April 9, 2012
New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has a long and troubled history of under-representing female artists. In 1970, Yoko Ono staged a performance piece at the museum in which a man wearing a sandwich board interviewed people in front of MoMA about a non-existent Yoko Ono show, prompting people to enter the museum and ask where it was displayed. The piece was a protest against MoMA, which refused to show Ono’s work (and that of many other female artists). In 1985, MoMA held a show called “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” which, out of a total of 169 artists, only featured the work of 17 females. In response, an anonymous feminist protest group, the Guerrilla Girls, formed in order to raise attention to the exclusion of women from art institutions. In the 2000s MoMA has made more forays into exhibiting women, including a large retrospective of Marina Abramovic’s work. However, MoMA still has yet to make up for its lack of female representation, and, as art critic Jerry Saltz has noted, their permanent Painting and Sculpture collection (in many ways the centerpiece of the museum) is still primarily made up of male artists.
MoMA’s current Cindy Sherman exhibit, then, is an opportunity to make amends, and in many ways it’s a success. With something of a knockout exhibit, MoMA has cemented Sherman’s place in the modern art canon, asserting her position right alongside artists like Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. It’s a welcome move, especially given the fact that so much of Sherman’s work provokes discussion of constructions of gender and femininity. I was disappointed by MoMA’s seeming refusal to discuss the possibility of misogyny in last fall’s retrospective of the work of Willem de Kooning and his famous “Woman” paintings. In contrast, the Sherman exhibit forces all viewers to consider the damaging effects of portrayals of femininity in the media and culture.
Sherman is perhaps best known as “that photographer who dresses up and takes photos of herself,” and such simplistic descriptions are, partially, true: much of Sherman’s work involves her dressing up in costume, heavy makeup, and wigs, and then photographing the character she’s portraying. It’s part of what makes Sherman’s work so fun, imbuing into her photos an irreverence and silliness that brings laughter to the normally silent, austere white galleries of MoMA. Sherman is a comedian, using humor and parody to form complex ideological critiques of society’s institutions.
One of the first galleries in the exhibit is a collection of every single print in the series “Untitled Film Stills,” produced in the late 1970s. The “Untitled Film Stills” are perhaps Sherman’s most famous body of work, and when released they helped push photography forward into the era of postmodernism. Indeed, a look at the photographers in MoMA’s “New Photography 2011” exhibition reveals that Sherman’s series looms large over contemporary photographers, who still grapple with the ideas of truth and photographic representation found in the “Untitled Film Stills.” In the series, Sherman inhabits stock female characters of 1940s and ’50s films, creating photographs that, drawing upon our general cultural consciousness, look like stills from a lost Hitchcock flick. Despite the characters’ anonymity, their archetypes are so ubiquitous that we instantly understand who they are, the story that brought them there, what’s going to happen to them, etc. With these images, Sherman chillingly reveals how ingrained within our minds these ideas of femininity are.
Though the series clocks in at 69 photographs, only a select few get reproduced frequently, and these remain quite lovely. Untitled Film Still #7, for instance, captures all the suspenseful melodrama of your favorite ’50s film, with a masterful framing that adds to the beauty of the print, all without compromising her ideological critique. In prints like Untitled Film Still #7, Sherman links idea and aesthetics to create a powerful work of art.
However, presented in their totality on the gallery wall, the “Untitled Film Stills,” for me, fell flat. Perhaps it’s because, presented together (and all in small, 8’’x10’’ prints), the visual beauty of any one photograph gets lost. Or perhaps it’s because the photographs have been reproduced so many times—in nearly every book about modern photography—that they have started to lose their appeal. However, compared with Sherman’s later works, the “Untitled Film Stills” feel somewhat shallow: the photographs come off as subordinated illustrations of an imposed idea, instead of letting the idea arise naturally from the body of work. Within them, though, one sees the seeds of greatness, and the foundation of an artistic framework that would allow her to create more complex and powerful photographs later on.
Sherman’s later series use the “Untitled Film Stills” as a jumping off point: femininity is a social construct, Sherman seems to be saying, so then what? Indeed, immediately after the “Untitled Film Stills,” Sherman began work on her “Centerfolds”, which examine not only the construction of femininity, but also the dangers and damage that such femininity can cause. Working in a wide rectangular format that references the iconic Playboy centerfold, Sherman created a series of exquisite color photographs depicting women in moments of turmoil or distress. The gaze in these photographs still feels like a male gaze, probing these young, vulnerable women in their despair. Though they are clothed, unlike the Playboy bunnies, these women are still objectified, turning the photographs into a critique of society’s insistence on sexualizing anything and everything about women. As a result, the viewer feels vaguely disturbed and becomes complicit in an exploitative and degrading act. Subtly, Sherman has turned the camera against both itself and the viewer, making us aware of our act of watching.
