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CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF ME: CINDY SHERMAN AT MOMA

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 10 APRIL 2012 — Youth can impersonate age much easier than age can impersonate youth, but youth usually needs the wisdom of age to portray itself accurately. That tension has always challenged actors: by the time you are seasoned enough to play Hamlet, you are probably too old to pass, even with theatrical makeup, for a rebellious college student from Denmark.

When a visual artist makes herself the subject of her own life’s work, she will make similar problems for herself if she is not careful. There are models of success, from Rembrandt’s self-portraits, painted throughout his career, to the photographs John Coplans started making of his nude body when he was sixty.

The challenge is particularly great for a photographer, if only because of the brutally realistic results the medium delivers — results that do not easily hide either of the brashness of youth or the world-weariness or esthetic fatigue that can daunt an artist in her later years.


Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #21, (1978)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel
© 2012 Cindy Sherman

The American photographer Cindy Sherman (born 1954) seems never to have let any of that concern her. She has turned her camera rearward for over three decades, confidently making herself the primary subject of her oeuvre. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has now put the artist on display (until 11 June 2012), quite literally, in its comprehensive retrospective of her photography.

The museum made news in late 1995 when it acquired all sixty-nine of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, a series of black and white prints. Authentic movie stills were made on set by a photographer but often did not precisely portray scenes from the film itself. They were used to advertise the movie by giving a sense of its story, setting, theme and, most important of all, its characters and the stars who played them. Typically, they would flank movie posters in display cases outside theater box offices, frequently held in place by thumb tacks.

It is in tribute to that style of commercial photography, still in common use when Sherman began her series when she was twenty-three, that Sherman undertook her series.

Each of the black and white photographs features a young woman in a scene emblematic of films of that time and somewhat before.  A partial list tells the story: the jilted woman; the blonde; saucy girl in the library; the coquette; the recipient of a troubling letter; the small-town girl in the big city. Sherman played them all and, helping us anticipate her later work, you have to look twice, at least, to satisfy yourself that one woman is behind all the outfits, the makeup changes, the wigs, and most important, the expressions.  Sherman revealed herself not merely to be a master of disguise, but quite an actress, albeit one who had to tell a story in a single frame of film.


Cindy Sherman: Untitled #96, (1981)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gift of Carl D. Lobell
© 2012 Cindy Sherman

It is no dishonor to Sherman to say that the Untitled Film Stills, which she started in 1977 and finished three years later, remains her best work. She had the maturity and sensitivity to play at the conventions of portraying youth, and it is that worldly, knowing manipulation of her young face and body that help give poignancy, nuance and the right spike of audacity to the series. Although these are fake advertisements for fake movies, you feel that the women are real, and you want to know more about them.

Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills helped form our understanding of the potential of staged photography, which came into its own in the final quarter of the last century and has, if anything, grown more popular since.  Previously, the makers posed works of fine-art photography had largely confined themselves to portraits and nudes. Now, entire single-frame dramas are in vogue.

You can trace an unbroken line from Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to such grand bodies of work as the fully staged, backlighted murals of Jeff Wall, themselves the subject of a MoMA retrospective five years ago. Because the Untitled Film Stills are so evocative and effective, they helped make a promise for the potential of staged photography that the genre has not been able to honor since. Later practitioners, including Sherman, have delivered irony, humor, shock, and no small amount of kitsch. These works collectively remind us that, trends and marketplace predilections aside, the greatest strength of photography remains in its revelation of the world as it exists and not in the world as we imagine it to be.


Cindy Sherman: Untitled #183, 1988
Chromogenic color print, 38 x 22 3/4 (96.5 x 57.8 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
© 2012 Cindy Sherman

The Untitled Film Stills was a hard act to follow; that and a switch to color challenged Sherman in ways that were not always successful. Adding color to fine-art photography, which became increasingly common in the medium as Sherman’s career progressed, is not like adding sound to motion pictures; in a large number of cases, it has about the effect you would expect from adding microphones to the stage of an opera house: everything goes immediately out of proportion. Sherman’s subjects, meanwhile, veered toward the grotesque, and for a while, she worked through a clown phase. (Has any fictional clown since Pagliacci really interested us all that much?)

Over the years, Sherman has, if anything, honed her gifts as a character actress and perfected the art of dress up.

She is adapt at portraying women (and occasionally men) who seem to have no physical relation to each other or to her — not that we can, by the end of the exhibition, accurately describe what Sherman looks like. Indeed, the only constant throughout — the only marker that tells us we are looking at Sherman showing us the Sherman she wants us to see in the moment and not a completely different person — are the vivid and intelligent blue eyes that pull the viewer toward them in most of the color photographs.


Cindy Sherman: Untitled #465, 2008
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2012 Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s later work that does the most honor to her roaring start includes a series of herself as the subject of real and imagined Old Master paintings and, in poster-sized prints (up to about eight feet tall), of imaginary socialites posing for formal portraits. You see in these women’s faces, middle aged like Sherman’s or much older, the determination of those women of the upper class who wish to hang on to what they have, whether it is position, charm or, most consequentially and with the greatest difficulty, beauty. The hair, the makeup, the costumes, and, as always, the expressions, are so dead on, the photographs make you uncomfortable; it is as if you see someone you recognize or perhaps, saddest of all, a woman you remember from twenty or thirty years before, when she either burned with youth or still glowed from its embers.


Cindy Sherman: Untitled #474, 2008
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2012 Cindy Sherman

For all the vanity implicit in Sherman’s work, she has remained curiously modest in some ways. It is not just that, when the image demands nudity, she wears blatantly prosthetic breasts.  It is that she is making a life’s work out of successively subordinating her own appearance for that of someone else who does not actually exist.

You come away from the Sherman retrospective with new insights into character. The one thing you do not know much more about is Cindy Sherman. Sensations of vulnerability and self-doubt shimmy through, but we know more about Edward Weston from his nudes and about Ansel Adams from his photographs of Yosemite than Sherman tells us in pictures of Sherman — which is probably just as she intends.

Cindy Sherman
Through 11 June 2012
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel: (1) 212 708 94 00 

"Cindy Sherman" will also be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (14 July – 7 October 2012) and at the Walker Art Center (3 November 2012 – 27 January 2013) in Minneapolis.

Alan Behr writes on fine art photography for Culturekiosque. He has exhibited his own photography at Leica Gallery in New York, and last wrote on Cecil Beaton: The New York Years (Skira Rizzoli) for Culturekiosque.

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