New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 21 June 6 to 12, 2012

Where’s Cindy?
Cindy Sherman
Don Burmeister
Untitled # 21 by Cindy Sherman. Source: moma.org
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled # 21"

Cindy Sherman is arguably the best known living photographer in the world and her career retrospective now at MoMA gives us ample reasons to see why. The show has 171 photographs ranging from student work from the State University of New York in Buffalo to a huge wall-filling mural completed in 2010. It includes the complete ‘Untitled Film Stills’ series from the late 1970’s, as well as selected pieces from her “Centerfolds” commission for ArtForum, her “History” series, as well as Clowns, Fashion pictures, and her newest work on Society women.

For those of you who have been asleep for the past thirty years, Cindy Sherman’s schtick, if you will, is that all her photographs are self-portraits (except for an unfortunate few). Sherman’s art is that the images are anything but narcissistic –– Sherman’s own face is her muse and just the starting point for much larger adventures. The reasons for Sherman’s popularity and ubiquity are many. (Is there a contemporary art museum in the world that does not have at least one Cindy Sherman?) Her work is straightforward and representational, with many references to both popular culture and art history. There is a narrative component to the work, most obviously in her breakthrough ‘Untitled Film Stills’, but implicit in all that follows. And her work is firmly centered in that maelstrom of feminism, fashion, and self-presentation apparently swirling through the minds of many contemporary women artists (although I can speak only as an outsider on this point.) In addition she can be wickedly funny.

Born in 1954, Cindy Sherman is the prototypical boomer. One of the satisfying components of this show is witnessing her changing focus as she grows older. In the “Film Stills” we see Sherman essentially fitting herself into the feminine roles of an earlier generation: starlet, a young innocent setting out for Hollywood, working girl and dejected lover. But even as we enter the fiction of the photographs there is that slight tug of irony, one felt more strongly at the time than now created by the dissonance between the role being enacted and the act of a 1970’s liberated woman portraying that role. The set of ‘centerfold’ images is similar – meditations by an intelligent women on the prototypically male imagery of women from a slightly earlier generation.

Popular culture was the predominant context of these earlier pictures, but with her History Series in the late 1980’s she was emboldened to take on the entire Western visual canon. Quasi-faithful recreations of historic portraits, these images are an amazing tour-de-force of all Sherman’s arts: lighting, sets, costumes, fabrics, and–– most of all–– her incredible use of make-up. The images take on a Whitmanesque bravura: in her own image she encompasses worlds.

The subjects are not Madame Tussoud perfect, just the right amount of hokeyness and loose ends are visible, reminders of when and how the pictures were made. There is always the reverberation of a little girl playing dress-up.

By this time Sherman’s reputation and influence in the art world were secure. Then came the disastrous decade of the 90’s. Apparently propelled by some nasty romantic misadventures, Sherman gave up her central trope, the self portrait, in favor of big, colorful and quite awful pictures of anatomical models and close-ups of smeared excrement. If there was an art here, it was the art of a sweet-talking art dealer convincing a client that a big picture of plastic vomit was just the thing to add ‘edge’ to his collection of Impressionist masters.

Untitled # 474 by Cindy Sherman. Source: moma.org
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled # 474" 2008

Fortunately for all, Sherman recovered her muse and went back to what she does best: dressing up and taking pictures of herself. But the girl had changed. Rather than looking back in time, she now looked straight ahead. With an unmistakable sense of bitterness and not an ounce of sympathy, the “Head Shots” series supposedly represent various middle-aged character actors (yes, probably the ingenue from ‘Untitled Film Stills’) who have seen better days. If these photographs were taken of other women they would be nasty, almost misogynistic images. As self-portraits, they take on a psychological dimension that is deeper than any of Sherman’s earlier work.

In this deeper vein, the last series of images in the show continues with Sherman projecting herself forward in time. “Society Women” are all women of a certain age who have the means and time to undergo all the procedures necessary to maintain a ‘youthful’ appearance. Sherman presents them (herself) with Hogarthian glee. Surely she delights in biting the hand that feeds her, and one can only imagine the drollery as collection committees in museums across the country discuss which of the “Society Women” images they can safely acquire.

Big museum retrospectives like this one can be risky for a living artist, highlighting earlier periods in their careers that were stronger than their current work. That can’t be said about Cindy Sherman. As significant and influential as her earliest work was, this show highlights her artistic integrity and continued growth. I left the museum with the expectation of more insightful and relevant Cindy Sherman images emerging well into the future. (Oh No! are we really ready for the “Nursing Home” series?)

Cindy Sherman

Curators: Eve Respini and Lucy Gallun

The Museum of Modern Art
11 W 53rd St.
Midtown         Map

212 708 9400
moma.org

Sunday, February 26 to
Monday, June 11, 2012
Hours: Weds to Mon, 10:30 to 5:30, Fri to 8
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