I just know I have seen her before, somewhere. If you find yourself saying that, not just once but again and again and again, you are not alone. Nothing distinguishes Cindy Sherman's photography more than its familiarity. Her retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, is like a homecoming for you and her alike. Just beware of who has welcomed you home.
These are the movies you loved, the fashion magazines and centerfolds you turned, the paintings you like to think that you remember, and the clowns you grew up watching on TV. They are the people you knew and maybe turned away from. They are the people you never knew apart from maybe the style pages—the kind with wealth, access, and neuroses that only a successful artist would know. They are the nights you tried to forget, after waking up amid the evidence. So what if Sherman made them all up and staged them? Memory, you know, is always a reconstruction.
Nor does the familiarity end there. More than a dozen large color photographs in her retrospective hang regularly in the Whitney or the Modern, which also owns the complete Untitled Film Stills. Those seventy black-and-white photographs, from between 1977 and 1980, are still her most memorable images and an influence on Rita Lundqvist and so many others, and you truly will recognize more than a few. If this entire review seems halfway familiar, Sherman has kept demanding attention ever since. In gathering reviews of her solo shows since 1998 and "Fashioning Fiction," at MoMA's short-lived Queens outpost in 2004, I found myself trying over and over to fashion a career survey—and then having to amend it. If I end up repeating myself, interpretation is, after all, yet another kind of reconstruction.
Sherman and, more broadly, staged photography have not only entered museum and private collections. Sure, the previous occupant of the sixth-floor galleries, Willem de Kooning, has entered art history, even if you are not sure which of his Women you remember. More than any artist since Andy Warhol, though, she has entered the public consciousness. Naturally both have made it hard to disentangle popular culture and real events, and both have had people debating where appropriation ends and creativity begins. Both also trade in glamour as well as horror—Andy Warhol with Jackie and the electric chair, Sherman with actual fashion photography and simulated film noir (although her latest gallery show, in Chanel against simulated landscapes, comes off as little more than product placement). Déjà vu, the disorienting sense of familiarity that Sigmund Freud called the uncanny, may well depend on disgust and terror.
Both Warhol and Sherman were self-effacing while creating a signature body of work, and both have had sophisticated critics questioning the very possibility of originality or authenticity. And that brings up a third kind of familiarity, beyond the imagery and the art. If you think you have seen that woman in her photographs somewhere, you have—in the photograph just before. Sherman is her one and only model, in work that puts her on both sides of the camera with you, the viewer, in between. Untitled Film Stills marked such a breakthrough in no small part because it introduced the theme of entrapment, long before James Franco tried to appropriate it. Her subjects are repeatedly trapped by their fears, the roles they work so hard to maintain, and by things unseen, but one remembers them so vividly because the trap is not theirs alone.
Sherman's presence or absence has always had people debating, whereas not so very different work in the late 1970s by Francesca Woodman is ever so obviously autobiographical and still earlier self-portraits by Elisabeth Hase every so clearly false. Eva Respini, who curated the show along with Lucy Gallun, opens her fine catalog essay with the debate. As she points out, "Time and time again, writers have asked, Who is the real Cindy Sherman?" And her answer is simple, none. It also goes too far. Respini describes the artist's choice as just "a matter of practicality," as if she could not at this point afford assistants now and again (and indeed she has directed others on film).
These subjects would not seem half as familiar or as changeable without her. They could not seem as approachable if one did not want to know her—or as inapproachable without her insistence on working alone. They could not have one puzzling over gender roles if she were not playing with makeup and yet asserting her total control of the picture. They could not have one empathizing with older and older roles if she were not aging, and they would not have one frightened of aging and loneliness if she did not exaggerate her age. They could not have one hunting through inhuman landscapes of insects and vomit except to look for her, and one could not make sense of her constant starting over with new and often repellent series if she were not trying to maintain her anonymity and escape. They could not penetrate so deeply without the artist's peculiar obsessiveness, and, in Respini's words, "she addresses the anxieties of the status of the self" because she herself is on the line.
Respini traps herself only because, when it comes to Sherman, everyone does. No one can help it. She also has a point to make, right with her opening sentence: "Cindy Sherman's photographs are not self-portraits." And that is the case, for they are anything but. To quote just the series titles, they are the film stills, centerfolds from 1981, fairy tales from 1985, disasters and history portraits from the late 1980s, sex pictures from 1992, head shots and clowns to start the next decade, society portraits from 2008, and the list goes on.
Then again, maybe not. If everything else is at once familiar and unstable, why not genre? When Sherman posed for the cover of Art News in 1983, she sat with casual clothes, a shy but open smile, a staged photograph in the background, and studio lighting to each side. She was there, but in a blond wig. She was revealing her methods but also making a work about them. It both was and was not a self-portrait.
After all those paradoxes, maybe one had better start over, at the beginning. MoMA welcomes and frustrates that impulse as well. The retrospective proceeds more or less chronologically, but not quite. It has the complete Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds, worth a visit all by themselves, with separate rooms for most later series. It also interrupts the flow for a few thematic asides, mostly on her working methods. If you find this presentation revealing but annoying, like magazine covers as "compromised media" for Robert Heinecken, Join the club.
