I went to the Cindy Sherman show in its final week at SFMoMA for the simple reason that I had never seen a large grouping of her photographs. For some time, I have been on the proverbial ‘fence’ about her work, and usually a large retrospective moves me to accept an artist’s place in the canon. This was not the case for Ms. Sherman’s work.
Ms. Sherman is best known for her earliest body of work. Created in the late 1970’s, the ‘Untitled Film Stills’ series is a set of 70 black and white photographs that recreate the advertising and press images used by film studios to market movies during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. To create these images Ms. Sherman imagined a character, selected an appropriate wardrobe and for many of them staged setups in her apartment. The effect of these early images is at times dazzling. When I viewed a selection of them for the first time in a photography lecture at university, I was fully convinced that I had seen the film they had come from, despite the fact that no such film ever existed. Seeing the complete series, though, I came to the realization that many of them did not have such a strong effect.
While every image does not work in the same way, a large number of them are not interesting to look at. Part of this can be chalked up to the fact that the original film stills from this era were not always very interesting to look at either, but it still left me with unease about what I would find in the rest of the show. One thing became a certainty with this body of work for Ms Sherman. Her obsession with transforming herself into characters would be the dominant impetus behind creating her photographs.
A number of her subsequent photographic series are also on display in the show. Among them are re-created centerfold pinups from porn magazines (though the figures are fully clothed), a series of recreated historic paintings, images of clowns, the use of mannequin parts to create anatomically incorrect compositions, and more recently the mundane images produced by shopping mall photo studios. Through the course of creating these various bodies of work, Ms. Sherman has expanded her use of elements from the costume shop to include nose prosthesis, fake breast and buttocks plates, a dizzying array of wigs and clothes, and untold pounds of makeup to transform herself into character.
While these images have fascinated many with their continual exploration of the idea that anyone could become any character role in society, and have inspired collectors to pay extremely large sums of money for them, the continually diminishing ability on her part to present compelling images calls into question her strength as an artist. Since the Film Stills series, the quantity of photographs in her work that demand our attention has diminished. There are a number in the ‘Centerfolds’ series that are successful, though less of them do so on a percentage based comparison. This pattern of fewer and fewer images holding our attention has occurred with each successive series. It would appear that Ms. Sherman became so interested in creating her characters over the years that she has either forgotten, or ignored, the notion of creating and showing images that hold the viewer’s eye and makes them linger with it for more than just a glance.
I do not think this lack of consistency has been lost on a number of people in the greater art community. It is interesting that those photographs repeatedly reproduced in books and advertising are the few images where she succeeded in making something compelling. It is troubling that few people are willing to call her on it. It may be that since the monetary value of the work has risen so high, dealers, collectors, and institutions are now incentivized to keep promoting the work because of economic gain. I am not against a living artist achieving fame and economic success, but I truly wonder if Ms. Sherman should have reached this level of importance.
I am reminded of the artist Puvis de Chavannes, who was incredibly famous in the 1860’s, received lots of money, and got all of the commissions in Paris. If you have heard of him at all it is probably because he was eclipsed by Manet in the annals of art history, and is remembered primarily for that reason. The difference here is that while de Chavannes was forgotten about because Manet became the fulcrum around which the history of western art turned, I have yet to see someone who would do the same in the case of Ms. Sherman, and I’ll keep looking.
The economic forces of the art market (one of the only arbiters of cultural value we have anymore in America, much to my dismay) will keep her going for a long time, but it is my hope that historians will look at her work with a more critical eye in the future. Meanwhile, the closing of Ms. Sherman’s show at SFMoMA gives a sense of relief because museum goers will not be subjected to it any further.