In 1979, when the moon last interrupted North Americans’ view of the sun, newspapers in the path of the eclipse proudly documented the moment. And Sarah Charlesworth, who would go on to have a nearly 40-year career as an influential conceptual artist and member of the Pictures Generation, documented the newspapers.
From Portland, Oregon to Ontario, Canada, Charlesworth’s Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979 follows the solar eclipse across the front pages of 29 local newspapers, most of which no longer exist. (Remember newspapers?) Charlesworth reduces each print to the newspaper’s masthead and images of the obscured sun, crisply excising, as BAMPFA curator emerita Lucinda Barnes says, “all the chatter.”
Comparing just these elements, the papers’ unique editorial decisions give each print a bit of local flavor. The Oregonian went with an impressive five-image spread across the entire width of the paper, showing the slimming crescent of sun shifting to total eclipse and back again. The Lewiston Tribune ran a special edition “in celebration of the Feb. 26, 1979 total eclipse of the sun (which most of us didn’t see)” — a nearly full-page image of the eclipse suggesting Charlesworth didn’t need to remove any text on this one.
Like the best conceptual art, Arc of Total Eclipse is elegant in its simplicity. But what makes the piece more than just an exercise in restraint, a microcosm in media studies, is Charlesworth’s subtle nod to the impossibility of adequately capturing a moment of celestial alignment on film, in a paper or even through art. Repeated across her prints, the eclipse starts to seem improbable, as if all 29 newspapers documented glimpses of a UFO.
When I first saw Arc of Total Eclipse installed, in a two-person exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2011, I didn’t fully appreciate how much it would stick with me. Barnes, then chief curator, paired Charlesworth’s prints with a recent work from Bay Area artist Chris McCaw, who allowed the sun to trace its path across his photographic paper, physically — and often, violently — burning its arc into the print.
The show was called Sun Works. It occupied one of the old Mario Ciampi building’s lovely, semi-isolated terraces, floating, as only a Brutalist building made of hard-edged concrete can, above the museum’s grand atrium.
I covered the show for KQED, paying close attention to Charlesworth’s images — reprinted for the exhibition in collaboration with the artist. But I quibbled with the curatorial conceit, which argued that both Arc of Total Eclipse and McCaw’s Sunburned GSP #488 (Sunset/sunrise, Galbraith Lake, Alaska) were made in cahoots with the celestial orb they depicted. “The organizing principle of Sun Works is off-point for these prints,” I wrote of Charlesworth’s work. “The real collaborators are the newspaper editors and photographers who took the original images, not the sun.”
I was an absolutist art critic. Shows should do what they claim to do, I thought. Artworks should fit neatly into categories and, if paired, into each other. Productive dissonance didn’t interest me as much as poking a triumphant hole in someone else’s argument.
Nearly six years later, when I think back on Sun Works, I don’t see an uneven installation or an arbitrary pairing. I simply feel a sense of profound gratitude for the introduction to Charlesworth’s work — and this piece in particular.
Arc of Total Eclipse is just one of dozen-ish projects in a series Charlesworth titled Modern History, all made between 1977 and 1979, all culled from newspapers reduced to their mastheads and front-page photographs. (She called the process of blanking out blocks of text “unwriting.”)
Some in the series chart spans of time (Herald Tribune, September 1977), others the events of a particular day. In Movie-Television-News-History, June 21, 1979, 27 papers reproduce stills from the television footage of the death in Nicaragua of ABC newsman Bill Stewart, with Charlesworth’s prints translating the fuzzy image yet one more step away from the real-life incident.
Less than two years later after Sun Works opened, Charlesworth died suddenly of an aneurysm; she was 66. In a remembrance piece for Artforum, close friend and fellow artist Cindy Sherman wrote, “We will miss the art that she never got to make.” Barnes wonders what Charlesworth would have made of the current state of mass media, how she would have addressed ideas of truth and documentation in her artwork.
“How I’m reading it today is: what matters,” Barnes says of Arc of Total Eclipse now, as she prepares to catch the moment from her home in Idaho. “Of course current events matter, but what she captured in this was a shared human experience.”
On Monday, Aug. 21, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will show selections from Sarah Charlesworth’s ‘Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979’ on their outdoor screen facing Addison St. for one minute on the hour, 8am-8pm. For more information, click here.