Cindy Sherman at MoMA
Mistress of self-effacement
An American photographer reveals herself as never before
Up close and impersonal
CINDY SHERMAN is a strangely elusive artist. Her face has become famous through the photographs she takes of herself, but her work is not autobiographical. Coveted by collectors and extolled by critics, her images explore raw human emotion and common artifice—without revealing who she really is.
A retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York demonstrates that although the 58-year-old American may be her own model, she is not her own muse. Her ninth-floor Manhattan studio also offers clues. Pinned to the walls are magazine cuttings and computer printouts of people in what she calls “preposterous” positions: society ladies in ball gowns making breakfast, actresses who are completely naked except for a designer handbag and costume jewellery. She keeps her props in meticulously organised cupboards—multicoloured wigs, prosthetic noses, false boobs and funny clothes. An orange plastic chest of drawers holds loads of make-up; nearby is the giant track pad she uses to do her post-production digital work. It is here that Ms Sherman mutates into the objects of her fascination.
Why does the photographer appear in most of her work? One reason is shyness. Disguises can be liberating and delegating can be arduous; she tried hiring models once, but found she hated it. Ms Sherman enjoys working alone and doing everything herself. She has also experimented with still lives in which she does not appear. These images appeal to her hard-core fans but they lack the life, literally, of her other work. They are also hard to sell. When collectors buy a Sherman photograph, they want her. Last year one of the 1981 “Centrefold” series (pictured) made $3.9m, then a record for a photograph at auction. Bemused by how much collectors want her in the frame, the artist mimics a male voice: “Is she behind that mask? I only want it if she is in there!”
Unlike many of her male peers who have jumped ship to bigger galleries, Ms Sherman has stayed loyal to her original dealers—Metro Pictures, the New York gallery that presented her first solo show in 1979, and Sprüth Magers, which has represented her in Europe since 1984. Neither gallery puts pressure on her; they let her get on with her work at her own pace. As a result, she does not overproduce or aimlessly repeat herself.
许多男同侪都跳槽去了大画廊，谢尔曼却对老东家——纽约的Metro Pictures从一而终。1979年，她在该画廊举行了第一次个人作品展；1984年，又在欧洲的Sprüth Magers画廊举行了个人展。两家画廊都未曾给她压力，让她按自己的步调行事，所以她不会粗制滥造，也不做无益的重复。
Ms Sherman broke into the art world with “Untitled Film Stills”, a series of 69 black-and-white images that were taken in the late 1970s. A fictional archive of publicity shots in which she poses as characters in films from the 1950s and 1960s, the work was an immediate hit. Its exploration of media culture took Pop Art beyond celebratory consumerism into a more critical vein. And its satire of female stereotypes was subtly feminist—so subtle, in fact, that a feminist art historian advised the young Ms Sherman to superimpose text on the works to bring out the irony.
谢尔曼凭借《无题电影剧照》（Untitled Film Stills）系列闯进艺术世界。这组作品摄于20世纪70年代末，包含69张黑白照片。她在其中扮演五六十年代年的电影角色。这套虚构的照片大出风头，一炮而红。它对媒体文化的探索，让大众艺术跳出了让人喜闻乐见的消费主义框框，走上了更有意义的道路。它对女性刻板角色的讽刺也带着微妙的女权主义色彩——微妙得让一位女权主义艺术史学家建议给作品加上说明，让讽刺变得明显些。
Ambiguity is a characteristic of Ms Sherman’s work. One is never quite sure where the artist stands in relation to her characters, and they in turn are often difficult to define. The “Centrefold” series of 12 colour photos in which the artist shot herself from above with fearful or pensive expressions added a layer of anxiety to the uncertainty.
Among Ms Sherman’s most celebrated later works are her “Clowns”, which were shot in 2003 and 2004. Eva Respini, who has curated the MoMA show, believes that the clown is a “stand-in” for the artist. In one picture, the name Cindy is embroidered on the jacket of a heavily made-up clown with prosthetic cheeks and nose. It is typical of Ms Sherman’s style that she would be disguised beyond all recognition, looking sad and ugly, in a work that flirts with self-portraiture.
Indeed, looking over all the photographs, it is interesting to see how the artist has aged gracefully in real life but intriguingly badly in her fictions. In 2007 French Vogue commissioned her to do a series of six photographs in which she transformed herself into desperate middle-aged fashion victims dressed in Balenciaga. These pictures led to “The Socialites” in which she depicted herself as older women whose multimillionaire husbands, one suspects, have cast them off for younger versions. Their dignity in the face of faded glamour reveals both the empathy and brutality of the artist’s eye.
Ms Sherman is a kind of actor-director of still pictures who delves into the representation of women—and occasionally men—in Western society. Back in the 1970s, when she first embarked on this artistic path, few would have predicted that she could make so many compelling bodies of work through depicting herself. But much like a character actor who takes pleasure in nailing a bit part, Ms Sherman takes a detailed interest in others while mastering the art of making it up.