This large-scale photographic mural is on view at MoMA 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.

Gallery 2

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. 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 1950s and 1960s 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. 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.

Gallery 3

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. 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. Her first such commission, made in 1983, parodies typical fashion photography. Rather than projecting glamour, sex, or wealth, the pictures feature characters that are far from desirable—whether goofy, hysterical, angry, or slightly mad. 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. 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, while a fairy tale forest provides a dreamy backdrop for a well-to-do lady.

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. 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. 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.

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. The subjects (for the first time for Sherman, many are men) include aristocrats, Madonnas with child, clergymen, women of leisure, and milkmaids, who pose with props, costumes, and obvious prostheses. 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.

A handful of Sherman’s portraits were inspired by actual paintings. Untitled #224 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. In Sherman’s reinterpretation, the numerous layers of representation—a female artist impersonating a male artist impersonating a pagan divinity—create a sense of remove, pastiche, and criticality. Even where Sherman’s pictures offer a gleam of art-historical recognition, she has inserted her own interpretation of the canonized paintings, creating contemporary artifacts of a bygone era.

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. With these pictures, Sherman underscores the transformative qualities of makeup, hair, expression, and pose, and the power of stereotypes as transmitters of cultural clichés. She projects well-drawn personas: the enormous pouting lips of the woman in Untitled #360 suggest a yearning for youth, while the glittery makeup and purple iridescent dress worn by the character in Untitled #400 indicate an aspiration to reach a certain social status.

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

The works in this gallery explore the uncanny, monstrous, and carnivalesque impulses that are expressed through fairy tales, black humor, clowns, and masks. Although the pictures do not correspond with specific stories, Sherman’s macabre fairy tale works from 1985 evoke the Brothers Grimm, Teutonic myths, folk legends, and fables, exemplified by gothic scenes such as Untitled #146. A later work, Untitled #296 (1994), equally theatrical and fantastical, may have been inspired by mimes or Kabuki theater. 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.

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. 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. 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.

Gallery 11

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, in her whimsical 1975 stop-motion animated short film Doll Clothes and her rarely seen 1976 collages, which were achieved through a labor-intensive process of cutting and pasting multiple photographs. 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.