I FIRST KNEW of Sarah Charlesworth through reproductions of her hauntingly beautiful series “Stills,” the large black-and-white photos of people jumping to their death. (The title’s coincidence with my own series escaped me at the time.) I’m sure if I’d seen them in person I would have been doubly impressed by their large format, unheard of in 1980.
And I had seen Sarah around, here and there at art events, but she completely terrified and intimidated me, with her white gloves, cigarette holder, black vested suit, and crisp white shirt. My one interaction up until then had been at a party for Troy Brauntuch, after his opening at Metro Pictures. I went over to congratulate Troy and told him how much I liked his show, but apologized for not making it to the opening. Sarah, who was sitting nearby, glared at me and asked, “How do you know you liked the work if you weren’t at the opening?” I instantly felt reduced to nothing, as if caught in a lie, and murmured, “Because I was at the gallery earlier in the day.” And then stayed away.
But in the fall of 1982, Joseph Kosuth, who I’d recently met, insisted that I connect with Sarah—I called her and it was instantly clear that we’d be friends. In those days, there wasn’t the network of female artists that there is today because there wasn’t a support structure. I guess we were beginning it—for those of us who used different mediums like photography, whenever we met someone whose work related to ours, the bonds came naturally. The more women we bonded with, the greater our network of friendships grew.
It was just a short few months after meeting Sarah that this early iteration of our girl group decided to throw a dance party, I guess to celebrate our mutual support. We had meetings to organize it, and since I was going to cover the costs, we called it “Cindy Sherman & her Girlfriends Invite you to a Dance Party...” and listed these fabulous women’s names: Sarah, Laurie Simmons, Nancy Dwyer, Gretchen Bender, etc.
Sarah was also part of a smaller group that splintered off to get together to watch and study film. It became our own master class in film. We borrowed a projector and screened films right in my studio. It was sort of like a book club for film. We used it as an excuse to get together perhaps about six to ten times a year, and it really was a lot like a class in those days. But of course it was also an excuse to reinforce our bonds, to support one another. Then the group disbanded for a number of years while marriages, families, and careers took precedence, until about ten years ago when we revived our “club.”
It’s different now. Our meetings are excuses to catch up, films are not always the main topic, and we’re all so busy, it’s ridiculous how many emails it takes to schedule anything. We lost Gretchen eight years ago, and now without Sarah, a major force of our dialogues and repartees is lost.
Sarah was that rare artist who unconditionally supported her friends. There was no competition, only good will and enthusiasm. We will miss the art that she never got to make, we will miss her counterpoints to our film discussions, but most of all we will miss the love that Sarah gave to us.
Cindy Sherman is an artist based in New York.
TRAVELING TO LA TOGETHER, Sarah took care of the car rental. Waiting in the parking lot with our luggage, I whooped it up when she showed up with a convertible! (Hair whipping, intense sun, LA traffic and bad air—we put the top up before reaching Santa Monica.) It is difficult to miss Sarah in public. Readers will know or not know her, therefore connecting her with her driving obsession won’t bring a smile of recognition.
But there is something consistent with her intense and open involvement with the everyday, her attentive friendships, well-nurtured family, fabulous garden, and her well-considered work. Her engagement with all aspects of its production and reception was fierce. Pushing our sometimes shared printer or mounter for more perfection, I was glad they also had to deal with Sarah.
I ran across this quote in an obituary written by Andrew Russeth. It is from “A Declaration of Dependence,” written by Sarah and published in the THE FOX, Issue 1, 1975. I am not the enthusiastic, generous, committed teacher that Sarah was. I have read this in a class and plan to continue to do so in her honor. This seems one more place to place it.
“We have lost touch—not only with ourselves and with each other, but with our culture of which we are a part. It is only by confronting the problem of our alienation, making this the subject of our work, that our ideals take on new meaning.”
Louise Lawler is an artist based in New York.
Sarah Charlesworth, New York, 1982. Photo: Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy.
THE DOOR TO SARAH CHARLESWORTH’S STUDIOone large room in a modest, single-story office building on the leafy-green main street of Falls Village, Connecticutis 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 scarecrowso 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 worktablewe 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 truethe 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. 1826generally 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 spaceodd, 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 studiomaybe 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 treeslayers 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. AhaSarah 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 slangthose distinctions were lost on her. She was an old-school friende-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 waynot 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 mothershe 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 visitit 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, andmost poignantlyits 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.
This article appears in the November issue of Artforum.
