Parsing Cindy Sherman’s portraiture.
Since her days as an art student at Buffalo State College in the early ’70s, the superstar photographer Cindy Sherman has had only one model: herself. Using what must be the world’s biggest makeup box, thrift store finds, masks, wigs, and prosthetic body parts (“I collect breasts,” she has said), she singlehandedly stages and shoots her own work in her Manhattan studio. Her legacy at 58—hundreds of hugely varied and provocative portraits spanning time, age, class, even gender—speaks to issues of identity and artifice in a way that makes Sherman, according to many critics, the most influential photographer working today.
So if there’s any living artist whose face should be instantly recognizable, you’d think it would be Sherman. Well, think again. “I remember being shocked when I turned around and saw Cindy Sherman at some art function,” says art historian Whitney Chadwick, professor emerita at San Francisco State University, who has written widely on women, gender, and contemporary art. “I wouldn’t have recognized her if someone hadn’t told me.”
Surely the famously press-shy Sherman would appreciate the irony. Her portraits, she has long and fiercely maintained, are not about her—she doesn’t even title them, lest that influence the way they’re interpreted. This summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, viewers will be able to form their own firsthand opinions at the sole West Coast presentation of a traveling retrospective with the appropriately tabula rasa title of Cindy Sherman, running July 14 through Oct. 8.
Filmmaker John Waters (whose own unruly oeuvre, from Pink Flamingos to Hairspray, is peopled with an unlikely preponderance of transvestites) fondly calls Sherman “a female female impersonator” in the knockout catalogue that accompanies the exhibit. That’s just about right. A slightly smaller version of the 170-piece exhibition that premiered this winter and spring at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the show presents the protean photographer/performer in an encyclopedic array of guises: retro pinups, modern-day socialites, clowns, centerfolds, low-lifes, would-be’s, has-beens, and Old World aristocrats resembling (kind of) those portrayed by masters like Caravaggio and Raphael. With their exaggerated makeup and elements that are noticeably askew (garish circles of blemish concealer, overemphasized facial features, ill-fitting garments that seem plucked from the free box), Sherman’s subjects convey the unsettling sense that something is definitely off.
“I like experimenting with being as ugly as I can possibly be,” Sherman tells Waters during their interview for the catalogue. “But I guess that’s because I don’t think of it as me.”
“Some women have found some of Cindy Sherman’s images very difficult to take,” says Chadwick. “Her work tends to fascinate and disturb women.” But commercially and canon-wise, the field of experimental portraiture has paid off for Sherman, whose influences include pop figure Andy Warhol, photographer Diane Arbus, and filmmakers ranging from Waters to Alfred Hitchcock to Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
Sherman has shot for the fashion and makeup labels Comme des Garçons, Balenciaga, and M.A.C., among others; shown at the Venice Biennale; and made a comic slasher movie starring Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. In 1995, she received a MacArthur “genius grant”; last year, art dealer Philippe Segalot bought Sherman’s “Untitled #96,” a 1981 image of a dreamy, supine girl, for the then-unprecedented sum of $3.9 million. “Sherman, to my mind, is the strongest and finest American artist of her time,” writes Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s art critic.
Sherman’s career was forged in the same authority-questioning, patriarchy-smashing crucible as those of photographic contemporaries from the ’70s like Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, and the tragically short-lived Francesca Woodman. Like many other women drawn to photography, then considered a lesser form than painting or sculpture—and hence perhaps more open to women artists—Sherman created work that challenged cultural assumptions about sex and gender. But a lifelong love of playing dress-up and putting on makeup (the show includes a prescient photo of Sherman, age 10 or 11, and a friend posturing as old ladies) didn’t mesh with the vogue for “natural” in the ’60s and ’70s. (The hair on her then-unshaven legs, Sherman claims, is visible in some of her first portraits).
Yet it was also in the ’70s that Sherman made a huge splash with her landmark Untitled Film Stills—a series of deliberately grainy-looking, black-and-white shots of herself in femme get-ups and poses from seemingly familiar (but actually nonexistent) movies of the ’50s and ’60s. Still cited by many aficionados as their favorite Sherman series, the 8 1/2-inch by 10-inch photos (the dimensions of old-fashioned publicity stills) can be enjoyed as a fine example of camp, a jumping-off point for personal fantasy, or a comment on how easily we conflate the artificial with the actual. (A photographer/performer pretending to be playing an actress playing a role in a pretend movie: That’s the kind of thing that gives academics a reason to get up in the morning).
