PRINT November 2013


Sarah Charlesworth

Sarah Charlesworth, New York, 1982. Photo: Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy.

THE DOOR TO SARAH CHARLESWORTH’S STUDIO—one large room in a modest, single-story office building on the leafy-green main street of Falls Village, Connecticut—is slightly ajar. I’m visiting for the first time since she died unexpectedly on June 25, and I’m a little rattled. I’ve just picked up the key from the kitchen of her unlocked house, where her hairbrush and Chanel lipstick are, as always, next to the sink in the downstairs bathroom.

Everything is peaceful and scented with summer (her favorite season) as I walk the few dozen yards past her garden and down the street to her studio. I notice the spot near the sidewalk where she set up what she affectionately called her “self-portrait scarecrow with crows” for the 2011 Falls Village scarecrow contest. Perhaps she had appreciated that her initials could also stand for Scare-Crow. My daughter and I had driven to the autumn festival under strict orders from Sarah to stuff the ballot box with votes in the “most creative” category. She had worked for days and really wanted to win. When we arrived, I spotted Sarah in the crowd bending forward and looking through a large-format camera with a black focusing cloth over her shoulders. Her blonde hair hid her face, and she was in her casual weekend outfit: blue jeans, white quilted Nikes. Only, wait! It wasn’t Sarah, but rather, Sarah’s scarecrow—so realistic that, according to her boyfriend, the playwright and Falls Village resident Lonnie Carter, visitors stopped to ask it for directions. Sarah kept a snapshot of her prizewinning doppelgänger on her computer desktop alongside her work.

I slip into the studio and wonder why the door is open. Matthew Lange, her longtime assistant, is unpacking his cameras. I’d almost forgotten we’d agreed to meet and photograph Sarah’s studio before it is dismantled. I am carrying a small light box, which I intend to swap for the big one on her worktable—we provisionally switched a few years ago. Everything looks ready for work. Matthew points out a brand-new tripod and a barely used field camera. The placement of objects that I’d always taken for granted is thrown into high relief by the knowledge that each camera, prop, and tool has been put down for the very last time. A chair here; a book there; two cutout photographs, seemingly unrelated, joined together and tacked to the wall. There were no visual accidents in Sarah Charlesworth’s world.

She claimed to have wept tears of joy the day in 2004 when she officially bought her small, pristine 1830 Greek Revival house. I imagine it as one of the more emotional transfers of property, with Sarah announcing at the closing that this was her dream come true—the first house she had ever owned. For at least three months, she kept a dozen or so white paint chips taped to the walls, trying to decide which room needed to be which shade. As fanatical about the path of the sun as was Monet, Sarah planned a color scheme for each space that took into consideration the time of day and the direction from which light would rake across the walls. I found her deliberations obsessive and told her to just get the job done, but afterward I relied on her for advice about all things white. Master printers at photo labs have told me that Sarah’s fixation on the “right white” was “memorable,” and among the most challenging artist projects they had undertaken. In her 1981 work Tabula Rasa, Sarah made a white-on-white silkscreen print with an image that is difficult to identify. It is a detail of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s iconic View from the Window at Le Gras, ca. 1826—generally believed to be the first permanently recorded photographic image. Scholars have tried to locate the exact placement of Niépce’s camera in front of his window, this detail being among the important questions in the history of photography.

The picture window in Sarah’s Connecticut studio is fifty inches square and covered with a piece of translucent vellum taped around the edges. Her view camera and black cloth are placed squarely in front of it. This is where her last series were shot, including “Work in Progress,” 2009, and “Available Light,” 2012. The works in “Available Light” are all shimmering turquoise and white, with glowing glass and metal objects floating in aqueous reflections. Somehow, they feel both cottony and watery and, in my mind, spiritual enough to presage an untimely death.

Standing in her studio, I think about her work as a journey now completed, one that starts with the whiteness of Tabula Rasa, winds and snakes though intense colors and myriad subjects, from trees to toile to Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair, and comes to an end with the pale luminosity of “Available Light.” This is my personal idea of her trajectory, but any account of Sarah’s work, no matter how subjective, wouldn’t be complete without mentioning such formidable series as her early “Stills,” 1980, and “Modern History,” 1977–79, the group of complex, multipart newspaper pieces that follow consecutive days of front-page news headlines, with all type deleted. I use the words winds and snakes to describe her work because making it was a torturous process for Sarah,as she freely admitted. What felt to me like beautiful and intuitive pictures were actually researched, scanned, investigated, and x-rayed within an inch of their photographic lives, as Sarah searched for their meaning. Only when a work could withstand every imaginable critique and answer every question that Sarah could ask could it stand on its own, fortress-like and finished. I was never invited to see works in progress and rarely saw any before they entered the gallery space—odd, given our close friendship. But that didn’t mean there weren’t endless talks between us about what it all meant, about the perils of keeping the message of the photographic medium alive, and about how many times Sarah would go around the world in eighty ways to prove the camera a viable tool for artmaking.

