Cindy Sherman's MoMA retrospective is the best show I've seen there since the Gerhard Richter survey, and probably the best exhibit I've seen anywhere in a while. But then, I've been a longtime admirer. My first encounter with a Cindy Sherman was with the artist herself, when she was the receptionist for Artists Space at its former Hudson Street location. She used to sit behind the front desk, dressed like a secretary from the typing pool at Sterling Cooper. This was in the late 1970s, so we are talking avant la Christina Hendricks.
Sherman may have done this partially as a lark, partially as a performance piece consistent with the photographic project she was creating at the time, her homage-cum-taxonomy of female movie characters, "Untitled Film Stills." In that series, which recalls old movie lobby cards, Sherman portrays various waifs, bombshells, film noir dames and other female denizens of the cinematic imagination, and it's one of the highlights of a survey that reveals a remarkable consistency throughout the 58-year-old artist's career. The catalog even contains a photo of 13-year-old Cindy with childhood friend Janet Zink, kitted out rather convincingly as little old ladies. On the scale of artistic precocity, this would probably put Sherman closer to Mozart than to Picasso, who had to wait until his twenties to come up with Cubism, though it does raise the question of whether or not we should consider Zink the Georges Braque of the "Pictures" aesthetic.
Actually, it's always been a bit misleading to place Sherman's work under that rubric, named for the 1977 exhibition that introduced a generation of artists who combined pop-culture content with Conceptual Art savvy. She wasn't in the show, though curator Douglas Crimp reproduced Sherman's Untitled Film Still #21 in a follow-up article for the critical journal October. More pertinently, while the essay established Sherman as a central figure of the nascent trend, her "Untitled Film Stills" never relied on the same appropriation methods used by her contemporaries Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. Her images didn't really question authorship, since Sherman was both their content and their creator, nor did they indulge in intellectual-property theft. Instead, the "Stills" alluded to cinema as it exists in collective memory—a miasma of scenes, gestures, costumes, etc.
Untitled Film Still #21 itself features Sherman as a generic young woman, evidently from the 1950s, framed against skyscrapers. We know the time period only from her dress, otherwise we haven't a clue as to what's going on. She wears an expression that's as steely as it is scared: Perhaps she's being followed, perhaps she's simply new to the city. Regardless, Sherman, or her character, serves as the screen on which we project our narrative fantasies, much as stars do for their fans, and women do for men generally.
This last point has prompted feminists to embrace Sherman as one of their own, but the association between Sherman's work and feminism has always been complicated. One of the few women artists to have become a household name, she's in charge both behind and in front of the camera. But the subjects she portrays are often passive, or suffer some distress in which the violence inflicted upon them is aestheticized. Magazines like Vogue do the same, and no doubt Sherman is commenting upon that. But she has also been famous enough long enough to have influenced fashion photography as much as the other way around.
The more salient issue may be that Sherman's formula depends on her disappearance. She's said that her characters don't represent her, which is one thing for an actor to claim but quite another for an artist. A work of art, after all, is an artifactual extension of its maker: If her pieces aren't Cindy Shermans, then what the hell are they?
They way I'd put it is that Sherman uses glamour and horror to send up and celebrate the feminine mystique, including her own. She quantifies and categorizes the notion of one's appearance, which fashion also does. But unlike Anna Wintour, Sherman isn't in the business of marketing the cultural; she's in the business of laying it bare.
For example, one of the earliest works in the show, from 1975, presents small black-and-white headshots that look like they were taken in a photo booth. They start at left with Sherman as a prototypical mid-'70s gal, no-nonsense if not frumpy (or maybe dykey) in a short shag haircut, aviator wire rims and a Peter Pan--collared shirt. Frame by frame these identifying details are discarded as Sherman slicks back her hair, dons a makeup bib, and starts applying successive layers of powder, rouge, lipstick and mascara. About halfway through the series, she starts hand-coloring the images, as if she were giving the photography a makeover. The final photo shows the transformation complete: Sherman as Art Deco vamp, a Botticelli Venus by way of Ert.
The sequence could just as easily run backward, and effectively does in the numerous pieces in which Sherman turns herself into one sort of gargoyle or another. In Untitled #132, from 1984, she's a burn victim in a horrid striped-jersey dress holding a can of Miller Lite. In Untitled #458, from 2007--08, the lips from Warhol's iconic Gold Marilyn appear to have migrated to the Botoxed countenance of a woman of a certain age. Sherman's famous impersonations of Old Master paintings are hardly immune: A takeoff on Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas More shows the artist sporting a forehead worthy of a Klingon warrior.
The organizers have eschewed a chronological hanging for an exhibition grouped by the themes running through Sherman's oeuvre, with signature series given their own rooms. Considering the coherence of Sherman's output, this makes total sense. But there's one period, from the mid-'80s to the early '90s, that's been downplayed somewhat. During this time, Sherman substituted elaborate props for her own presence, and the results were quite brutal. Like some Arcimboldo of bulimia, she conjures a face out of vomited caramel popcorn, M&M's and Life Savers in one image from 1989. In another, dated 1992, Sherman cobbles together a nightmarish love doll out of a witch's mask and a lifelike plastic vagina giving birth to link sausages. Not to bring up Warhol again, but these works are essentially Sherman's "Disaster" paintings, and a few more would have been welcome.
What distinguished Sherman and her "Pictures" cohort from '60s Pop Art was the fact they were the first artists to grow up with television. While this aspect has been greatly overstated, it's true that TV in its early days was powerful enough to create the illusion of a postwar society that was as egalitarian as it was homogenous. It was also powerful enough to just as quickly demolish this fantasy by giving vast audiences a front-row seat to a series of historical shocks: JFK's assassination, the civil-rights struggle, the Vietnam War, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the women's-rights movement, the Stonewall riot. The baby boomer in me sees all of this reverberating in Sherman's work—not the events, of course, but perhaps the trauma they inflicted or the questions they raised about how much human nature can change, and how much it can't. Because ultimately, it's been the essence of that nature—our desires, delusions and fears of death—that Sherman has captured so compellingly over 35 years.