Sherman “has recognized and embraced the extent to which images of femininity are mediated by what we see around us in the culture,” says Chadwick. “[And] she was very forward-thinking in recognizing the tremendous power that media images would play over the next 30 years. Now we’re pretty much conditioned to take the media image as the real. [But] if you see an unstaged picture of some celebrity someplace, Lindsay Lohan or one of the younger people, she looks like a not-very attractive kid, and you realize that your image is set more or less in stone—or set in pixels.”
Sherman is happy to leave such theorizing to others. “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff,” she told Tate Magazine in 2003.
Twenty years after Untitled Film Stills appeared, the singer Madonna, whose penchant for extreme costuming and exposed underpinnings is right in synch with Sherman’s, sponsored a show of the series at MoMA in New York. Other flamboyant Sherman devotees include Elton John and Lady Gaga, plus a string of high-profile exes including artist Robert Longo (a boyfriend from Buffalo days who encouraged Sherman to “do something” with her desire to dress in costume), French filmmaker Michel Auder, comedian Steve Martin, and musician David Byrne. On a less glittering note, Sherman was also squired for five years by Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, whose 2009 documentary, Guest of Cindy Sherman, was inspired by his dismay at being identified in those words at a swanky party he attended as, well, Sherman’s guest.
“In our topsy-turvy art world it is holy writ that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are not self-portraits. What else they are, I cannot imagine,” carped Jed Perl, the art critic for The New Republic, after seeing the MoMA show in New York.
Counters Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA, “[Sherman] doesn’t talk about them as self-portraits. It’s not about exploring her own psyche. She is grappling with what it means to be a person in our culture, and using herself as a model to do so. They’re about what you can read from a portrait—they’re not about her.”
O’Toole, who’s overseeing the installation of Cindy Sherman here (Eva Respini, an associate curator at MoMA in New York, organized the exhibition), says she’s excited to see new viewers react to Sherman’s work. “Because of social media and changing modes of self-presentation, people might see these as avatars in a way, as trying out different personas,” she says. “The culture has caught up to Cindy Sherman, in a sense.”
For those of a certain age, however—say, Sherman’s—what will resonate at the SFMOMA show will be some of the newest work: the 2008 series of so-called “society portraits” depicting aging women. “It’s in the zeitgeist,” says O’Toole. “There’s a lot of interest in the pressures on women as they get older and the pressure to maintain a youthful appearance.”
Sherman’s army of 50ish to 80ish women isn’t going gentle into that good night: The lined faces sag beneath the weight of heavy makeup and plumped-up lips, and (the viewer might conjecture) the constant effort of battling decline. The portraits, says Chadwick, speak to what she calls the “gray area” of femininity and aging. “What do we take as the attractive aging feminine image—Botox, face-lifted?” says Chadwick. Sherman’s work suggests, she says, that these interventions “are just manipulations of the real, in the same way that Photoshopping is a manipulation of the representational.”
Cindy Sherman’s pièce de résistance is a giant mural from 2010-11 installed along a 50-foot wall on the museum’s fourth floor—a scale of grandeur that reflects Sherman’s towering stature in the art world. Here, the computer has replaced the cosmetics case, with Sherman digitally transforming various facial features with what she calls “horrifying” ease. Set against an elaborate backdrop, the full-length figures in the mural are more than 15 feet tall, wearing grave expressions and bizarre costumes.
“They have a presence, like formal portraits in oil,” says O’Toole. “All of the figures are looking at you. You really feel their presence because of their size and bearing—they’re pretty close up in the plane of view. You meet their gaze and have an encounter.” Unless you’re a society lady yourself, though, you’re unlikely to have an encounter with the flesh-and-blood version of Sherman, who will appear only at an opening event for high-level donors, says O’Toole. “Having that anonymity is important to what she does.”
Cindy Sherman, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., July 14-Oct. 8; Cindy Sherman Selects film series July 5-Aug. 30 at the museum. For info: (415) 357-4000 or sfmoma.org.
Autumn Stephens is co-editor of The East Bay Monthly. She lives in Berkeley with her nuclear family.