Cindy Sherman and John Waters: A Conversation

Cover of the publication Cindy Sherman by Eva Respini. 2012. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

As an admirer of both Cindy Sherman and John Waters, I was happy to see a conversation between the artists included in Cindy Sherman, the exhibition catalogue accompanying the Museum’s major retrospective of the artist’s work.

The conversation is informal and convivial, and, with John Waters directing the questions, far more interesting than the standard artist interview. Their dialogue focuses mostly on Sherman’s work, but also delves into topics ranging from the tribulations of fame to childhood toys to where Sherman shops for costumes.

In the following excerpt from “A Conversation,” Sherman and Waters discuss the Untitled Film Stills.

JW: As you mentioned, you’re going to be known forever for the Untitled Film Stills. I’ve always said that people don’t remember movies; they remember the stills. And I think you really captured that quality. But why do you think they’re so iconic?

CS: I think it probably had something to do with the crossover of photography into fine art at that moment, and more artists using cameras and photography as a tool to make art.

JW: But why did a few of them—like the one where you’re hitchhiking—stand out so much?

Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #48. 1979. Gelatin silver print. Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

CS: I don’t know; maybe what’s so “iconic” is that you don’t even see the girl’s face. She’s got her back to the camera, so its like anybody can imagine who she is.

JW: A lot of people think they’re stills from a movie, but none of them are references to specific directors, are they?

CS: No, no, no, no, no.

JW: This is why I think they’re so brilliant. They weren’t done with one director in mind, but you saw all of those directors’ movies—so they were in you.

While he’s best known as a filmmaker, John Waters is also a gallery-represented artist. Not surprisingly, his non-film work often quotes from other movies and film history. Like Sherman, he utilizes film stills in his practice, but unlike the “Untitled Film Stills,” Waters’s stills are culled from actual films. He often juxtaposes and collages film images that are ideologically disparate. Stunt Lips, for example, uses a still from John Cassavetes’s film A Woman Under the Influence (1974): Gena Rowland’s mouth superimposed with a physically and aesthetically disproportionate set of lips with crooked teeth. (If I had to guess I’d say it’s Edith Massey’s mouth, The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos (1972) and Queen Carlotta from Desperate Living (1977).

John Waters. Stunt Lips. 2003. Cut-and-pasted chromogenic color print on chromogenic color print. The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift. © 2012 John Waters

While Waters and Sherman use film stills differently, the ideas they express are akin. Both recognize the loaded nature of a cinematic image and use the stills as a condensed, intricate language—a singular image capable of expressing a world. Waters’s altered movie stills disrupt the enduring narratives married to their filmic images. Sherman’s stills accomplish this, but also resonate on a more subliminal level because they are drawn from both no narrative and a thousand narratives at once.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #30. 1979. Gelatin silver print. Purchase. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

The retrospective exhibition Cindy Sherman is on view through June 11 in The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery on MoMA’s sixth floor.