Some of Cindy Sherman’s characters bring an immediate context to mind. You gaze at the picture, and there’s the flood of a specific time and place. A scene forms and the figure becomes the protagonist of a narrative. Others are, at first take, more obscure or bizarre. Why would a blond, dreadlocked woman have chosen such a preppy cable-knit sweater? And why would an older Renaissance-era woman have posed for a portrait in the midst of donning or removing her clothing? Yet these seemingly incongruous characters also possess the complexity and depth we might encounter in living, breathing eccentrics and oddballs.
Many of the free spirits (or conformists) conjured up in Sherman’s photographs over the years have found a temporary home in the The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery on MoMA’s sixth floor, where the retrospective exhibition Cindy Sherman continues through June 11. The characters pictured in these works—including film heroines, clowns, and ladies of high society—exhibit vibrant personas, which often summon surprising and poignant responses. As art historian and critic Johanna Burton writes in the exhibition catalogue, there is one picture from Sherman’s head shots series (Untitled #402, 2000) that reminds her “very much of someone in [her] immediate family, so much so that [she] has a hard time looking at the image, though [she finds herself] doing so compulsively.” For each of us, a picture by Sherman stirs up a representation of a different individual, playing a role in a different scenario. It is this evocation, and its multiplicity across her audience, that is one of the resonant qualities of her work.
For the exhibition website, we’ve gathered together artists, art historians, writers, and others to speak about their “favorite” works by Sherman in short video clips. The participants, including artist Robert Longo, art historian and curator Douglas Crimp, and gallerist Helene Winer, among others, describe a vivid narrative that an image induces for them, recall an anecdote from the time at which a photograph was shot, or simply and assuredly declare the power of the work and its significance in the history of art. As hard as it may be for each of us to single out just one picture, these videos remind us how particular works by Sherman have, so often, played momentous roles in our personal and wider cultural artistic formation. Sometimes it might be just one of Sherman’s characters who is the pivot of debate, other times it is a series of pictures that, seen together, broadened our vision.
While working on the exhibition, I’ve had ample time for Sherman’s pictures to work their way into my mind and seemingly take on their own lives. One of these pictures is Untitled #70, a work from 1980 that utilizes the technique of rear-screen projection. In my reading of this work, the central character is, in fact, an “artist.” Why? Maybe it’s the setting, which is a downtown New York bar (really an image of its own, which Sherman projected in her studio and then posed in front of). The neon lights in the windows appear to have infused the place with a deep red glow, which envelops the figure in its captivating aura. Outside the bar windows, we get a glimpse of the tall arches of building facades. It might be SoHo or the East Village, both hotbeds of artistic culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I presume that this figure, with the beer in her hand and her confident stare, holds her own with the male artists whose fame was rising in this era. It’s a milieu that Sherman would have known well. The “artist” role might seem to hit too close to home for a typical Sherman character (though she also posed as an artist in her studio a few years later for a picture that appeared on the cover of the September 1983 issue of Art News, with the caption, “Who Does Cindy Sherman Think She Is?”). Yet, as always, the woman in the picture isn’t Sherman. This raven-haired artist is a figment that she has invoked through costume and lighting, through fabrication and drama.