JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the three rooms of the newly reconfigured gallery space. All the works are untitled dye sublimation metal prints, made in 2016. Physical sizes vary from roughly 45 x 34 inches to 54 x 70 inches (or reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 6. A small catalog has been produced by Hartmann Projects (here) in conjunction with the exhibit, with essays by Betsy Berne and Cindy Sherman. $25 hardcover. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Cindy Sherman’s latest group of self-portraits again carries her into the past, the needle on her WABAC machine this time set for 1920s Hollywood.
Such a concept in less sophisticated hands might have been an excuse for a Masterpiece Theatre jazz-age costume drama. That these pictures aren’t a campy romp but are instead full of emotional layers and historical insights offer further proof—if any was needed—that the most intuitive artist of her generation is also among its most searching.
Sherman’s photographs are seldom specific about their points of reference. Richard Prince doesn’t try to cover his tracks when he appropriates cigarette ads or Facebook posts, and Quentin Tarantino often frames a shot to signal insiders that it’s a quote from a Hong Kong or European film director he respects.
Sherman is less explicit and reverential about her sources. Part of the stimulation of her work—and one of the reasons for its immense popularity—is that she forces us to play a game: Why do I think I understand this photograph when I know I haven’t seen it before? The subtle clues she drops about genre and personality trigger ready responses in our brains as we scan the images from a stock library of representations, a mental file that we constantly update, willingly or not. She never stops messing with our minds, showing how hungrily we will seize on the smallest clothing details or facial expression to complete a scene in hopes we can feel grounded in a place and time.
Here, she has immersed us in a period decades before the present, even if when and where is never entirely clear. Although some of these women could be salonists from turn-of-the-century Boston or Detroit, the theatricality of their poses suggests that many had former careers on the stage. Our best guess—given the expensive, old-fashioned clothes they wear—is that we are visiting middle-aged Hollywood film stars circa 1925.
According to the cartoon version of American history, the Twenties was the decade of the New Woman, when young female taboo-breakers smoked cigarettes and sipped vodka cocktails, shedding corseted outfits and sexual inhibitions.
That’s not the story Sherman tells in her photographs. These aging women don’t register flapper optimism or madcap joie-de-vivre. Even if some may feel vital, few of them can be called that by any objective standard. By choice or destiny, they now exist in the twilight. Instead of short dresses trimmed with fringe, most wear long gowns. They keep their arms covered. Their smiles are pinched. When they hold a cigarette at a jaunty angle, the gesture isn’t rebellious or chic; it underlines how anachronistic the rest of them has become.
None of these women is poor. Each has the financial resources to put forward her best face. Money isn’t enough to stave off the obsolescence, however. Whether aware of it or not, they quietly incite pity as they self-consciously stand or lounge for their portrait. We are more apt to regard as brave than as desirable.
Despite reams of critical writing that locate Sherman within the tradition of feminist art, the category has always seemed too confining. The spirit of her caricatures and take-offs is closer to the critical humanism of Daumier, the zaniness of Tracey Ullman, or the gross-out humor of Paul McCarthy than to the agit-prop of Martha Rosler or Barbara Kruger.
This series sounds a sharper note of protest, especially against societal treatment of women beyond a certain vintage. If able to speak for themselves, Sherman’s cast of middle-aged Hollywood stars from the 1920s would probably be in solidarity with the views expressed in Amy Schumer’s caustic video sketch from 2015, “Last F**kable Day.” (Starring Tina Fey, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette, it imagines what happens to actresses as they age and “the media finally decides that you are no longer believably fuckable anymore.”)
Although Sherman’s photographs aren’t as raucous and barbed, they’re funny and poignant. As she has always woven make-believe from pre-existing imagery and historical fact, her renditions will prompt thoughts of the characters who played aging movie stars (Norma Desmond, Margo Channing, Blanche Hudson) as well the lives of the actresses (Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford) who played them.
Some of the projected backdrops (an urban waterfront, a sunlit grove, a Tuscan hillside, a cathedral arcade) could be settings from the movies that launched these anonymous women as stars. In some cases, the photographs may be psychic rather than actual portraits—recalled fantasies of the finest roles (and clothes) they ever had.
Sherman mixes genres, not wanting us to lock our radar on any single point of origin. In the only group portrait, a prim woman sits haloed by her triplet daughters, all of them wearing home-spun clothes and spectacles. (The girls are more elaborately coiffed and made up, more “professional” while their mother has been relegated to the role of “homemaker.”) It could be an MGM comedy aimed at Middle America. Elsewhere, a languorous woman in red, her arm resting seductively on a Thonet café chair, is trouble. Another vixen, swaddled in furs against a snowy forest, is in trouble. With a curl of the lip, Sherman can evoke the sassiness of Mae West. The absent-minded twirling of a strand of hair was a signature gesture of the innocents played by Lillian Gish, while the jutting elbow of an tough-as-leather urbanite brings to mind a host of roles that starred Barbara Stanwyck.
Sherman is 62 and has been an art celebrity since the early 1980s. Despite such acclaim, she must think of her millennial colleagues the way that veteran actresses of the silent era regarded the young stars who had gained fame when sound revolutionized the movies that Hollywood and the world produced. Sherman is neither obsolete as a role model or in her photographic tools—she has relied on digital editing programs in this series and in previous ones, for her computer-generated backdrops and the replications of herself. But she grew up in a time when magazines, books, TV, and the art house cinema were the chief well-springs of inspiration. It would be only natural if she worried that her work and her methods looked dowdy compared to post-post-Internet art.
Journalists love to label the era they’re living through by spotting the ways that the young appear to reject their parents. New standards of behavior and technology seem to chart a previously unimagined future. The 1960s were thus the decade of the Counter Culture and LSD; the 1980s, of the personal computer and corporate greed. Supposedly, we are now living in the era when every aspect of our lives is being touched by the Internet and social media.
Sherman’s pictures expose this relentlessly progressive view of history (and art history) as superficial, if not a lie. Multiple narratives and generations are always competing for attention in the present, none qualified to dominate.
The first three decades of film in the 20th century weren’t known as the silent era until the introduction of sound gave it that name. That more of its artifacts have been lost than have survived is no reflection on the skill of directors or the actors from that period, many of whom successfully made the transition. Sherman’s women, we can guess, have not.
Without jealousy or self-pity, Sherman is confronting the physical reality of her own aging and artistic status as a thing of the past. If her disguised self-portraits can no longer pretend to be daring—she has been making them for at least 40 years and has played surgically enhanced middle-aged women many times before, and with more bite—the conceit of performing as a diverse cast of leading ladies—whose names perhaps died before they did—is brilliant, and cuts closer to the bone than ever before.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $250000 and $375000, based on size and place in the edition. Sherman’s prints are ubiquitous at auction, both in Contemporary Art and Photography sales. Recent auction prices have ranged from as low as roughly $2000 (for one of her large edition prints) to as high as her then-world record $3.89 million price set in 2011, with iconic images routinely finding buyers at six and seven figures.