Cindy Sherman: The Heroine with a Thousand Faces

Courtesy the Artist / Eric Fischl and April Gornik
Courtesy the Artist / Eric Fischl and April Gornik
Untitled #86, 1981

Sherman made the leap into museum collections with a 1981 series inspired by the centerfolds in skin magazines. But the weirdly spotlit young women she becomes in these pictures are fully dressed and acting out psychodramas of yearning and anxiety never dreamt of in the Playboy philosophy. To keep their meanings in play as much as possible, Sherman never titles her photos.

If you follow art at all you already know that Cindy Sherman takes pictures only of herself, but she always insists she doesn’t make self-portraits. True enough—it would be more accurate to say that for the past 35 years, she’s been producing a portrait of her times as they flow through the finely tuned instrument of her baroque psyche. Again and again in her spine-tingling retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City—it runs there from Feb. 26 to June 11, then travels to San Francisco, Minneapolis and Dallas—you also discover she’s made a portrait of you.

Growing up in a New York suburb, Sherman loved to play dress-up. In 1977, when she was 23 and just out of Buffalo State College, she started playing it with a vengeance. For three years, she photographed herself in costumes, wigs and settings that drew from the deep pool of movie images in which we’re all immersed from childhood. In what eventually grew to a series of 70 “Untitled Film Stills,” she took on the role of career girl, housewife, siren and woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Six years before Woody Allen got there, she became the Zelig of the collective unconscious, the heroine with a thousand faces.

By 1995, when MoMA reportedly paid what was then the newsmaking sum of $1 million for a full set of the “Untitled Movie Stills,” Sherman was well established as one of the pivotal artists of her generation. Year after year she would roll out new variations on the theme of unruly identity. Her private universe of enigmatic faces and wiggy characters appears in prints that are big—6 ft. tall and more. The colors can be harsh and aggressive. Though she sometimes offers herself quietly to the camera, her face as round and innocuous as an aspirin, she can also look feral, sinister and unhinged. Writers who profile Sherman always mention how nice she is. It’s her art that’s ferocious—and very canny in its appreciation of the way we all live out our lives through masks and role-playing. By devoting herself to the ancient mystery of metamorphosis, Cindy Sherman came early to the discovery that life is the ultimate makeover show.

(Read More: Cindy Sherman Photographs for MAC Cosmetics Campaign)

The Cindy Sherman retrospective will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City Feb. 26 – June 11, 2012.

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