Cindy Sherman has come full circle in her new body of work, returning to the trope of the actress performing for the camera, a tacit allusion to the series that made her an art star, the “Untitled Film Stills.” She completed that series in 1980, the same year Metro Pictures opened and began representing her. Fittingly, her latest exhibition inaugurated the gallery’s newly renovated space.
In contrast to the earlier series, Sherman here adopts the guise not of the rising starlet or wide-eyed ingenue but of an Old Hollywood grand dame past her prime, depicting, in exacting detail, the pancake makeup settling in frown lines as she poses in flapper costume, and the veined, spotted hands coyly fingering ersatz jewels. As the artist recently described in a New York Times interview, the work is in part a meditation on her own experiences of aging as a woman in her sixties. This admission is remarkable not only because the subject of the aging female body remains something of a cultural taboo, but also because Sherman has, throughout her career, consistently pushed back on attempts to read her work autobiographically, even as she has made her presence in the photographs her signature. It is also something of a red herring: these are no more self-portraits than were the “Untitled Film Stills”—or the clowns, the centerfolds, the old-master portraits—and the inner life of Cindy Sherman remains as elusive here as ever.
Sherman’s work has often been viewed in terms of performance, with critics discussing her radical metamorphoses from picture to picture, as she employs costumes, makeup, prosthetics, and, more recently, digital tools to embody a range of characters and stock types. But what she ultimately makes are photographs: the effect of the “Untitled Film Stills” is achieved less through what Sherman wears than through the cinematic coding of the compositions. Likewise, for the new photographs, Sherman adopts not only the role of the fading siren of the silver screen but the format of Golden Age glamour shots and promotional studio portraits, a genre of image defined by its self-evident artifice. The use of color rather than black-and-white, however, interrupts the pretense of this series as a period piece: by the time Technicolor becomes the Hollywood norm, Sherman’s subjects, with their finger-waved hair, cupid’s-bow lips, and pencil-thin brows, would already have seemed tragically old-fashioned.
What I found most striking about these works were the backgrounds, which were digitally inserted in postproduction with a deliberate clumsiness exacerbated by their use of rudimentary special effects. In one image, Sherman, enveloped in a cascade of white silk, chiffon, and feather trim, poses against an apparently solarized garden scene, framed by a lavender-gray sky and the hazy suggestion of trees. In another, an alpine landscape appears carved in low relief, like something out of a Photoshop tutorial from 1998. These ungainly backdrops amplify the temporal dissonance at play throughout the series: the photographs position their subjects as already-outmoded relics of the silent-film studio machine, their datedness redoubled through the use of digital editing effects that now appear embarrassingly passé. Running parallel to Sherman’s own transformations over the course of her career are the dramatic changes that have redefined photography itself. Here, Sherman proves that she is still among the medium’s most perceptive commentators.
It’s tempting to say of Cindy Sherman what David Wallace-Wells recently wrote about pop star Nicki Minaj: “Who [she] is is much less important than what she is, which is really famous.” Indeed, Eva Respini, the curator of Sherman’s major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, makes a similar claim at the start of her catalogue essay on the best-known and arguably most compelling artist of the postmodernist period: “The fact that Sherman is in her photographs is immaterial.”
Paradoxically and unexpectedly, MoMA’s survey tilts us 180 degrees from the notion that Sherman is not in her pictures in any significant way. Of course, Sherman is in her photographs, literally, or at least in the vast majority of them, but the theme of her work is often said to be one of absence: what we see is not Sherman but a repertoire of roles, each reflecting a culturally determined possibility of female identity. This is essentially what has made her a poster child for a coterie of postmodernism’s theory-driven critics.
Yet the emptying out of Sherman as an individual within her work strikes me as misguided and, given the development charted in this emotionally powerful exhibition, just plain wrong. One is tempted to claim that the artist’s entire mature corpus, from the “Untitled Film Stills” of the late 1970s to her most recent computer-assembled murals, is autobiographical, or at least intensely personal. The “Film Stills” mull over the social options available to a young woman in the ’70s, when Sherman came of age. The later discomfiting pictures of ooze and vomit, in which Sherman herself disappears, came at a time when her personal life was in upheaval. The harrowing portraits of fast-fading Hollywood and art-collector types began when Sherman herself was facing 50.
That said, it has long been apparent, at least since the “Centerfold” series of 1981, that Sherman’s impetus in making new pictures stems in large part from her reaction to the critical reception of the last batch, her urge to avoid being typecast both as an artist and as a woman. The finely crafted, uproarious “old master” images, for example, are a response not only to having visited France and Italy in the late 1980s but also to how stridently critics claimed her work as a textbook illustration of the 20th-century image world. These “History Portraits,” evoking the styles of Ingres, Caravaggio, et al., suggest her pleasure in leaving behind an interpretive cubbyhole.
Given that the effectiveness of Sherman’s work is built on its resistance to its artistic milieu (take that, you Neo-Expressionist big guys!), the curatorial decision to mix and match images from different projects in some galleries seems confounding. The easy-to-love classic Sherman series—the above-mentioned film stills, centerfolds, old-master shots and society portraits—stay undivided, but otherwise the viewer is meant to make connections across time and intentionality. Leaving aside the conundrum of how to enshrine postmodernism within the temple of modern art, the work’s core adversarial element appears mainly by inference; only the tormented pictures of clowns (2003-04) easily survive being separated.
The entrance to the exhibition offers a hint of Sherman’s resistance to all forms of entrapment, but one that seems unavoidably compromised. In addition to a title wall on which the projected words “Cindy” and “Sherman” morph constantly into different typefaces, one sees a long stretch of the artist’s latest undertaking, an 18-foot-high mural with larger-than-life images of the costumed artist, in color, against a repeating, black-and-white, Barbizon-like landscape. The wallpaper effect of this work seems to embed the artist in the very mortar of the museum-a sly reminder of what a MoMA retrospective signifies, career-wise. But one can easily read it as something else: by being integrated with the wall, rather than positioned against it, the work loses its oppositional status, becoming subject to the discourses of art, architecture and design that govern the very institution of modernism. This, one wants to say, is not who Sherman really is.
Photo: (left) Cindy Sherman: Untitled #512, 2011, chromogenic color print,79 3/4 by126 7⁄8 inches.
(right), Untitled Film Still #56, 1980, Gelatin Silver print, 6 3/8 by 9 1/2 inches.Below, Untitled #466, 2008, chromogenic color print, 102 by 70 inches.