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.