Cindy Sherman

Museum of Modern Art
The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery
February 26-June 11, 2012

One week after seeing this extensive retrospective I am still trying to process my reaction to it.  The only work of Cindy Sherman I was really familiar with prior to this exhibit was her Untitled Film Stills series, and a few of the Centerfold images.  Who hasn't seen Untitled Film Still #21 (1978) ? It is the image used in virtually every general overview written about Sherman's work. It seems to be her iconic image. But all of the film stills are remarkable as a group and individually. I could have spent hours looking at just this set of images.  Untitled Film Stills Interactive Gallery

Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)

And Untitled #96 (1981)  was for a while last year the highest priced photograph ever sold, having set the record in May with a sale price of $3,890,500.  In November of 2011 that record was eclipsed by Andreas Gursky's Rhein II , which sold for $4.3 million.  The Centerfold series, also known as the Horizontals series, was commissioned by ArtForum to be displayed as two page spreads in the magazine. Sherman decided to create a series that would mimic centerfolds from pornographic magazines. The images were panned by critics as confirming sexist stereotypes, and ArtForum eventually rejected the series and it was never published.  Centerfolds Series Interactive Gallery

Untitled #96  (1981)

It is virtually impossible to read about contemporary art and/or photography without hearing mention of Cindy Sherman's name. She is universally recognized among the giants of the contemporary art world, and is also being compared to the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns. (see Roberta Smith, NYT Review) A recent review on Art Net goes even further and claims Sherman to be the "successor to C├ęzanne, Picasso, Pollock and Warhol.". 

Untitled #137  (1984)

Whether or not these comparisons hold any truth or stand the test of time, I think they represent one of the reasons I am having difficulty processing a cohesive reaction to the more recent work. And that is because Sherman has transcended photography, much like other photographic artists such as Gursky, Jeff Wall, or Thomas Demand. Artists working with photography as a medium. Photography as a genre becomes secondary to the Art object being produced.

Untitled #222  (1990)

I entered the exhibit with a preconceived notion of Sherman as a photographer in the traditional sense, and was unprepared for the visual reality of her work post-Centerfolds. Most are enormous. The History Portrait series from the 1990's is a stunning example of this shifting away from photography. Large scale images loosely based on classic European paintings (Old Masters), they are hung in ornate wooden frames appropriate to the period. Can you say Painterly?.  History Series Interactive Gallery

Untitled # 413  (2003)

Other work from the nineties includes experiments with props and prosthetic devices. Images that explore bizarre pornographic scenes and others involving combinations of food, vomit, garbage and other unknown elements.  The exhibit touches only lightly on these disturbing images, but give credit for a full representation of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sherman's full career span is represented, although intentionally non-chronologically. While that seems to have bothered some critics, for me it wasn't an important issue in absorbing the work.

Untitled #476  (2008)

I'm not willing to agree with Michael Fried, who wrote in his book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), I find almost all of her work after the centerfolds to be of relatively little artistic interest.” I do find it interesting. That doesn't mean I like it. My gut reaction walking around the exhibit was that I simply didn't like the majority of the work post-centerfolds. All week I have been asking myself why ? I think part of it is the transition of her work away from my own notions of what photography ought to be. But if I am completely honest I think it has a lot to do with a male reaction to powerfully feminist art. I am comfortable with the visual product in Film Stills and Centerfolds. Everything else becomes increasingly uncomfortable. I am being asked to re-evaluate my perceptions and assumptions about the objectivity of women in photography, as well as that of women as artists. It is a language as difficult to navigate as abstract expressionism or cubism, demanding investigation and further study. In that context, Sherman may well deserve her place on the pedestal with the masters of contemporary art.

Cindy Sherman @ Musuem of Modern Art

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