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Installation view, Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld, New Museum, New York, NY, June 24 - September 20, 2015. Photo: Benoit Pailley.
Sarah Charlesworth - Viewing Room - Paula Cooper Gallery Viewing Room

Sarah Charlesworth, New York, 1990. Photo: Anthony Barboza.

Employing photography both as medium and subject, Sarah Charlesworth’s work effects a radical deconstruction of cultural imagery. Influenced by the resurgence of Saussurean linguistics in structuralist and post-structuralist thought, Charlesworth developed a semiotic approach to photography, whereby she isolated visual signs to allow for unmediated examination. For her groundbreaking Objects of Desire series, produced between 1983 and 1989, Charlesworth sought to make visible the “shape of desire.” Meticulously excising images from a range of sources—including fashion magazines, pornography, fanzines, and archeological textbooks—she rearranged and re-photographed the cutouts against fields of pure, saturated color. Enclosed within lacquered frames, the seductive Cibachrome prints propose an iconography of visual culture, as well as the desires and values encoded within. Paula Cooper Gallery is thrilled to present this selection of Charlesworth’s Objects of Desire, one of the artist’s most celebrated bodies of work.

Slideshow 2

Sarah Charlesworth's "Goat," from 1985, a Cibachrome with lacquered wood green frame, 32 x 42 in., Edition of 3, + 2 APs.

Sarah Charlesworth

Goat, 1985

Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame

42 x 32 in.

Edition of 3, + 2 APs

Using a standard format of thirty-by-forty inches, Objects of Desire is comprised of five sub-series, each focusing on the colors and formal attributes of a specific cultural arena. While the first group examines the language of gender and sexuality with an emphasis on the color red, Objects of Desire II (1985-86) directs its attention to the concept of nature, as a kind of ideal or fantasy in our popular imaginations. Proffered against a royal green expanse, the silhouette of a single goat with a crown of red flowers arouses visions of pagan or indigenous ceremonies. By removing all of its contextual signifiers, Charlesworth dissects the object’s latent history, usage, and connotations.

Themes of religion and spirituality unite Objects of Desire III (1986). Here images of gods, figureheads, and classical icons from art history or archeology consider society’s desire for transcendental enlightenment. In some, Charlesworth presents a single, centralized referent—such as Madonna (1986), in which a sea of cool grey draws out the space between the icon’s unresolved meaning and the viewer’s appeal for ontological closure. In other works, such as El Dorado (1986) and Gold (1986), the artist presents a multiplicity of objects, mimicking the abundant tableaus of advertising, editorials, and graphic design.

For the final two sub-series of Objects of Desire, Charlesworth experiments with increasingly complex syntactical relationships. In Bowl (1986), the viewer is “confronted with a pure abstraction, and realizes, on a certain level, where the symbolism begins and ends.”[1] For her diptych Work (1987), she combines semantic elements to consider the artistic process in relation to value—as signified by the Tiffany & Co. blue. Here, a hex of abracadabra is paired with crude Iron Age tools, suggesting both the immense labor required to create art(work) as well as the kind of “magic spin that makes it come alive.”[2] 

In Work, and other diptychs and triptychs from the series, Charlesworth arranges the frames contiguously but on different levels, such that one recedes slightly behind another. In Wisdom Through Initiation (1989), a jeweled dancing deity bisects an inset panel of golden daffodils. In Garden of Delight (1989), a statuette with protruding phalluses advances in front of a secret keyhole garden—a metaphor for male sexuality, desire in general, and the unattainable. Encoded within these multiplanar juxtapositions is a suggestion of shifting or unresolved interpretations. The implication that an image might slip forward or slide back reveals the viewer’s subconscious as the true controlling force.

Slideshow 3

Sarah Charlesworth, Wisdom Through Initiation, 1989

Sarah Charlesworth

Wisdom Through Initiation1989

Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame

Triptych, 42 x 62 in.

Edition of 4, + 2 APs

Slideshow 4

Sarah Charlesworth, Work, 1988

Sarah Charlesworth


Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame

Diptych, 42 x 62 in.

Edition of 4, + 2 APs




[1] Betsy Sussler, “Sarah Charlesworth,” BOMB (Januay 1, 1990).

[2] Judith Richards, “Oral history interview with Sarah Edwards Charlesworth,” Smithsonian Archives for American Art, (November 29, 2011).


Banner images: Installation view, Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld, New Museum, New York, NY, June 24 - September 20, 2015. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

All images © The Estate of Sarah Charlesworth.