Cindy Sherman: The Heroine with a Thousand Faces

3 minute read

If you follow art at all you already know that Cindy Sherman takes pictures only of herself, but she always insists she doesn’t make self-portraits. True enough—it would be more accurate to say that for the past 35 years, she’s been producing a portrait of her times as they flow through the finely tuned instrument of her baroque psyche. Again and again in her spine-tingling retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City—it runs there from Feb. 26 to June 11, then travels to San Francisco, Minneapolis and Dallas—you also discover she’s made a portrait of you.

Growing up in a New York suburb, Sherman loved to play dress-up. In 1977, when she was 23 and just out of Buffalo State College, she started playing it with a vengeance. For three years, she photographed herself in costumes, wigs and settings that drew from the deep pool of movie images in which we’re all immersed from childhood. In what eventually grew to a series of 70 “Untitled Film Stills,” she took on the role of career girl, housewife, siren and woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Six years before Woody Allen got there, she became the Zelig of the collective unconscious, the heroine with a thousand faces.

By 1995, when MoMA reportedly paid what was then the newsmaking sum of $1 million for a full set of the “Untitled Movie Stills,” Sherman was well established as one of the pivotal artists of her generation. Year after year she would roll out new variations on the theme of unruly identity. Her private universe of enigmatic faces and wiggy characters appears in prints that are big—6 ft. tall and more. The colors can be harsh and aggressive. Though she sometimes offers herself quietly to the camera, her face as round and innocuous as an aspirin, she can also look feral, sinister and unhinged. Writers who profile Sherman always mention how nice she is. It’s her art that’s ferocious—and very canny in its appreciation of the way we all live out our lives through masks and role-playing. By devoting herself to the ancient mystery of metamorphosis, Cindy Sherman came early to the discovery that life is the ultimate makeover show.

(Read More: Cindy Sherman Photographs for MAC Cosmetics Campaign)

The Cindy Sherman retrospective will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City Feb. 26 – June 11, 2012.

Untitled Film Still #21, 1978For three years starting in 1977, when she was 23 and just out of Buffalo State College, Sherman photographed herself in costumes, wigs and settings that drew from the deep pool of movie images we’re all immersed in from childhood. In her 70 “Untitled Film Stills,” she took on the role of career girl, housewife, siren and woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Courtesy the Artist / the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Untitled Film Still #7, 1978In the film stills Sherman wasn’t interested in campy genre re-creation. That’s why there are few distinct genres or stock characters in the series — no sci-fi, no cowgirls, no obvious gun molls. And though in some images she seems to channel Hitchcock blondes and in others, like this one, moody beauties of ‘60s foreign film like Monica Vitti and Anouk Aimée, none of the pictures re-produce scenes from actual films. Their power is in their ambiguity. What they re-create is not a specific movie memory but the primordial soup of images that we cook up ourselves. Courtesy the Artist / the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Untitled #86, 1981Sherman made the leap into museum collections with a 1981 series inspired by the centerfolds in skin magazines. But the weirdly spotlit young women she becomes in these pictures are fully dressed and acting out psychodramas of yearning and anxiety never dreamt of in the Playboy philosophy. To keep their meanings in play as much as possible, Sherman never titles her photos. Courtesy the Artist / Eric Fischl and April Gornik
Untitled #122, 1983Sherman has done commissioned shoots for clothing designers, boutiques and magazines, without ever producing anything like standard fashion images. It was in some of these pictures — like this one produced for a Manhattan clothing store that ran as an advertisement in Interview magazine — that Sherman first explored what would turn out to be an enduring interest in the grotesque. Courtesy the Artist / Metro Pictures, New York
Untitled #299, 1994And as her work matured, Sherman showed ever more interest in transforming herself into figures that were ever more out there. The unclassifiable specimen she becomes in this picture, also produced as a commissioned image for the Japanese fashion house Commes des Garçons, doesn’t look human so much as like some mad approximation of humanity.Courtesy the Artist / Sibley Family
Untitled #175, 1987For a 10-year period that started around 1985, Sherman’s work took a turn into realms of pure disgust. In those pictures she often turns up only at the margins, if she appears at all. The figure in the frame might be built out of dis-membered mannequins, prosthetic body parts or bondage gear. In this example, with its pools of fake vomit on a beach littered with skeevy cupcakes, you can just spot her reflection in the sunglasses at upper right. Taken together, much of her work from those years can look like the portrait of a meltdown, with the artist sometimes literally spilling her guts—or a reasonable store-bought facsimile. Sherman delved into this grotesque territory during the worst years of AIDS, when the body was a target of fear and loathing. In those same years, however, she also endured the breakup of a 15-year marriage. So even if the pictures aren’t self-portraits in the ordinary sense, you get a feeling they report to the world from an undisclosed location within the artist herself.Courtesy the Artist / Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Untitled #224, 1990In 1990 Sherman first exhibited pictures from the series that came to be called the “history portraits,” photographs resembling Old Master paintings that sometimes reproduce actual canvases, but more often try to recall more broadly the style of an artist or era. Here she recreates Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus from 1593, a painting presumed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio representing himself as the god — meaning that Sherman is impersonating a male artist who is already impersonating a deity. Courtesy the Artist / Linda and Jarry Janger, Los Angeles
Untitled #411, 2003Nine years ago, Sherman started to costume herself as a series of very unnerving clowns. Some, like this one, are pure malevolence with a funny nose. If you don’t see yourself in these pictures, you need to look again.Courtesy the Artist / Philippe Segalot, New York
Untitled #425, 2004Though she still does all of her studio preparation herself — make-up, costuming and props — over the past decade Sherman has begun working with digital manipulation of her images, which permits her to appear multiple times in a single picture. Courtesy the Artist / Jennifer and David Stockman
Untitled #474, 2008 Four years ago Sherman began to produce a chilling suite of brittle older women with money. Medusas of the 1%, they’ve done their best, or their worst, to construct an ironclad social mask for themselves. A few of them, like the cool customer here, who possesses all the warmth of a chrome hood ornament, also appear to have accomplished through surgery and Botox what Sherman has been doing for years with makeup and wigs—-transforming themselves into grotesques. The multiple levels of artifice are quite something in these pictures, in which Sherman impersonates older women who are struggling to impersonate younger ones. Courtesy the Artist / the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Untitled, 2010In her most recent work Sherman has made pictures that break out of the frame, wall sized images, 18 feet tall, that create whole environments. Courtesy the Artist / Metro Pictures, New York

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