Untitled Success Story

John Haber
in New York City

Cindy Sherman and Fashioning Fiction

When a young artist creates one of the landmark works of her time, she has to wonder what she can possibly do next. With Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman made it that much harder on herself: it already showed her as infinitely malleable. How could she find anything left to change?

From her first color photographs to the Museum of Modern Art's survey of fashion photography, "Fashioning Fiction," Sherman has taken on one disguise after another, all while seeming to insist on the brute facts of life. Now she looks at women dealing with age and change. Their dilemma could stand for her career as an artist, even as they disguise her all the more. A related review turns to the 2012 Cindy Sherman retrospective. Cindy Sherman's Untitled (Metro Pictures, 2008)

Galleries as art houses

Just to ask what she can still do says something: it shows the continued power of her breakthrough series and the hold of her work ever since. Once she stood for a sea change in contemporary art, as new media entered the galleries, as women gave the idea of self-expression a political dimension, and as irony or staged photography became the new norm. Modernism seemed an obstacle to facing the truth—including the truth about dead white males and art institutions. Before long, postmodern appropriation seemed just as dogmatic and just as cynical. Yet her work never does, a healthy reminder that Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, Uta Barth, and others back in "The Pictures Generation" were not so clear-cut either.

The question shows something else as well: even since those sixty-nine photos, completed in 1980, she has structured a career as a struggle with her own acceptance. The faster one dismisses her latest identity, the faster she changes it, even if that means posing "straight" for Lyle Ashton Harris. And the more she makes fun of any one role, the more that role becomes her image. Even her feminism helps sustain her sex appeal, and even her place after Warhol's Screen Tests makes her a true original. Even her attempts to shock viewers help make her images larger than life.

The struggle is part of what makes her contemporary, like Elisabeth Hase before her. Postmodernism reflects on modern art, but it needs Modernism to sustain itself—what I call the postmodern paradox. Its success has helped broaden audiences for contemporary art and the past alike. In turn, that success has bred a further paradox. Broader audiences have brought a resurgence of painting and other old rituals. And that has given fresh scope for strategies of appropriation.

For Sherman, the struggle takes starting over each time—or at least appearing to start over. The same questions may apply to a generation, but her work adopts them as their own. Remember when Michael Fried criticized Minimalism as theater? Art as theater could almost define Postmodernism, after all those years of art as expression, object, or window onto the world. For Sherman, though, the movies are always playing, and the galleries are the art houses. Take that first series in black and white.

As her own writer, producer, and director, she tackled Alfred Hitchcock and other classics head on. Her Untitled Film Stills show her as a player helpless to leave the set, and the set is hard to separate from museum walls. It shows her unable to resist a male audience's desires, even while re-creating old roles in her image. Ever since, she has sought new ways to do the same. Not even a male and genuine film star, James Franco, in copying her could match it or spoil it.

It is not just that she is using make-up to assert her identity, with its obvious influence on Rita Lundqvist and so many others. It is not just that she is finding new room for a woman to act while stuck playing a part. So are her characters. Her hall of mirrors shattered the presumptions of the movies, men, and women while grasping Hitchcock's poignant austerity. One could look at the early series and forget that film noir was supposed to be scary. One felt its fears all the same.

Aiming for the galleries

Almost immediately, Sherman decided that the old movies play too softly on home video. So much for austerity. The art world had assimilated her early work much too easily. Like Hitchcock, she had become a classic.

These days, a lover of old prints has an easier time than ever confronting the camera, as with Eileen Brady Nelson or Hannah Starkey. Video, too, has a softness for slick production values, linear form, and earnest appeals, as with Shirin Neshat, Matthew Barney, and Jesper Just. Naturally, they draw crowds of their own.

The poet of entrapment needed a way out, and in the 1990s she found it—in immense color photos that bury her in everything from print dresses to dead leaves and vomit. They despise low-brow sentiments and high-art aspirations equally. They continue her focus on women, so often plagued by eating disorders. They up the confrontation with male onlookers. They also represent people very much like her worst audience, after a night of alcoholic overconsumption.

They also give the first indication that she cannot so easily dismiss high art. She has never simply ignored Modernism, not when she has played off great directors. Her large color prints, though, give Modernism's "all over" surfaces a new meaning. They also draw modernist play with dolls and body parts, as with Pierre Molinier and Surrealism. One could assimilate even Untitled, the only title that she has ever used, to Modernism's purity.

