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Cindy Sherman: From the 1970s to the Present

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Two major exhibitions arrived in New York this week: a retrospective of Cindy Sherman at MoMA and The Steins Collect at the Met. They are, separately, and together, immensely compelling and not to be missed. Most cities would consider having either one of them the highlight of the year. To have both open in one week is incredible. New Yorkers – our cup runneth over!

First, in order of its opening, Cindy Sherman.

Many of us have grown up with the groundbreaking – and yes – feminist work of Cindy Sherman. Instead of the male gaze, we have this singular artist’s female gaze that, throughout a forty-year career, uncannily captures each decade of American culture, especially the role of women in our culture. (Sherman works alone in a studio and not only is her own model and photographer, but creates everything in her images, from costumes and make-up to scenery).

During the 1970s, perhaps the heyday of film as an influential art form, Sherman’s career took off with “Untitled Film Stills,” 70 black-and-white photographs made to look like publicity pictures taken on movie sets. Though fictitious, they capture the instantly recognizable essence of stereotypical 50s and 60s female film roles – the bombshell, career girl, housewife, moll, etc. – reinvented and, explicitly, commented upon by the artist. They were, and remain, a seminal act of artistic inspiration and imagination.

At first, Sherman’s work seemed like a one-shot idea. But, amazingly, though the conceit is the same – self-portraiture – the ideas, insights and technical sophistication of her work have continued to develop, mature and deepen. From decade to decade, she continues to astonish us.

All her works are untitled, but there are distinct themes and phases. In the 1980s there are her “centerfolds,” commentaries on men’s erotic fantasies, as well as her macabre fairy tales. There is a distinctly “grotesque” phase, from the mid 80s to the mid-90s. She removes herself from the image, and depicts scenes of in-your-face physical horror and decay, perhaps reflecting issues of the day.

Between 1988 and 1990, there is her astonishing series, “History Portraits,” in which she plays the role of both men and women, from aristocrats and Madonnas to clerics, recreating and parodying the costumes and styles of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococco and Neoclassical portraiture. It’s an unparalleled tour de force.

An on-going theme is aging, especially female aging, which has taken on greater weight as Sherman herself ages. Between 2000 and 2002 there is another series of “head shots,” mostly of women, which again capture the look of women during that time period, as well as the dynamic between model and photographer. In 2000, she also began working in digital, making digitally inserted backdrops, multiple figures in the frame, as well as facial disguises via Photoshop, possible.

Her most recent Society Portraits focus on upper-class women struggling – and failing — to look attractive in a youth-oriented society. Sherman is unsparing. Yet her ability to be ironic and empathetic at the same time is part of her genius, because through her complex images we recognize a part of ourselves in her depiction of others. Society Portraits also captures the aspiration to wealth that was a hallmark of America in 2008, just before the economic collapse and Great Recession took hold. They distill an era.

Her latest work is monumental in size because, as she confided to a New York Times reporter, men work on a vast scale, why not women? Clearly, she is constantly challenging herself to greater acts of daring, and has succeeded – as few artists have – to build a formidable body of work that resonates on many levels. She is an American treasure.

The exhibition, organized by Eva Respini (photograph, above), Associate Curator, Department of Photography, will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center and Dallas Museum of Art.

Cindy Sherman: From the 1970s to the Present
The Museum of Modern Art
February 26 – June 11, 2012
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

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