It can seem arbitrary, with Society Portraits of wealthy older women turning up almost anywhere. It can seem like whitewashing, by dispersing or downplaying some of the most shocking and ugly work. At least one critic (surely not I) wished for more of the Clowns and the 1980s, with Sherman not so much disguised as half buried in prosthetic flesh and precious bodily fluids. On the other hand, the show complements nicely her recent exhibitions, and it has every reason to act accessible. Almost every critic has described giving up on her as she becomes more outrageous and artificial, only to find her essential once and for all—even if they can never agree on when. If you have much the same feeling, and you will, you are experiencing Sherman's déjà vu all over again.
The show also gets to begin revealingly, apart from a 2010 mural outside of gender-bending medieval roles. The opening room supplies a bit of an overview. After her head on the ground at her most beautiful, but dead as a statue and covered with something like flies, it will get harder to dismiss the ugliness. After a society matron presiding over a villa that sure looks like the Cloisters, it will get harder to dismiss that series as beyond an ordinary New Yorker's experience. However, the room also includes the earliest photographs, before her series. They look like snapshots laid out on a single sheet, as she moves in and out of reserved adulthood and childish funny faces.
A later room has more early work, in clustered cutouts of herself and a stop-action video. She moves not quite freely until a hand reaches in to adjust her like a doll. Already one sees her dressing up but also refusing to dress up. Even as a girl out on Long Island, she played with makeup, but at times to strive for not a gorgeous young adult but an older woman. One also sees her fascination with self-portraiture but also re-creation. Actors talk of moving in and out of character, when they mean in and out of roles, and Sherman makes it hard to distinguish character from roles.
Next come the film stills, modeled after publicity stills from the 1940s and 1950s, but eerily like scenes from actual films. People describe them as alternately demure, sexy, vulnerable, scared, and daring, but it makes more sense to see all of them as all of the above. One remembers the girl reaching for a book so that her breasts stand out, on shelves stocked with film history. Sherman also shows her ability to transform not just herself but everything around her. A dark street becomes a film set, a ventilation tower becomes a castle or monument, a simple railing becomes a terrifying obstacle, battered walls become ridden by bullet holes, and a bed becomes a crime scene. At the same time, she starts her practice of breaking the spell, by leaving things lying about as if by accident.
She never again ventures outside her studio, with the only backgrounds now added from a neutral screen, digital manipulation, or her own creation. Of course, this only brings her closer to Hollywood and TV. She starts working larger and in full color, as with the four-foot Centerfolds, commissioned for Artforum. There again she enacts anxieties as much as temptations, and there again the alternative roles in series can seem instead the fluid movement of a single actor. As one turns one's head, she could be writhing like the dancers in an early Robert Longo, a classmate at art school in Buffalo and a boyfriend who himself was borrowing from a film. Not just the construction of gender places her with the "Pictures generation."
Her self-transformations have to leave one looking for affinities and influences. Like Diane Arbus, she worked for fashion magazines and shows the strangeness of Manhattan streets, but without the freakishness. Like Bruce Nauman or Hannah Wilke, she performs boldly while abusing herself, but in character and in fear. Like Lynda Benglis or Hans Bellmer, she mixes up bad girls with prosthetics, but with no actual nudity even as a centerfold. Like Sherrie Levine and Laurie Simmons, she questions male assumptions about women, but with herself on the line. Like Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and his Baby IKKI, she plays the clown, but while accepting the consequences.
Still, she is always fighting back. She has marveled that people keep remembering those movies she made up, and she seems to spend the 1980s doing her best to disabuse them. The growing exaggeration is part of that, and so is the way that each series starts over—or is it? Maybe posing as a woman, she seems to say, is always about re-creation. The nasty series do not quite remove the temptations either. One can take comfort in finding her lying at the very top of the frame or merely reflected in sunglasses.
In the same way, she inflates, mocks, and embraces her growing status in fine art. The History Portraits, displayed all over four walls Salon style, put her through the paces of painting since the High Renaissance, with a certain fondness for Madonnas and whores (along with the dubious moral rigor of Savonarola in profile). Just to confuse you further, you actually may remember one or two, like the pose after Caravaggio's Bacchus or Raphael's La Fornarina, in legend a portrait of his mistress. Finally come the fictive naivety of the Head Shots—with the desire to please in yet another way, as in an audition—and the Society Portraits. I first saw them as a stunning gesture of empathy with the pathos of aging, but that, too, could play out deceits and temptations, just as unsympathetic critics look for rounded characters in postmodern novels. Then again, Sherman is sure to appreciate characters like these intimately, as her collectors.
Of course, the real Cindy Sherman never appears—or at least a Cindy Sherman who is not working. People keep saying how disarming and modest she is, and I believe them. Still, I doubt that I have met an artist who does not feel most her real self when she is working. And if I did call that other self the reality, would that call in question Sherman's whole career? Maybe, or maybe that mistake is just one more of her temptations. Maybe, too, if I found her, she would seem entirely familiar.
Cindy Sherman's retrospective ran at The Museum of Modern Art through June 11, 2012. Her latest exhibition at Metro Pictures ran through June 9. A related review looks at several past solo shows and "Fashioning Pictures."