TIME IS MOST ACCURATELY NAMED A FORCE. Yet to name something is to have power over it, and we have no power near time. We only know it through its effects. How it transforms subjects, objects, sounds, institutions, interests, friendships, bodies, and ideas. The force of time: dispersed and sensed. Ian White is a force. A particular combination of wit, integrity, intelligence, generosity, and ferocity that accumulates into force, a force with a smile. A force now known through its effects.
The last time I saw Ian we talked a lot about time. Not because he was stricken with terminality, but because we are always talking about performance. There were several themes in our conversations that never abated: the pleasure in a limit (he later wrote “limit as material”), an economy of means, construction of audiences, and the curatorial collaborative. These ideas would appear in different guises in different projects, but they were part of what attracted us to each other’s work. And that’s how we met. Emma Hedditch showed Ian my first video, social movement, 2003, and my memory of his response, albeit through Emma, was “this is weird, oblique, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” A sort of “just strange enough” to keep looking, looking at the twenty-four-year old-lesbian New Yorker.
I see now, in this retrospective activity created by his passing, October 26th around 1 AM, I think Ian was one of the first people who paid attention to my work who wasn’t my friend. He knew it before me. And I see that since 2007 Ian and I have always had a date in our calendars. Always a bridge to an event for a conversation that turned into long-term collaboration. In the early years it was he organizing screenings with me. In 2009 I was able to commission a new performance from him for the “Ecstatic Resistance” show at Grand Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. On and on, every variation of working together, reciprocal invitations, top-bottom processes, and camaraderie.
The new performance he made in 2009 was called Democracy, and the first line of the obligatory statement was, “Democracy is about not having a choice, obviously.” For this performance he stood on one leg while the BBC played live from a nearby radio. Soon started a slideshow of high British gardens: manicured, prescribed, natural. Ian waited a bit, took his pants down to one ankle and proceeded with a structured walking gesture that he continued until the legal end of the property. In Kansas City that meant he gestured through a parking lot and to a downtown street corner. In NYC, it meant out onto the sidewalk of the old Dia on Twenty-Second.
When Ian was diagnosed with cancer he started a blog, a little something for his fans. “Lives of Performers” it was called, after the famed Yvonne Rainer film. “Lives of Performers” punctuated his chemo treatments and his days about in London: at the National Gallery with Gainsborough, films with Mike and Rachel, piano recitals with Grace, in Brighton with his love Harry, at the treatment center in Dagenham with his cackling swollen-ankled neighbors of yore. Ian faced his cancer with candor, saying, “For one thing, life is always lived under some condition or other. But what’s more is that [the perspective ‘life plus cancer equals minus life’] would be too much like not doing anything at all even though ‘minus life’ is no more ‘death’ than life without the minus is ‘liberation’. I am not experiencing either of these right now anyway.” He suffered as we all would, he wanted to live and I felt that so strongly, but the force of Ian pushed on, present in the struggle. Educating doctors who are “absurd because they have logic on their side and that’s always kind of humiliating and disorientating.” Continuing to work, to write, “writing as the theatre itself.” Theorizing liberation and not looking for redemption. Occupying the margin of form, of institutions.
The last time I saw Ian luck was on my side. He had invited me to be a guest in his monthly Associate Artists Programme (AAP) meeting at LUX; a participating artist would present and then the guest, one hour each. The presenting student called in absent and to my complete delight Ian took the charge to reflect on his own method. “The work I’m interested in, and making, subjects to time what might not ordinarily be so. This is political.” His method was to “accumulate without an attempt to persuade,” to provide a “chance for re-ordering.” The gaps, questions, affiliations, and permissions that emerged from his forms, these were the theater themselves.
On this harmonious day when we once again shared a vocabulary, Ian brought all the present working and writing and years of curating into the fold of his reflections. He went first, I after. And our presentations zippered together like the black and white keys on a piano. I was theorizing “discompose” and minor theater, and he suspension and a theater of separation. I have six pages of handwritten notes from that day. I have Ian’s typed preparatory notes. I have what I heard, and what he said. We hadn’t talked work in a while, a long time, and our dialogue was as tuned and intimate as ever. We hugged about our symmetries over a beer, he put me in a cab, and hopped on the southbound bus.
I fell for Ian’s challenge and integrity. There was no escaping with him, no redemption, no cowardice, and nowhere to hide. I felt embraced by this fact, this force of realism, this impetus to glorious survival. Ian had a matter of fact-ness about struggle and complexity, of course, and so, nothing to do but do things right.
In the end you cannot name a force.
I can only acknowledge the effect it has on me.