In the first gallery of Cindy Sherman’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a tiny grid of 23 small contact photos draws patrons in. Handmade by Sherman in 1975 when she was just a student, Untitled #479 shows the metamorphosis of an anonymous woman as she moves across the grid from a bespectacled girl to kabuki performer to her final stage, a Marlene Dietrich-type who hangs towards the front of the frame, cigarette in mouth, hair parted to the side, and a sensuous, downward glare.
For 35 years, Cindy Sherman has been transforming herself into characters and capturing them with her camera. But Sherman does not fall under any one label, which makes her a central figure in critical debate. To some she is a photographer; to others a performance artist. To some her work is feminist; to others, it’s quite the opposite. Issues of the male gaze, postmodernism, low art, high art, and self-portraiture, among others, have bounced between scholars as they search for her identity. If anything, this retrospective, organized by Associate Curator of Photography Eva Respini, allows Sherman’s photographs speak for themselves.
Whether a photographer or a photographer in disguise, Sherman has held onto her concept for years. And it was with that idea that helped integrate photography into the art world canon at a time when it was less understood; first with the sale of her complete Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980) to MoMA in 1995, and then in 2011 when her Untitled #96 sold for 3.9 million dollars at Christie’s, breaking world records as the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction.
In late February, at the opening reception for her major retrospective, Cindy Sherman turned to Respini and said, "I feel like I’m a guest at my own wedding."
Hundreds of guests (featuring celebrities like Martha Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Molly Ringwald, Chuck Close, and Debbie Harry, to name a few) showed up to celebrate Ms. Sherman’s legacy, which has now come full circle at MoMA in a retrospective celebrating 35 years of her career as an artist. Sherman has not had a retrospective in New York for nearly 15 years. “It’s an opportunity for a whole new generation of audiences to see the work in flesh,” said Respini, who organized the show.
The exhibition begins with a view from the elevator, where upon exiting you see two large imposing Cindy Shermans against a patterned wallpaper. Sherman designed this 18-foot tall wallpaper mural specifically for MoMA’s sixth floor. In addition to playing her usual roles of hair stylist, makeup artist, actress, model, set designer, and photographer, Sherman played editor, too. Using Photoshop, Sherman made her nose bigger and her eyes smaller, and changed the shape of her lips, too.
In the second gallery, we see a group of familiar, smaller works. But, measurements do not matter; this body of work carries a legacy grander than the size of Sherman’s murals. Here the complete set of Sherman’s 69 Untitled Film Stills line the walls in horizontal rows, with each image measuring a modest eight by ten inches dressed like a classic photograph in a thin black frame. On one wall, a group of 12 action shots play off one another beautifully. We see a woman lying horizontal on a bed, a woman in a swimming pool, a woman in the kitchen, a woman gazing across the frame from a bed. MoMA is the only museum in the world to own all 70 of Sherman’s stills, which have only been copied ten times each.
Sherman’s film stills are not real film stills, as they are not taken from actual movies. Rather they are photographs taken by Sherman of herself impersonating different female stereotypes from film noir, B-movies, and foreign films from the ’50s and ’60s. Sherman acted as both photographer and model, appearing in each one of the shots as a different woman.
Ironically, the Untitled Film Stills are one of the only series in Sherman’s career with a title; all of the other series have been titled informally by critics or curators. To make things more complicated, the individual photographs that make up Sherman’s series do not have titles. Numbers were assigned to each of the stills by her gallery, Metro Pictures. “The numbering basically went by year,” wrote Sherman in her essay The Making of Untitled which appeared in MoMA’s 2003 catalog of the film stills, “but then it got mixed up as it became totally arbitrary.”
Sherman does not use titles for a few reasons. One, she’s not a "wordy person" and two, she does not want to get in the way of the viewer’s interpretation. No two film stills are interpreted the same. Catherine Morris, a curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art calls them “Rorschach tests.”
Many of the film stills not only capture different personalities of different actresses, they also show a few different directors at work. Some are more like John Ford in their tendencies, others bring to mind Jean Renoir or Alfred Hitchcock. But none of them recall any one actress or director enough to earn a label. Sherman insists that there’s no story line when they’re placed together. “I want all the characters to look different,” she said. “When I see two blondes together I get nervous that they look too much alike.”
In the third gallery, a woman with short blonde hair wearing two large electric blue earrings shaped like ship anchors with ropes dangling beneath them. Her glossy red lips are wide open, as if she has been caught in the middle of the phrase, “How are you, my darling?” Her arms bend out of each side, exposing jazz hands into a dark background. She is Untitled #458, one of the many women who reigns these walls.
If the first gallery spoke in the language of film stills, then this third gallery belts in the throat of the theater. But, according to the wall text, these women are from the fashion world. Sherman began receiving commissions from the fashion designers in 1983, when Dianne Benson of Dianne B. asked her to create advertisements for her company. Ignoring all rules of client relationships, Sherman took the assignment and ran, cartooning the entire industry — playing diva editor, suited PR girl, enthused personal shopper, and many more in this passive-aggressive, playful critique.
