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b. 1947, East Orange, New Jersey; d. 2013, Falls Village, Connecticut
Sarah Charlesworth was born in 1947 in East Orange, New Jersey. In 1969 she received a BA from Barnard College, New York, where she studied with the Conceptual artist Douglas Huebler. Her own turn to Conceptualism was influenced by the text-free publication Xeroxbook (1968) by Robert Barry, Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner, which she saw when it was exhibited in 1969. Charlesworth’s undergraduate thesis project, also a Conceptual artwork devoid of text, was a 50-print study of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. After graduating, she worked as a freelance photographer and briefly studied under Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research in New York.
In 1975 Charlesworth and Kosuth founded the art-theory magazine The Fox, which ran for three issues until 1976. Charlesworth continued to bridge the gap between fine art and critical practice in her own work. A series of Conceptual photographic projects that followed used preexisting media images to forward a critical thesis. Modern History (1977–79) examines the values and interests of Western culture through photographs of the capture of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by the militant group Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) from the pages of 45 different newspapers. In The Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979 (1980) Charlesworth again appropriated front-page photographs, this time to chart the movement of an eclipse across the night sky, from the Pacific Northwest to Canada and Greenland, as it was recorded in local newspapers. The series Stills (1980) comprises seven 2-meter-tall images of people falling in mid-air, rephotographed from various newspapers. Taken out of context, it is impossible to tell whether these people are attempting to save or end their lives. Later works are marked by an increased interest in subjectivity and art-historical references. The series Objects of Desire (1983–88) explores sexuality, power dynamics, and material and metaphysical desire. Each silver-dye bleach print features one or more isolated image, taken from magazines and rephotographed by the artist, set against a solid, sumptuous color field with a matching lacquer frame. In the series Renaissance Paintings and Renaissance Drawings (both 1991), Charlesworth combined imagery from disparate Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings to make new, often ironic paintings and drawings. Several of these feature self-consciously Freudian imagery, as in Vision of a Young Man (1991), which shows its subject, appropriated from a Raphael painting, lying asleep, with a tall tree growing between his legs.
Charlesworth taught photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and the School of Visual Arts in New York. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976, 1980, 1983) and the New York State Creative Artists Public Service Program (1977), as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Visual Art (1995). Her work was the subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions at venues including the Centre d'art contemporain, Geneva (1977) and the Queens Museum of Art, New York (1992). A traveling retrospective of her work toured the United States through the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (1997); the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts (1998); the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. (1998); and SITE Santa Fe (1999). Her work was included in the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1985), and the Venice Biennale (1986). In 1995, she cocurated Somatogenies at New York’s Artists Space with Conceptual artists Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons. Charlesworth died June 25, 2013, in Falls Village, Connecticut.