Jill Krementz covers Cindy Sherman-Part I

Cindy Sherman
February 26-June 11, 2012
MoMA

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential artists of our time. Masquerading as myriad characters, she invents personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography.

To create her images, Sherman assumes the multiple roles of photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, and stylist. Whether portraying a career girl, a blond bombshell, a fashion victim, a clown, or a society lady of a certain age, for over thirty-five years this relentlessly adventurous artist has created an eloquent and provocative body of work that resonates deeply in our visual culture.

This mid-career retrospective spans 11 galleries and includes 180 key photographs from the artist's significant series, including the complete Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), the centerfolds (1981), the celebrated history portraits (1988-90), the breakthrough sex pictures of 1992, the clowns (2003-04), and the society portraits of 2008. 

Curated by Associate Curator Eva Respini, with the assistance of Lucy Gallon, the exhibition features the American premiere of her 2010 photographic mural outside the galleries on the sixth floor.
Entrance to the Cindy Sherman exhibition on the sixth floor.

Untitled, 2010
Pigment print on PhotoTex adhesive fabric
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

This large-scale photographic mural is on view here for the first time in the United States. As in most of her work, here Sherman is both model and photographer, but instead of using makeup or prosthetics to alter her appearance, she has transformed her face digitally, elongating her nose, narrowing her eyes, or creating smaller lips.

The characters, eccentrics that Sherman has elevated to larger-than-life status, sport an odd mixture of costumes, including a juggler's outfit, an ill-fitting nude suit, and a feathered leotard. Set against a decorative backdrop reminiscent of toile wallpaper, they are the protagonists of their worlds, in which fantasy and reality merge.
Eva Respini, Associate Curator of MoMA's Department of Photography. Ms. Respini conceived the exhibition two years ago after seeing a show of Sherman's work on display at Metro Pictures, which has represented the artist in New York since the '70s. Detail of Sherman as juggler.
Neal Benezra, Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the show will travel
(July 14th-October 7, 2012).
Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim. Sadly, NYSD is not generally afforded full access to press previews by the Gugg's Public Affairs Officer, which is why we do not cover
their exhibitions.
Peter Reed. "I didn't do anything on the show, but as Senior Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, I had the pleasure of watching the progress as the catalogue and exhibition took shape."
Margaret Doyle, Director of Communications. Art writer Larry Qualls: "Cindy Sherman's career represents the apotheosis of performance art. She took the single idea of impersonation that she developed when she and Robert Longo were students in Buffalo and has run with it ever since."
Paul Jackson, who also works in MoMA's communications department, entering Gallery 1.
Gallery 1
The earliest work in the exhibition is this 1975 montage of twenty-three hand-colored gelatin prints.

On the right is Troy Patterson, who writes about TV, media, and culture for Slate.
Five Gelatin silver prints, 1975
Chromogenic color print, 1983. All the pieces in the show are untitled. Chromogenic color print, 2008; acquired by MoMA (generosity of Robert Menschel in honor of
Jerry Speyer.)
Chromogenic color print, 1985
Chromogenic color print, 1992
Gallery 2
Untitled Film Stills: Wall one

In fall 1977, Sherman began making pictures that would eventually become her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills. Over three years, the series (presented here in its entirety) grew to comprise a total of seventy black-and-white photographs.
All the walls of Gallery 2 are devoted to Sherman's collection of Film Stills.

Taken as a whole, the Untitled Film Stills—resembling publicity pictures made on movie sets—read like an encyclopedic roster of stereotypical female roles inspired by 1950's and 1960's Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films. But while the characters and scenarios may seem familiar, Sherman's Stills are entirely fictitious; they represent clichés (career girl, bombshell, girl on the run, vamp, housewife, and so on) that are deeply embedded in the cultural imagination.
Untitled Film Still, 1978
Untitled Film Still, 1979
While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.
Writer Phoebe Hoban, whose recent biography of artist Alice Neel was picked by New York magazine as one of the ten best non-fiction books of 2011. Wolfgang Wesener, a German photographer who has exhibited at Leica Gallery in New York.
Gallery 3
Untitled, 1983

Fashion—a daily form of masquerade that communicates culture, gender, and class—has been a constant source of inspiration for Sherman and a leading ingredient in the creation of her work.
Later commissions resulted in more extreme images of characters with bloodshot eyes, bruises, and scars. These exaggerated figures reached ostentatious heights in a 2007–08 commission, in which fashion victims—including steely fashion editors, PR mavens, assistant buyers, and wannabe fashionistas—wear clothing designed by Balenciaga and ham it up for the camera. Untitled, 1984