“I felt forced to use these clothes," she told Bomb magazine’s Betsy Sussler. "I didn’t have a choice." So naturally, Sherman turned to what the clothes brought out in her: “A retaliation against fashion, as well as humor.”
The fourth gallery is filled with horizontal frames matted evenly against a dark blue wall. Here are the works of another commission, this time by Artforum, and it led to this group of images that came to be known as the Centerfolds. Looking at some of these images, you can almost imagine a male photographer hanging over his female model, a play on the male gaze. Artforum did not run Sherman’s photographs for fear that the images were a little too ironic, that they would look too close to the Playboy pin-ups and therefore be misunderstood by certain feminists.
In the fifth gallery, we see Sherman’s first dive into color (circa 1980) in a section of three rear-screen projections. Looking at them, one can’t help but think of a Hitchcock film such as To Catch a Thief. Sherman has many times cited Hitchcock as an influence (if you think about it, Hitchcock put himself in his own films, too). Sherman’s decision to make images with rear-screen projections was not creative, but practical. After lugging around her camera everywhere for the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman says she wanted it “to look like I was on location without having to be on location.”
Sherman admits these photos are low-tech. She rented a slide projector. She fumbled with lights. “I had to balance out the light I was shining on myself and figure out the distances so as not wash out the screen,” she once told John Waters in an interview published in the exhibition’s catalog. “I had to do this depth-of-field timing thing." As a consequence, in many of the images, Sherman is just as out of focus as her rear-screen background.
Sherman’s History Portraits, created between 1988-90, occupy a berry-painted room in Sherman’s exhibition. For these images, Sherman alluded to a few periods in art history: the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical – reviving issues of the male gaze, only this time, the source is not a photographer hovering over a young girl as in Centerfolds; it’s an old master painter that’s eyeing the contours of his subject. This series is not a homage to the past; instead, Sherman has strengthened her concept, creating works with just a hint of familiarity, while the rest is up to us.
If Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills represented the stereotypical, female moment of I-want-to-be-a-star, then the eighth gallery shows that same moment, only failed years later. For this series, created in the early 2000s, Sherman invented a cast of characters that she described as “would-be or has-been actors (in reality secretaries, housewives, or gardeners) posing for headshot to get an acting job.” “These people are trying to sell themselves with all their might,” she said. “They’re just begging the viewer: don’t you want to hire me?”
The women in this series differ from one another. But they do share a (fictional) makeup artist who used just a little too much concealer beneath the eyes, on the sides of the mouth, and on the brow bone. Makeup has always fascinated Sherman. No movie star (or mother) could wear too much makeup in the ’50s and early ’60s when Sherman came of age. In the mid-’70s, however, women dropped their lipsticks and opted for a natural look, one devoid of even the slightest bit of mascara; it was a time when “women weren’t supposed to like makeup,” she recalled. That’s when she started playing even more with her face, citing her own “fascination” with this radical change. “It was artificial glamour,” she recalled.
Sherman also used makeup as a kind of therapy. “In my early 20s, every time I would feel depressed or confused I would lock myself in a room and just make myself into someone else,” she once told the writer David Brittain. “It was just some sort of cathartic thing I needed to do at the time, that made me feel kind of good afterwards.
In 2008, MoMA’s Eva Respini attended Sherman’s show of “society portraits” at Metro Pictures. She was completely blown away, not only by the portraits themselves but the timing of them, too. Respini realized that Sherman had begun working on these portraits that signified “the end of an age of opulence” just at the start of the 2008 financial collapse. To Respini, they showed that Sherman was a lot “more contemporary than everyone was talking about.” These are the portraits that occupy the tenth gallery of Sherman’s retrospective. “They have a kind of grandeur to them,” said Respini. “I imagine that maybe they were pictures commissioned by those in the portraits, maybe these pictures are hanging in foyers in the houses of these women.”
Nearly all of Sherman’s prior retrospectives have been organized chronologically. And for an artist who works notoriously in "serial spurts" followed by a few months of silence, a timeline approach is only understandable. For this retrospective, however, Respini took it to a different level. Instead of mimicking Sherman’s ascent chronologically, she implemented a sophisticated system: a rhythmically organized sequence of works that allowed two pieces from different stages of the artist’s life to share a wall. The works undulate just far enough from the melodic timeline of Sherman’s life, and there is room for the viewer’s own interpretation, which echoes the whole point of Sherman’s work.
Sherman has long been associated with an anti-narrative approach, which has helped separate her from the popular notion of photography as a medium. Looking at this retrospective, however, there is a clear narrative of a girl pursuing her dreams, the characters who have evoked her response, and the relationship between one artist and a very famous museum.
Untitled #119 by Cindy Sherman