Credited as “the unchallenged cornerstone of postmodern photography,” Cindy Sherman belongs to the first generation of Americans raised on television, a witness to how burgeoning media culture transformed the American economy and aesthetic. As a twenty-something whose knowledge of that era comes from history books and (please don’t hit me) Mad Men, I worried that I would not fully understand Sherman’s point of view. Towards the end of “Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up,” curator Eva Respini’s catalogue essay for Sherman’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Respini reveals that her title draws on a phrase popularized by the 1950s game show To Tell the Truth. I admit I’m deeply relieved it isn’t an Eminem reference.
Sherman’s works inspired thousands of essays on the death of the original artist and the finiteness of the visual world, but the MoMA retrospective proves her genius is hard to ignore. Known for orchestrating an army of wigs, makeup, accessories, prosthetic body parts, and costumes to transform herself into a society woman, Renaissance courtesan, housewife, Bacchus, nondescript film extra, or caustic clown, the theatricality of her disguises are overwhelmingly engaging, but she also delights in revealing the artifice of her setups just as the viewer is being pulled deeper into her visions.
Her almost-there role-playing and incomplete narratives encourage dialogue rather than slamming the viewer with a repetitive message. They are vibrant canvases that viewers projects themselves upon. Amidst a salon-style wall of other artists at the Brucennial, Sherman’s history portrait is calm, quiet, and assured. She reminds us that visual art is at the height of its power when it captures ideas that could only be expressed through an image. Sherman says she first resorted to photography out of practicality. “That was when I thought, ‘why am I wasting my time elaborately copying things when I could use a camera?’”
The retrospective offers a fairly predictable take on Sherman’s work, with thematic galleries arranged in a loosely chronological manner while her clown photos pop up throughout the show to keep visitors on their toes. Sherman is a highly prolific artist, so even after a difficult selection process the space still feels cramped. Sherman prefers to work alone in the studio, and that sense of loneliness and claustrophobia lingers over the entire exhibition, along with her interest in female identity and the nature of representation.
Sherman enjoyed critical attention and financial success from the beginning of her career. In her early Untitled Film Stills, inspired by a stack of soft-core porn magazines she saw in David Salle’s studio, she photographed herself posing as actresses from unidentified movies. The reference to performance art is obvious, and Sherman wanted to extend the soft-core photographs’ ambiguous narratives. In her later Centerfolds, which established her fame, she portrays a series of women experiencing intensely private moments who are, unlike the typical Playboy centerfolds, vulnerable, anxious and almost struggling to escape the picture frame.
She continued photographing herself until, around 1990, she disappeared altogether from her images to make her works less collectible and predictable. The result is the Disasters of Sex series, comprised of extravagantly nauseating arrangements of masks and prosthetic body parts accompanied by colorful vomit and viscera.
In the ’90s, she returned to using herself as a subject with her History Portraits, parodies of old master paintings that nonetheless captured the ambiance of the originals. Her Society Portraits, which serendipitously debuted during the nadir of the financial crisis in 2008, depict desperate society women trying to uphold their teetering dignity and stow away their insecurities by hiding behind comically copious amounts of Botox and exaggerated makeup. There’s nothing for the male eye to undress in these images, because the women are nothing but props and costumes. Her fashion photographs for Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons, although commissioned, are among her most breathtaking efforts.
The centerpieces of the exhibition are the murals that greet visitors at the entrance. Instead of relying on makeup, Sherman alters her facial features digitally and dresses herself in unidentifiable flesh-toned body suits and early twentieth century dresses set against a black and white background. The word “capture,” often used to describe the act of taking a photograph, implies a predator-prey relationship between photographer and subject, and in these new works the prey have escaped the frame and set themselves free, becoming giants literally as tall as the ceiling, gazing back from above.