She already seems to be trying awfully hard, at times way too hard. Shock art means confession as theater, pure and very simple. Sherman here is aiming for the galleries, in both turns of the phrase. In turn, gallery-goers have to join in. As art's theater goes, this is karaoke night.

Does that make the turn to color, too, a dead end? Not exactly, and the Guggenheim has called this work "haunted," but two different exhibitions the same month in 2004 showed her stripping down the landscape. They return her front and center, this time without so much as a gaze out of the frame. They make explicit the whole idea of dress-up and playing to the audience, from the circus to high fashion. Any shame and disgust that remain are purely social and psychological.

The baggy pants in this family

One could call Sherman a photographer, but like Amy Greenfield she appears on both sides of the camera. One could call her a visual artist, but she spends less time snapping pictures or manipulating images than reinventing each staged setting—and herself. One could call her an actor, but no one will ever view the movies. One could call her a performance artist, but no performance tries so hard to keep the artist from the public eye.

So why not a clown, as easy to hide behind masks as for James Ensor? Judging by one 2004 series, she agrees. A clown, like the women in Sherman's typically scathing analysis of gender roles, can move from laughter to tears behind heavy makeup. As ever, though, she does her best to subvert one's notion of art or entertainment. The circus is in town, but think less of Cole Porter's advice to "Be a Clown" than of Dylan's line in "Desolation Row."

Each clown exaggerates a part on the stage of life. That means parts that no performer at a child's birthday party would dare. Costumes simultaneously cover and exaggerate breasts. Makeup truly lays it on thick, even when it emphasizes the wrinkles.

Once again, no one so belabors images of women, but no one so puts gender in quotes. No one both hides and exposes herself so well, not even Sophie Calle. No one, too, so lacks for self-exposure. With her star status, one sees her now everywhere and nowhere, embracing and crossing gender boundaries.

With Sherman as curator, for Robert Mapplethorpe the year before, in 2003, she brought out the personality of other sitters and other roles in the art world. She also brought out the severest disguises of all—nudity and transgression. As a clown, she definitely wears the pants in art's dysfunctional family. Is her act getting brilliant but monotonous? Is it, like Mapplethorpe, ready for adoption by "50 Americans"?

In her fashion work, she sits on the ground, with fewer smiles, frowns, or gestures. She turns from a clown costume to another fragile burst of color. One could almost believe with Porter that "dress in huge baggy pants / and you'll ride the road to romance." Here she reverses the procedure, tempting one with the romance only to end up in baggy clothing. In her different roles and the increasing familiarity she brings to them, she keeps recalling a harsher paradox of the 1980s: the very critique of originality gave birth to a disturbing explosion of art markets, passing fame, and serious fortune.

Fashioning fashion

Sherman's fashion series has plenty in common with her first forays into color. A woman who just loves to dress up puts on clothing that no one in her right mind would buy, in elaborate settings that few could afford. Think, too, of Nan Goldin. Scantily clad models, from Goldin's exclusive inner circle, flaunt a risqué, slightly degrading sex life. And that was before one could get those meds through spam.

No, wait: that sounds like actual fashion magazines, right—in a time when artists have made the style pages or, like Shannon Plumb, mocked the fashion runway? MoMA sure thinks so. Sherman and Goldin co-star in "Fashioning Fiction," its 2004 survey of fashion photography since 1990. The exhibition proposes that fashion can co-opt the stratagems of its most creative critics without changing them—or itself. "Advertising photographs," writes Susan Sontag, "are often just as ambitious, artful, slyly casual, transgressive, ironic, and solemn as art photography." MoMA differs only in considering that a compliment to both.

The museum actually takes this stuff seriously, and it has a serious case. Sherman, who opens the parade, looks stunning as ever. Seated, as if floating on her own wedding dress, with a wild expression somewhere between Eliza Doolittle and the madwoman in the attic, she could be playing a young Miss Havisham. As a clown in absurdly colored, baggy pants, she takes on a surreal sanity.

The show has a theoretical case as well. It skips over controversy about the integrity of, say, Richard Avedon by avoiding his comforting elegance. It prefers paid features to advertisements, and it sees the first as subverting the second. With Philip-Lorca diCorcia as its guiding light, it highlights elaborately staged narratives that deny a coherent beginning or ending. As the exhibition title puts it, the magazines are fashioning fiction. Here comes Thoroughly Postmodern Millie now.

