show of Charlesworth’s rarely seen 1980 “Stills” series in a nearby gallery—14 photos (six never before shown), each presenting a person tumbling from a building to his or her death, which the artist made by rephotographing archival images and blowing them up to 78 inches tall. The panelists had just received a walkthrough. “We are all practically speechless,” Simmons said. “The show is fantastic.” Agreed. They are ruthless, chilling images.

The packed audience was filled with Charlesworth fans and enthusiasts—a decent cross-section of the American art world, drawn into town by the third edition of the Expo Chicago fair, which opens Thursday on Navy Pier in the city. To the crowd, Simmons recalled that, upon meeting her, Charlesworth had decided that they would be friends. “That’s the way Sarah did everything,” she said. “Systemically and methodically.” Her works are feats of pre-Photoshop photographic perfectionism, which she achieved through long stretches of shooting and editing—a rigorous level of care that also imbued the way that she lived her life.

When Charlesworth got a house in Connecticut, Simmons said, “She had about 20 different shades of white paint chips taped to the walls. It took her months to decide what color white to paint the wall. She made Monet look like a real hack, because she would wait to watch the sun go across the room. We finally just said, ‘Can you paint the damn walls already?’ White was a real experience—it was really a color for her.”

Linker quoted a piece that Charlesworth penned for the conceptual-art journal The Fox in the 1970s, in which she argued that “20th-century battles cannot be fought with 19th-century battle plans.” With a handful of photographers in the 1970s and ‘80s—most of them women, she noted (Lawler, Kruger, Sherman, and others)—Charlesworth managed to remake the medium, and use it in potent new ways. “I think it’s indisputable that there was sort of a B.C. and an A.C.,” she said, “and that art—after this transformation in the practice of photography by artists—was really irrevocably altered by that.

As Deschenes put it: “If Sarah and her generation hadn’t made the marks that they made it would be impossible for me to have the career and practice that I’ve managed to have.”

Another Charlesworth quote, which perhaps summarizes her whole ethos, came from a passage that VanDerBeek read: “…the range of expression of a healthy, whole human being should be challenged to encompass everything from the political, to the sensual, to the intellectual, even to the appreciation of abstract beauty.”

Indeed, Charlesworth was also apparently an amazing drummer. Curious about joining the drum corps of the Women’s Action Coalition in the 1990s, “She started up at the Metropolitan Museum and she drummed all the way down to 8th Street without stopping,” Linker said, marveling.

VanDerBeek remembered another telling incident, from the very first time they met. “I brought us coffees and upon opening the door they spill entirely down the front of my shirt,” she said. “Thus Sarah has me take my shirt off immediately and is daubing and treating the stain—that was just a sign of her generosity, her warmth, and her ability to problem solve.” (“Stain removal was one of Sarah’s specialties!” Simmons said. “ I really learned a lot from her.”)

Charlesworth had been similarly adventurous and unrelenting throughout her art career, always leaping into new series, always willing to try new things. When VanDerBeek had dinner with her about 10 days before her death, she said, Charlesworth complained that her neck was stiff because she had been trying to snap a tree with a new type of camera. “She was really mixing things up and pushing and experimenting,” VanDerBeek said.

“Sarah was at an amazing point in her life when she died in June 2013,” Simmons said. “She had a new camera, a new tripod, and was in discussions to have a new studio added to her Connecticut home.” After the artist died, Simmons went to go visit her studio, accompanied by one of Charlesworth’s assistants. “She had incredibly beautiful unfinished work,” she said.

“There was more green than I had ever seen in one art project,” Simmons added later, “and that was how Sarah left us, with this beautiful—the green of springtime, the green of promise, and the idea that things weren’t ending, that there was a new beginning.”

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