A theme throughout Sherman’s photographs is a fascination with the grotesque. In one gallery, a series of photographs skewer the Old Masters, with Sherman adorning herself in warts and misshapen, prosthetic breasts. However, Sherman’s best uses of the grotesque come from series which the exhibition all but skips over: the sex and disaster series (in which Sherman herself does not even appear!) and the clown series. In the sex series, Sherman puts together the body parts of various medical dolls to create obscene mutations of the human form. Untitled #263 puts together the crotches of both genders to create a rather revolting display of sex organs. The somewhat confounding clown series finds Sherman imagining an alternate universe where everyone is a clown. Judging by the fact that the curators simply split the clown photos up amongst several “thematic” galleries, and barely offered any analysis of the series on their placards, I would guess that they are just as unsure what to make of the clown photographs as I was. Yet, thinking about Sherman’s almost constant concern with the construction of identities might help to better understand the clown photographs. Sherman’s clown universe is bizarrely utopian. The clowns seem to lack any concept of race, and while some clowns are clearly male or female, the majority of them are rather sexless. This may be a stretch, but I wonder: are the clowns happy in this identity-less utopian world? No. The clowns are manic and emotionally unstable, as in Untitled #415. Sherman’s clown photographs undercut utopian fantasies of living in an egalitarian and post-race/gender/sexual orientation/etc. society: history can never be fully forgotten or ignored.
My favorite two Sherman series, though, are both from the past decade: the headshot series and the society portraits series. Both have the same postmodern awareness of the camera as her earlier works but offer a far more complex and ambiguous treatment of femininity. In an interview, Sherman said of her work, “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.” Though Sherman is certainly aware of and invested in feminism, she is not a slave to ideology, and this is part of what makes her later work so refreshing and compelling.
In the headshot photos, Sherman poses as a variety of middle-aged women, all past their supposed prime. At first, these photos are downright hilarious: the woman’s appearance in Untitled #351, with her freckles and bizarre knit cap, is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. Soon, though, the images become tragic. In each photograph, Sherman appears completely sincere, her expression conveying the hopes that each of these women might have. The reason we take pictures like these, after all, is to preserve ourselves in a moment of beauty: no one purposefully takes an ugly headshot. The discrepancy between these women’s desire to be pretty and the reality of their disheveled appearances is immensely sad, giving them all an endearing pathos. Despite the ostensible vanity of these women, we sympathize and feel for them. These nameless women are defined by their (lost) beauty, and they desperately yearn for it, deceiving themselves into thinking they can still be accepted as beautiful by a society that only values the young.
The society portraits are perhaps Sherman’s most cynical and scathing works. In them, Sherman dresses up as a series of high-society ladies, clothed in luxurious outfits and photographed against lavish backdrops. The photographs are printed at an immense size, so that the viewer becomes absolutely lost in their visual qualities. The size, further, is a challenge to the cult of Andreas Gursky and the male-dominated Dusseldorf School of Photography, who print monumental monographs that, by their very scale, seem to affirm their own greatness. The portraits have as much intensity and drama as a Dynasty-esque soap opera. In Untitled #469, a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills look-a-like severely stares out at you, her head superimposed onto a forest backdrop. The society portraits share a similar theme of the quest for beauty with the headshot photographs, but they lack the latter’s empathy. Photographs like Untitled #468 are far more critical, bordering on cruel. But perhaps Sherman has good reason to criticize these women. Unlike some of Sherman’s other characters, these women have an immense amount of privilege and wealth. Despite this, they refuse to use their privilege to challenge dominant ideals of femininity and beauty. The society portraits refuse to present femininity as simply a creation by men to objectify women. Instead, they see some women as being just as responsible for upholding oppressive standards of beauty and femininity as men are. It is a powerful and provocative critique that refuses to be satisfied with a simplistic understanding of gender roles.
For those who can’t make it to the museum, MoMA has made the wonderful decision to place the entirety of the Cindy Sherman exhibition on their website, complete with high-quality reproductions of every photograph on display and all of the exhibition information. The site is not a replacement, of course, for actually seeing the show in person—a reproduction of an artwork can never compare with the artwork itself, even with photography—but it is a fantastic means of allowing more people to acquaint themselves with Cindy Sherman. It’s a bold move by MoMA, and one that particularly befits an artist as provocative as Sherman. Always divisive, always critical, and always changing, Sherman has earned her place amongst the artistic greats.
Andrew Wagner is a freshman in Yale College. He is the Arts Editor of Broad Recognition.