I don’t know what I expected to find in Sarah’s studio—maybe a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But an artist’s work is never done. It is not a family business that can be left to the firstborn. Can an artist ever die without work in progress?

I lean over to pick up the light box and remove a piece of museum board that covers its surface. I switch on the light. There are three pairs of chromes and two triptychs. Although the dominant color in one pair of images is a vivid ultramarine, the star of the show is the color green, which is bright, blinding, a threat to the green vegetables and flowers growing out of control in Sarah’s garden down the street. The pictures look like what you’d see on a lazy summer day if you flopped down in the grass and looked straight up through the trees—layers of spring green, summer green, asparagus green, avocado, chartreuse, emerald, forest, hunter, jade, jungle, kelly, lime, olive, pine, and viridian, all making lacy patterns in front of the sky. And, most surprising of all, there is a pure green parrot, floating on a green background.

I am stunned, excited, and ultimately sad. I will not hear Sarah’s stories about how these pictures were made, nor will I ever know if they are done. I ask Mattas many questions as I can, hoping he can fill in the blanks. He tells me that Sarah always wanted to photograph a green parrot against a green wall and that when she saw a woman walking on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan with a parrot on her shoulder, she decided the time was right. Sarah invited the parrot lady to her New York studio so she could shoot a portrait of the bird. When Sarah offered her a fee, the woman asked for a check made out to her first name only. Sarah was clearly having some fun with her work.

Matthew also mentioned that Sarah had been looking at a lot of 1920s and ’30s abstraction, especially De Stijl and the Bauhaus. She was thinking about visual harmony as it appears in art, as opposed to its appearance in nature. Hence the chromes of monochromatic stripes and images with allover patterns of leaves and flowers. I bend down, pick up a piece of masking tape from the floor, and see that there are bits of fern stuck to it. Aha—Sarah had taped ferns to the vellum on the window in order to make a pattern that was not dissimilar to the banana-leaf wallpaper in the coffee shop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which we’d visited together. (She would have detested that comparison.)

Sarah was old-school. Not old-school as in sneakers, music, or slang—those distinctions were lost on her. She was an old-school friend—e-mail, texting, and social media were no substitute for face time. Cindy Sherman had introduced me to her new friend Sarah in 1982. We saw her as a woman with a past. Some of us had started exhibiting work a few years earlier, but Sarah had already been a Marxist and a member of Art & Language and had founded the magazine The Fox with Joseph Kosuth. I perceived her as a “real” Conceptual artist, and at the same time it seemed as if she wanted to start over. Perhaps she felt as we did, that as women we might commandeer the camera in a new way—not as photographers, but as artists using new technology, thus extricating ourselves from the weighty and male-dominated history of painting. From the moment we met, she wouldn’t let me not be her friend, and insisted on being part of a woman-artist “gang.” With Gretchen Bender, Nancy Dwyer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Sherman, there were informal gatherings and shows where we felt, at least loosely, like we were part of something new (something that in my mind was never precisely congruent with “Pictures,” a label I’ve always treated with caution). Petty envies, self-indulgent comparisons, and art-career competitions were not part of her frame of reference; she didn’t know how to feel those things.

Sarah was also an old-school mother—she insisted on a bath and a home-cooked meal every night for her children, Lucy and Nick. Most importantly, and above all else, she was an old-school artist. For her, maintaining artistic integrity and getting into the studio against all odds were all it took to call oneself an artist. Sarah was proud of her teaching, proud of her work, and proud to invite people for studio visits that lasted all day and in which she painstakingly and insistently explained the history of her images, as well as the history of photography as she saw it. “Sarah,” I would say when she would call me to recount the details of these marathon meetings, “that was not a studio visit—it was a kidnapping.” She would laugh and continue to describe the day, which invariably included a picnic basket and a tour of her favorite local destinations. When she first found a studio in Williamsburg, she made me visit at day’s end, just so we could watch the sunset from her window. If you were lucky enough to be invited over, you probably still remember that view.

With uncommon precision, Sarah scrutinized the photographic image from each and every angle, mining its history, context, media value, symbolic resonance, materiality, and—most poignantly—its self-creation as a phenomenon of focused and available light. She had a methodical manner and an analytical temperament, but somehow never lost her naive wonder at the magic and multiplicity of the image. Despite her in-depth readings and technical expertise, her vast knowledge never diminished her fundamental awe of the endless potential of the photographic image at this specific moment in history. It turns out that Sarah’s last images were not, as I had expected, about playing with themes of vanishing and disappearance (though in earlier series, she took on the persona of the magician engaging in visual sleights of hand), but about the promise of spring, the redolence of summer, and the pictorial mind-set of having all the time in the world.

Laurie Simmons is an artist based in New York.