Cindy Sherman – Exhibition Review

Shayna Weingast

Exhibition Review 2

Cindy Sherman – MOMA

For my exhibition review, I chose to write about Cindy Sherman’s retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Although I have attended many art exhibitions this year, including The Denver Art Museum’s phenomenal special exhibitions such as Ed Ruscha’s On the Road and the Yves Saint Lauren retrospective, as well as and Damien Hirst’s dot domination at New York’s infamous Gagosian Galleries, it was Cindy Sherman’s work that had the greatest impact on me.

After writing an honors thesis on Sofia Coppola, another female artist who deals with issues of femininity and the role of the female in the arts, I was able to approach Sherman’s work with a whole new level of understanding and appreciation. I have been a big fan of Sherman’s work since I learned about her my freshman year of college, and seeing her work all together, in sequence, with copious amounts of supplementary information in the form of a free audio guide and the curatorial write-ups, really made me re-think and evaluate her work in a whole new (positive) way. The exhibit provides its viewers with the unique experience of engaging with her entire canon on a personal and intimate level. In the first room of the exhibit, there is a write-up about Sherman and the meaning and purpose of her life’s work. The introductory blurb, written by the curator of the show, expresses that her work is inherently about “the constructs of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography.” Without sounding too agreeable, for me these three pithy phrases totally and completely encapsulates the entirety of Sherman’s artistic purpose.

The rooms in the show are arranged chronologically for the most part, allowing a procession through iconic series, including the Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), Old Master Art History portraits, Clowns, Disasters, Fashion Victims, Society Women, etc., while displaying changes in technology: black and white to color, and manually projected backgrounds to digitally created environments. Having access to many photographs from a single series creates unity, whcich allowed me to fully immerse myself in the reflexivity and intimacy of her work. With this comprehensive chronological approach, the viewer is able to see the progression in both ideas and technique that was happening from project to project.

Sherman is also famous for posing for all her own photographs, dressing herself in elaborate costumes, and taking the pictures herself in the privacy of her own studio, without the presence of anyone else. This imitate experience reinterprets the norm of the artist/model relationship that ultimately develops in photography, as well as refigures gender relationships. The role of the viewer is also called into question in her photographs because, in traditional photography, the photographer and the model enter into a dialogue with each other, and this gazer/gazee dynamic functions as the fundamental relationship for which the viewer is invited to experience. However, Sherman’s work challenges this relationship, as all outside “gazers,” specifically that of the male sex, are illiminated and the viewer is then responsible for creating a new kind of meaning to extract from her work.

Another aspect of her work that I found intriguing, which I had never seriously considered before the show, is that she leaves all her works untitled. Sherman states that this is to refuse a narrative, which I think is an ingenious tactic. So often, when looking at any piece of art in a museum or gallery, the first thing I look for is the title. A title is often the crux of the work – it contains the artists’ statement, message, and intention for the work. It can dictate the viewer how to feel, respond and interact with the work. It still amazes me how much power a work’s title has over the audience’s reaction/response. To return to the point, as Sherman’s works have always been left untitled, the experience I had with her photographs relate to the name she gives to the overall series, not the individual works. That is not to say that the individual works are not powerful or important, which they very much are, it’s that I find myself more free to experience each work with my own mode of interpretation: a freedom rarely found in my museum-going past.

Sherman deals with the major obsessions of our time: identity, narcissism, physical transformation through will and artifice. The most salient issue in her work, however, seems to be that Sherman’s formula depends on her disappearance. In a recording from the audio guide, Sherman says that her characters don’t represent her, which is one thing for an actor to claim but quite another for an artist. A work of art, after all, is an artificial extension of its maker. What unifies her work is its reflexivity; what all her photographs have in common in that they call into question the fundamental nature of photography, identity, and artifice. Each series deals with these issues in their own way. For example, her “fashion photograph” series highlights the grandeur of high fashion, but undercuts it but undercutting the grotesque physical appearance of the women draped in the elegant clothing.

By the end of the show, I did come away with genuine respect for Sherman’s craft across the years (especially in the age before Photoshop where her staged constructions were all done by hand), and for her unique ability to hold up a mirror to ourselves. For nearly 40 years, she has consistently and unflinchingly shown us our stereotypes and roles, our categories and clichés, our delusional hopes and shattered dreams. Sherman is a monologist, a gifted storyteller with a canny supply of stereotypes, assumptions and perceptions. Her assets include a fairly ordinary face and body that easily disappear into the story she happens to be telling.

4 Responses

  1. Cindy Sherman is one of many of my favorite photographers. I think you did a great job sharing your experience at her exhibition in New York and appreciate that you wrote about someone different. I really enjoyed reading this piece and learned a couple facts I did not previously know about Sherman.

  2. I love that you wrote about an exhibition that was not in Colorado. I think that the art that is shown in places like New York and Chicago are much different and more modern and interesting than the art we have in Colorado even though the Denver Art Museum has brought some amazing artists. You’re paper was quite descriptive of the pieces that were shown in the Museum but i would have liked a little more detail because Sherman is such unique artist and i would have wanted to learn even more! I thought it was really interesting that you mentioned how she leaves her work untitled, because she prefers to refuse a narrative and include the viewer and how they contemplate it. It’s not that often that we see especially a really known artist like her to leave work untitled. When i don’t seem to understand the artists work i immediately go to see the Title of the piece to at least give me a hint of what is going on.

  3. I would have loved to see this exhibit. Our lecture material on Cindy Sherman was one of my favorites. I love that she puts herself in her photographs and I would have loved to see them all together. I also feel like museums in New York have a different vibe then those here, so I would love to experience that sometime.

  4. I really enjoyed your paper about your experience. I wish I was able to go to this because her work fascinates me. I think its so interesting that her staged construction were all done by hand. Now that we have photoshop, I never really thought of it being that big of a deal, but it was a lot of work to do by hand. I think Sherman’s subjects and topics that she brings into her work are greatly portrayed and very interesting.

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