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Sarah Charlesworth Verbs 1978/2003 Black and white print

Edition of 5
22 3/4 x 15 inches (57.8 x 38.1 cm)
(Inventory #32951)

“This is real time; it is modern history in the making.” (Sarah Charlesworth)

Sarah Charlesworth’s “Verbs,” which is part of her iconic “Modern History” series, was made in 1978 (but not released by the artist until 2003) and is a black and white photographic print made from a masked-off newspaper, reproduced at its original scale with only photos, verbs and the masthead remaining visible. Through the selective removals, Charlesworth highlights the formal hierarchies of power as well as the visual results of editorial perspective.

In 2013, Lucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, MoMA, NY, on the occasion of another from the “Modern History” series being acquired by and exhibited at MoMA, wrote the following:
“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…

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…

Charlesworth died in 2013, 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.””

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