Throughout her career the artist has completed a number of commissions for fashion designers and magazines, and this gallery gathers many of these works. Sherman's fashion pictures challenge the industry's conventions of beauty and grace.
Untitled, 1994
Untitled, 1994
Rather than projecting glamour, sex, or wealth, the pictures feature characters that are far from desirable—whether goofy, hysterical, angry, or slightly mad.
Untitled, 2011

Sherman's interest in the construction of femininity and the mass circulation of images informs much of her work; the projects that take fashion as their subject illustrate the artist's fascination with fashion images but also her critique of what they represent.
Gallery 4
The pictures in Sherman's 1981 centerfolds series refer to both the printed page and, in their stereoscope format, the cinema. Originally commissioned by Artforum magazine, these send-ups of men's erotic magazines depict a variety of women in different emotional states, ranging from terrified to heartbroken to melancholic.
In these intimate pictures, it's as if we are witnessing a private moment unfolding. The photographs are at once seductive and anxiety-inducing; the saturated palette contributes to the intensity and the alienation of the women, heightening the drama of each picture.
With this series, Sherman takes on the roles of both photographer (assumed to be male) and female model. The antitheses of conventional centerfolds, the works foreground the effect that pictures have on us, making us aware of, and complicit in, the acts of photographing and looking.
Gallery 5
Sherman, who photographs alone in her studio, has used a variety of techniques to suggest different locations and imaginary (sometimes impossible) spaces, extending the narrative possibilities of her images. In her first foray into color, in 1980, the artist photographed herself in front of rear-screen projections of various cityscapes and landscapes, evoking films from the 1950s and 1960s that used similar techniques to create the illusion of a change in location. In later series, such as the head shots (2000–2002), clowns (2003–04), and society portraits (2008), the artist used digital tools to create a variety of environments. The garish fluorescent colors in a clown picture contribute to the disturbing quality of the portrait.
A fairy tale forest provides a dreamy backdrop for a well-to-do lady, 2008.
These three untitled chromogenic prints, all taken in 1980, are in Gallery 5.
Gallery 6
In the 1980s and 1990s—decades characterized in the United States by politically charged debates about censorship in the arts and the specter of AIDS—Sherman's investigation of macabre and grotesque narratives led to the physical disintegration of the body in her work and her eventual disappearance from the pictures.

This gallery features photographs from several series exploring these themes, including the series known as the fairy tales (1985), disasters (1986–89), and sex pictures (1992), underscoring Sherman's preoccupation with horror and the abject throughout the years.
Outlandish and revolting tableaus feature rotting food and substances that look like blood, feces, and vomit. Equally repulsive and seductive, these visually rich landscapes of decay are painterly in texture and color.
Violated and hybrid bodies found their full expression in Sherman's 1992 sex pictures, for which she arranged dolls bought from medical-supply catalogues to simulate sex acts and mimic scenes from pornography.
These theatrical pictures revel in their own artificiality, often featuring dolls and prosthetic parts as stand-ins for the human body. The figure appears as an animal-human hybrid, as neither male nor female, or as barely human. Len Speier is a well-known street photographer. "I am working on my "Bus Series" now, and some other projects. At 84, after a bout with cancer followed by a stroke, I am still kicking around taking my photos. I am truly a lucky man."
Gallery 7
Sherman's history portraits (1988–90) investigate modes of representation in art history and the relationship between painter and model. These classically composed portraits borrow from a number of art-historical periods—Renaissance, baroque, rococo, Neoclassical—and make allusions to paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio, Fragonard, and Ingres (who, like all the Old Masters, were men). This free-association sampling creates a sense of familiarity, but not of any one specific era or style.

MoMA security guard, Mr. Jacobus, patrols the gallery.
The subjects (for the first time for Sherman, many are men) include aristocrats, Madonnas with child, clergymen, women of leisure, and milk-maids, who pose with props, costumes, and obvious prostheses.

A handful of Sherman's portraits were inspired by actual paintings. Untitled #224, which you can see to the far left, was made after Caravaggio's Sick Bacchus (c. 1593), which is commonly believed to be a self-portrait of the artist as the Roman god of wine.
Theatrical and artificial—full of large noses, bulging bellies, squirting breasts, warts, and unibrows—the history portraits are poised between humorous parody and grotesque caricature.
Gallery 8
After almost a decade of staging still lifes with dolls and props, in her 2000–2002 head-shots series Sherman returned to a more intimate scale and to using herself as a model. The format recalls ID pictures, head shots, or vanity portraits made in garden-variety portrait studios by professional photographers.
First exhibited in Beverly Hills, the series explores the cycle of desire and failed ambition that permeates Hollywood. Sherman conceived a cast of would-be or has-been female actors posing for head shots in order to get acting jobs; later, for an exhibition in New York, she added East Coast types. Whichever part of the country they're from, we've seen these women before—on reality television, in soap operas, or at a PTA meeting.

