Sarah Charlesworth's 1980 Series STILLS Reprised at the Art Institute of Chicago
Stills, a photographic series shown by Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013) in February 1980, helped to define a photography-driven movement in American art that remains a cornerstone of contemporary art: the Pictures Generation. The series of appropriated newspaper photographs, cropped and blown up to 78 inches tall, depicts people falling or leaping from buildings at life-threatening heights. The very title "Stills" evokes a movie still, or a moment frozen in time. These images are particularly haunting in an era when selfies and social media have partly eclipsed the tabloid press. These over-lifesize images of frozen moments ask us to consider how our most private, existential experiences will play out in the public eye.
The Art Institute is proud to show Stills, together for the first time since 1980, in a set of 14 prints made exclusively for the museum. The set--including six works that have never been seen before--was commissioned from the artist in 2012. Stills will be on view from September 18, 2014, through January 4, 2015, in the Modern Wing's Bucksbaum Gallery for Photography.
To create Stills, Charlesworth combed news wire services and the New York Public Library for images of individuals, some named, some anonymous, falling from tall buildings to end or to save their lives. Through the omission of both text and context, the artist deliberately made it impossible to know the motivation for their leaps. Charlesworth cropped and tore the images into rectangles, leaving ragged edges reminiscent of a homemade clippings file. The source images were then mounted on mat board, re-photographed, and blown up to over-lifesize proportions.
The original exhibition of Stills took place in the East Village apartment of fledgling dealer Tony Shafrazi and included just seven photographs; constraints of time, space, and cost prevented Charlesworth from making and showing more. The works, each made as a unique print, were never exhibited together again. However, individual Stills found their way into collections like that of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and into important museum shows. In 2009, Charlesworth printed an eighth work from her original collected source material for a commission. Then in 2012, at the request of the Art Institute, the artist reprised the project, doubling the original number of works in the series. Each gelatin silver print was made and mounted exactly as had been done in 1980; the set is held complete only at the Art Institute.
Associations with the imagery of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is both coincidental and inevitable today. In the wake of the attacks, Charlesworth accepted this added layer of resonance in which personal and public histories are intertwined--just as in the original news photographs, and in all private stories that reach the wider world in our media-saturated age.