Masquerading and High Society at Cindy Sherman’s MoMA Retrospective

Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.
Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.
Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.
Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

Even the sign outside of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Cindy Sherman is chameleonic. It’s a projection of the artist’s name, but the font of the text changes incessantly—first CINDY, then SHERMAN. Ms. Sherman is not the subject of her photographs, though she is the main feature in a majority of her work. She is, however, constantly shifting roles, her face contorted or covered in make-up and prosthetics, always playing some character who is never supposed to be Cindy Sherman.

The show, which had a press preview earlier today — it opens to the public on Sunday–includes some 180 photographs. They display Ms. Sherman’s impressive versatility over the course of a career that has already spanned four decades. Her breakthrough series of black-and-white photos from 1977-1980, the Untitled Film Stills, is presented here in its entirety, and it is clear that these pictures laid the groundwork for what came after them. In the Film Stills, Ms. Sherman cast herself as a variety of Hollywood starlet types in scenarios that vaguely recall a long-lost b-roll from La Dolce Vita. But really, the photographs are more remarkable for their destruction of any kind of documentary context: the subjects are anonymous and the setting is cleverly masked. In one image, a pier off the Hudson looks more like a Venice canal. In another, Ms. Sherman, draped in a trench coat, looks like a disgruntled Liz Taylor using a back exit to escape a gaggle of photographers. The attempt at ambiguity is deliberate enough that it actually shines a light on location—a metal rail is so conveniently placed that the obscured letters in Duane Reade Drugstore tell us exactly what we’re looking at.

The catalogue essay by Eva Respini, the show’s curator, explains that Ms. Sherman’s photographs “are not self-portraits”—which is undeniable—and that Ms. Sherman being the model in her work “is beside the point” and “immaterial.” That latter point is a little trickier: for the viewer, or this one anyhow, Ms. Sherman’s skills at transforming herself are so impressive that there is a pronounced desire to keep her in the photograph, if only as a form of congratulation. This is most noticeable in Ms. Sherman’s so-called “Society” photographs, which were featured at the New York gallery Metro Pictures (Ms. Sherman’s longtime New York gallery) in 2008 and which prompted Ms. Respini to start thinking about doing a retrospective. These images show an older Ms. Sherman (she is now 58) playing older women that look nothing like her: they are past their prime, wearing expensive gowns and standing before contrived backgrounds. Each of their faces carries some tragic awareness that times aren’t what they used to be, and yet each displays the traces of some very different kind of life lived in the lead-up to a tragedy. So yes, in a kind of poststructuralist la mort de l’auteur way, the only things that matter are the characters themselves, and not Ms. Sherman and not even that Ms. Sherman is playing the character (and if we could wrap our heads around that we would get rid of a lot of pretty annoying articles asking “Who is the Real Cindy Sherman?” which Ms. Respini also brings up in her essay). That said, the artist herself has admitted that these aging socialites are about coming to terms with her own aging.

What is most interesting—and what the show explores wonderfully—is the tension between real and fake, and what is at stake in Ms. Sherman’s playacting. There’s something about the way she depicts personae in her work that has always seemed reminiscent of the first sentence of William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions: “Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.”

That novel opens at the funeral of Camilla, wife of another character, Reverend Gwyon, who takes Camilla on a boat bound for Spain because he “had a fondness for traveling, earlier in his life” (another kind of masquerade); she dies at sea of acute appendicitis because the surgeon is a drunk and, in fact, not a surgeon at all but is instead also doing a little masquerading: he’s a fugitive traveling with a set of false papers that he had made himself.

This would be a masquerade of the unsafe sort.

Ms. Sherman seems to walk this darker line as well—where the photographs feel less like a construction of a certain persona and more like the destruction of Ms. Sherman’s. Those socialite photographs are all the more tragic for their conflation of Ms. Sherman and the characters therein, where the attempt at destruction fails slightly and we are left with the idea of Ms. Sherman even if the character’s physical resemblance to its creator is tenuous. Everything starts to become blurred and the masquerade starts to have a little bit of reality in it.

At the end of the preview, MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry and Ms. Respini were talking in the sixth floor lobby. The walls there are covered with a mural that contains four large images by Ms. Sherman. Mr. Lowry and Ms. Respini were sitting in chairs situated between two pictures of Ms. Sherman, one in which she’s done up as a medieval knight and, in another, a regal princess. Mr. Lowry was talking about how the society portraits are both ironic and empathetic at the same time.

“You can never quite locate where she is,” he said.

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