The glittery makeup and purple iridescent dress worn by the character in Untitled #400 indicate an aspiration to reach a certain social status.
Sherman projects well-drawn personas: the enormous pouting lips of the woman in Untitled #360 suggest a yearning for youth. With these pictures, Sherman underscores the transformative qualities of makeup, hair, expression, and pose, and the power of stereotypes as transmitters of cultural clichés.
In her role as both sitter and photographer, Sherman has disrupted the usual power dynamic between model and photographer and created new avenues through which to explore the very apparatus of portrait photography itself.
Gallery 9
That's Walter Robinson moving from Gallery 8 to Gallery 9.

The works in this gallery explore the uncanny, monstrous, and carnivalesque impulses that are expressed through fairy tales, black humor, clowns, and masks.
Sherman's 2003–04 clown series includes figures in a range of emotional states, from hysterical passion to tragic pathos. She has created a cast of bizarre, wicked, disturbed, and even lustful players, opening the door to multiple layers of meaning and narrative: the surface facade, denoted by makeup and clothes, and an under layer expressed through gesture, pose, and styling.
A later work, Untitled #296 (1994), equally theatrical and fantastical, may have been inspired by mimes or Kabuki theater.
This is what happens when you're in a room full of smirking clowns. artnet's Walter Robinson who was recently profiled on front page of The Observer's arts section.
Untitled clown diptych of two Chromogenic color prints.
Two MoMA directors: NY's Glenn Lowry with SF's Neal Benezra.
Gallery 10
Set against opulent backdrops and presented in ornate frames, the characters in Sherman's 2008 society portraits seem at once tragic and vulgar. The figures are not based on specific women, but the artist has made them look entirely familiar in their struggle with the impossible standards of beauty that prevail in a youth- and status-obsessed culture.

At this large scale, it is easy to decipher the characters' vulnerability behind the makeup, clothes, and jewelry.
These well-heeled divas presaged the financial collapse of 2008, the end of an era of opulence—the size of the photographs alone seems a commentary on an age of excess. Among the numerous iterations of contemporary identity, these pictures stand out as at once provocative, disparaging, empathetic, and mysterious. The psychological weight of these pictures comes through the unrelenting honesty of their description of aging, the tell-tale signs of cosmetic alteration, and the small details that belie the characters' attempts to project a polished and elegant appearance.
Upon careful viewing, they reveal a dark reality lurking beneath the glossy surface of perfection. As with much of her work, in her society portraits Sherman has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to channel the zeitgeist.
Nesia Pope is a journalist for the Brazilian press. Susan Morris is an art consultant at the Ford Foundation. She is also curating an exhibition for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
Lance Esplund is the art critic for Bloomberg News. Emily Nathan writes for artnet.
Gallery 11
When Sherman began working digitally in the early 2000s, she was able to more easily incorporate multiple figures in one frame, allowing for a variety of new narrative possibilities.

Where the early works chart the movements and gestures of a single character through space, the multiple figures in recent works interact with one another to create tableaus.
Multiple tableaus using digital manipulation.
Because the majority of Sherman's pictures feature the artist as model, they showcase a single character. In the 1970s Sherman experimented with cutouts of multiple figures achieved through a labor-intensive process of cutting and pasting multiple photographs.
Cut-out gelatin silver prints mounted on board.
The opening frame for Sherman's whimsical 1975 stop-motion animated short film Doll Clothes.
The 16mm video has been transferred to DVD and is mounted on the wall in the final gallery.
After viewing the show: a press conference for attending journalists
At the press preview: A conversation between Glenn Lowry and Eva Respini.
Members of the press and invited guests.
Eva Respini: "When I visited Metro Pictures in 2008 and saw the Society Portraits I became convinced that Cindy Sherman should have a show at MoMA. It was clear in her photos that all the women were struggling with the demands society makes on them. The glossy persona of the women revealed a darker reality underneath.

"Cindy Sherman's work is successful because there is a sense of empathy there. It's not just parody. It's what's underneath.

"There's a sense of open-mindedness about Sherman. She's a very down-to-earth person. All of her pieces are untitled so the viewer can bring his or her own narrative to the work."
Neal Benezra and Roxana Marcoci, Curator of Photography at MoMA. Alexandra Peers writes about art for the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, and the New York Times.
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication that presents the stunning range of work by the artist during her 35-year career. Lavishly illustrated with more than 180 works (some never before published) the book highlights all of Sherman's major series; $40 (paperback), $60 (hardcover).

A highlight of the book is a conversation with filmmaker John Waters.
The poster for the show. Jonas Cuémin, who writes for La Lettre de la Photographie. "This is my first Cindy Sherman show and I am impressed by these large-scale tableaus."
Barry Haggard and James Wagner checking out the catalogue.
Banners outside the museum on 53rd Street.
Click here for the opening night party honoring Cindy Sherman.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.