Pictures of You: Cindy Sherman at the Museum of Modern Art

Her influence extends to the culture at large

Cindy Sherman has one of the great acting faces of our time: blank and seemingly lineless, even as she approaches 60, it looks made to be defined by makeup and bought to life in roles. One can easily imagine passing her on the street and not recognizing her, although she is one of America’s most famous artists. The patron saint of the self-portrait, the guru of high/low, the feminist master, Ms. Sherman is now being given her due in a Museum of Modern Art retrospective. Organized by Eva Respini with Lucy Gallun, it traces the evolution of her influential career through 171 photographs from early efforts in the mid-’70s right up to the present.

The 69 black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80), presented in their entirety, were modeled on B-movie publicity pictures, and recycle clichés from Hollywood, European art house films, and Hitchcock. They are tiny, exquisite vignettes of voyeurism and vulnerability: A bobbysoxer hitchhiking on a country road; a busty librarian shelving; a trench-coated power-blonde caught in a paparazzi flash. Each character is fictional but familiar, the series itself iconic.

But Ms. Sherman is no snob: she rejects the sanctity of art. For all that her film stills were immediately embraced as a canny critique of the status of women, her 1997 full-length slasher film Office Killer, starring Molly Ringwald (and sadly not on view here), proved that her dedication to the effects of both makeup and stage gore extended well beyond the intellectual. Vintage Sherman, the movie makes use of her off colors and extreme camera angles and her typically ambitious themes: working women, incest, technology, death. It proves that a major voice is never a boring one, and its existence still makes purists uneasy.

Her large-scale centerfolds were commissioned in 1981 by Artforum magazine, but never accepted for print. They assume what Laura Mulvey once called the male gaze, that voyeuristic, prurient pleasure elicited by images of women who seem unaware of being watched. Untitled #96’s supine subject holds a crumpled want ad; Untitled #92’s light-blue eyes, tartan skirt and pixie hair evoke feminine vulnerability. Each figure offers a glimpse of bare belly or dewy thigh.

Ms. Sherman’s best impulse has perhaps been her ambivalent relationship with success. Just when the market deemed her work desirable, she switched gears to a series based on death, disintegration and disaster. Fake vomit, rot, feces, decay and medical supply dolls arranged in pornographic acts make up her macabre, grotesque tableaux of the 1980s and ’90s: blood sausage seeps out of a prosthetic vagina topped by a mask of an old man’s face in Untitled #250, while Untitled #177 features pustulating boils on a grotesque ass, framed by a schoolgirl’s tartan and lace but also creeping plastic ants. “Put this on your wall,” the works seem to challenge the potential collector. (For #177, that dare was taken up by the late artist Mike Kelley, who owned the print.) These fantasies are farcical, yet there is a Gericault-like integrity to her fascination with the gleam and sheen of dismembered and deliquescing bodies, and an ethos in Ms. Sherman’s punk embrace of the least pretty side of art.

In a salon-style gallery of her history portraits from the late ’80s, you can feel her ambition to challenge the legacy of painting. The photos recreate the poses of subjects in classic works by Raphael, Carravagio and Ingres, but also reveal Ms. Sherman’s desire to spoof: jets of milk stream from a Madonna’s strap-on prosthetic, and comical costume-shop prostheses feature warts and bulbous noses. The work speaks both to Baudelaire’s notion of paint as a medium equivalent to theatrical make-up, and to the power of the genre-busting, unsanctimonious humor that is ultimately Ms. Sherman’s most transgressive tool.

The surprise is how good Ms. Sherman’s recent work looks. She hit her stride in 2000, by which time, like a great actor, she knew every angle of her chin and nose and every trick of makeup and wig. Her virtuosic head shots series gives us Ms. Sherman in the zone: Untitled #360, an oversexed aging blow job queen, Untitled #355, the gothic biker stripper, and Untitled #399, the sag-titted prep. I had previously had doubts about the vast scale of the 2008 “Society Portraits,” mammoth spoofs of “women of a certain age,” but in a museum context not only do they challenge the status of painting, but their scale makes legible the details that render them lethal: the subject of Untitled #468 is a stark manifestation of our fear of aging: crooked smoker’s teeth, teary eyes, mink coat, post-menopausal pooch. These are the sad, spousal flip sides of portraits of successful executive men in their 50s or 60s. Like the film stills, they draw on the viewer to constellate clichés into a feeling of déjà vu, yet these dig deeper: these images of women have a starkness and power to discomfit not seen since Manet’s Olympia.

The show has missteps. Untitled #512 (2011), a chromogenic color print, features a Manet-like digital facture in the background surrounding a dramatic swan of a fashion plate. It is searching too hard to make the large-scale photographs connect to painting, a relationship already entirely evident. In a gallery of Ms. Sherman’s obscure fairy tale photos, Untitled #296 feels off—a fairy with a glitter ball, it is slight and facile. And there are too few examples of Ms. Sherman’s early work—the show would have benefited from more juvenilia by the flannel-and-boot-wearing young “Cynthia M. Sherman,” such as her “Air Shutter Release Fashions” (presented recently in a catalogue raisonné of her work by Gabriele Schor), a series of self-portraits reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s disassembled and bizarrely reassembled dolls. But, overall, MoMA’s curation is even-handed. If the catalogue has unnecessarily didactic, overly reverential moments, like Ms. Respini’s essay, which feels at odds with Ms. Sherman’s own wit and sense of lowbrow fun, there is also John Waters’s contribution, in which he calls Ms. Sherman “a female female impersonator in [her] work,” effortlessly locating her gender-bending take on Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy but also her relationship to camp and drag. And the museum was smart to have Ms. Sherman curate an accompanying film series that brings together everything from Maya Deren’s radical shorts to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Ms. Sherman’s influence has only grown over the years. There are echoes of her props and costumes in Ryan Trecartin’s videos, and her approach to photography in K8 Hardy’s practice. Photographers like Laurel Nakadate and Nikki S. Lee seem to have misunderstood her—Ms. Sherman was never nude in her own photos, and her strategy has always been to use prosthesis in place of titillation. Her project is not so much about the “I” of the self-portrait as it is about the flexible fiction of photography itself.

Sometimes it seems that the world itself has begun aspiring to the work of Cindy Sherman. From reality TV to celebrity makeovers, Lana del Rey to the anxiety of the Facebook profile, Ms. Sherman’s uses of makeup and costume to create character and comment on a youth-obsessed age have become the stuff of our daily preoccupations. This retrospective proves, if there was ever any doubt, that she remains one of the major voices in contemporary art. It also shows that her influence and prescience extends well beyond the walls of the museum.

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