“This is real time, it is modern history in the making.”—Sarah Charlesworth on her work, Movie-Television-News-History, June 21, 1979
What is “unwriting”? Is it an act of removal or addition? Of stitching or unraveling? Of narration, interpretation, or revision? “Unwriting” is the term that artist Sarah Charlesworth (American, 1947–2013) chose for the introductory notes of her 1979 catalogue, Modern History, published on the occasion of an exhibition of her series of photographs of that same name. Made between 1977 and 1979, the works in Modern History explore the power of images and their circulation through the mass media, specifically newspapers. In this series, Charlesworth focused on singular events and the reportage of these across multiple newspapers from all over the world. To make each multipart work, she removed everything except the newspapers’ mastheads, the images of the particular incident, and the image captions, making evident through her interventions the complex mechanisms of dissemination and interpretation. For Charlesworth, “unwriting” was an active undertaking, even as all the blocks of running text were literally blanked out. She called the process, “an engagement with text.” In spite of—or rather, because of—the lack of text in the work, its presence is strongly felt through the physical rendering of its absence.
A significant work from this series, Movie-Television-News-History, June 21, 1979, has recently been acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, and is currently on view in the first room of the Contemporary Galleries on the second floor. For Movie-Television-News-History, Charlesworth selected a specific event—the shooting of American journalist Bill Stewart by Nicaraguan National Guard Forces—and presented it as it was reported on June 21, 1979, in 27 American newspapers. At the time of his death, Stewart was reporting for ABC News on the Sandinista rebel forces marching on the capital city of Managua. Footage of his execution, filmed by his cameraman, was widely broadcast in the U.S. media. Newspapers reproduced stills photographed from television, and in some cases they even reproduced images that had been cropped to the shape of a television screen. Like other works in this series, Movie-Television-News-History was made from original newspapers, in which all content has been masked out except for the relevant images and their captions, and the mastheads with publication dates. All images in the final work were printed at the same size as the original newspapers.
Charlesworth’s elimination of everything except these specific elements may actually create a stronger focus on the details that remain. We see them more clearly because of the absence around them—and this seeing is a different manner of seeing—it is an active sight. Indeed, with works in this series, we, the viewers, are given a kind of agency in the task of interpretation. Through the high contrast of reproductions against a wide white ground, we are struck immediately with impressions: the images are large or small, they appear above or below the fold, they take up central portions of the page or are relegated to the corners. Even as the text of the newspaper articles has been removed, we are asked to “read” the images within the context of their printed presentation, and in so doing decipher the specificities and intricacies of news reporting.
In the series Modern History, captions also become key components in our readings of these events, since Charlesworth has kept the original newspaper captions together with their images. The presence of an image’s caption (or not) has been a topic of discourse in photography since the medium’s inception. What is an image without its caption? How does the contextualization of a caption provoke our reading of an image? Indeed, a caption can imbue an image with power. As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1934 in his essay “The Author as Producer,” “What we should demand from photography is the capacity of giving a print a caption which would tear it away from fashionable clichés and give it a revolutionary use value.”
Reflecting on the physicality of absence in Charlesworth’s work, I was reminded of an example from one of Charlesworth’s later series, Objects of Desire. In this diptych, evocatively titled Fear of Nothing, Charlesworth juxtaposed an “empty” black panel (art historical references abounding) with a panel containing a few objects—a classical mask, geometric shapes—on a blue ground. As Charlesworth told Bomb magazine in 1990, “frequently these loaded images or objects are used by me without my attaching a particular significance to them. In other words, what I’m doing is letting whatever power, whatever affect they have, work on its own.” The content of the images in Fear of Nothing is simple—almost deceptively so, as the interpretations pile up on one another as the viewer continues to gaze at the picture. Or, as Gary Indiana put it once, writing in Art in America (September 1984), “Sarah Charlesworth’s pictures register fast but need a long take.” The black panel could be the representation of nothing itself, as a blank space or a void. The mask, then, recoils in fear of this void (as if it is about to be sucked into a black hole). There’s modernism and classicism, abstraction and representation. Then there’s the blunt force of the literal title: fearlessness itself.
Charlesworth died earlier this year, leaving a legacy of work that is elegant in both its execution and its inquisitive subject matter. Throughout her career, her photographic series continued to trouble the fields of art history, art production, and the relationships between these and the wider culture in which they were considered. Her method was one of consistent questioning and of looking at things anew, showing us how our perceptions of pictures, objects, and even ideas are transformed through their contexts. Indeed, one’s own art practice was not immune to self-interrogation, as Charlesworth wrote in an early essay, “A Declaration of Dependence,” published in 1975 in The Fox (a journal of art theory that she co-founded with the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth): “It is a dynamic and self-regulatory critical theory by which we attempt to understand and evaluate our own art practice in relation to social practice in general, and to evaluate social and historical conditions as they are effective of and become apparent in our practice of art.”
Charlesworth’s Movie-Television-News-History is on view in MoMA’s second-floor Contemporary Galleries until February 2014.