This highly selective group is missing something, and so are the pictures. They make a big fuss over the same strict, narrative conventions that isolate them from much creative photography in the first place. They also stay comfortably clean and extravagant, whereas such messier artists as Lorna Simpson play dress-up, too. Sherman segues smoothly into actual photos of wealthy women, rather than into her own gallery work, with its deliberately disgusting dismemberment of female beauty. Does Mapplethorpe often have the gloss of fashion, especially when in the nude? For the Modern, each realm has its artificially defined place.

By sticking to subjects remote from the viewer, "Fashioning Fiction" keeps fashion on a commercial pedestal. In contrast, one longs to know or to identify with Sherman in her own work. Conversely, by seeing fashion as critical rather than commercial, the show skirts real questions. In the process, it misses the chance for a truly subversive look at art, photography, and their markets. The year before, the Frick Collection illuminated the connections between James McNeill Whistler and fashion. MoMA gets scared lest the connections between art and fashion run a little too deep.

Untitled TV stills

An unsuccessful context like "Fashioning Fiction" brings Sherman back to the same questions. How does she keep beating a dead horse and succeeding all the same? Look back at her trajectory one last time, starting all the way back in 1980. Was anything really left to change?

Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #21 (Museum of Modern Art, photo from Sherman/Metro Pictures, 1978)As one solution, she has made her career an ongoing project, with Untitled Film Stills only its beginning. Each time she works alone as photographer, sitter, costumer, set designer, and makeup artist. Each time she portrays a woman as desirer and elusive object of desire, as self-creation and caught up in roles created for her by others. She presents herself as fearful, proud, or abject, but all as part of game of survival. Each time, too, she appropriates popular culture without ever quite quoting it. One always feels that one recognizes the scene and her assumed identity, as film star, fashion model, or circus clown—but of course one never does.

As a second solution, she has refused to look back, while adding shock after shock for those who do. That first black-and-white series refuses to define a woman as object of seduction, but its prints are deliberately seductive. Soon enough, she turns more harshly on the male gaze. She flings herself in its face, with those larger color scenes pressed closely to the picture plane. At the same time, she distances herself that much more, covering the fragments of her body with earthy, almost excremental surfaces. Curating Mapplethorpe or mimicking fashion, she teases out distances in the photographic self-exposure of others.

And that brings Sherman to 2008, when she does all that and something else as well: the always self-reflexive artist reflects on her self-reflexive career. Not that she literally repeats past work, assuming she has literally in her vocabulary. Rather, she takes on the image of an aging woman, as loaded a subject as any that she has attempted. The poseur has become a diva. In the process, she produces some of her most seductive work yet.

As always, she exaggerates. On the Artforum gossip site the same month, she hobnobs with dealers, collectors, and other celebrity artists without looking at all dressed up, much less washed up. She has not yet reached the age of Joan Rivers, a southern belle, an aristocrat haunted by her own portrait, or a society matron clinging for dignity to her cat. In her work, though, the control freak puts herself through virtuosic changes in weight, while closing in on every crack in her makeup. She shoots in front of a neutral screen, like a TV weather forecaster, adding the setting later. The device isolates her image that much further, in one case as a bust floating without a body, and it strands her in some disturbing backgrounds.

She dominates her new images, thanks in part to posing as women so focused on maintaining theirs. As if to accentuate each woman's isolation, only one wears a wedding ring, and she is also the only one to share the frame—with another version of herself. Yet in confronting age, Sherman also allows herself less distance, more sympathy, and even something approaching sex appeal. One knew in advance that fashion and clowning are only roles, whereas these roles take teasing out. They have freed her from the obligation to up the shock ante each time, and they allow her to take cultural givens seriously again. Nearly thirty years after Untitled Film Stills, she has found her untitled TV stills.

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Cindy Sherman ran at Metro Pictures through May 16, 1998, through June 26, 2004, and through December 23, 2008, as well as earlier shows that I did not review. "Fashioning Fiction: In Photography Since 1990" ran at MoMA QNS through June 28, 2004. Susan Sontag's typically brilliant line appears in the final chapter of Regarding the Pain of Others (Picador, 2003). A related review turns to the 2012 Cindy Sherman retrospective.


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