JTF (just the facts): A total of 171 photographic works (including 1 short film), variously framed and matted, and hung against both white and colored walls in a series of 11 rooms and the entry foyer on the 6th floor of the museum. The exhibit was curated by Eva Respini and Lucy Gallun. A catalog of the exhibition was recently published by MoMA (here). (Installation views at right, courtesy MoMA, © 2012 Cindy Sherman.)
For each section of the show, I’ve outlined the number of images on display, the processes, and the dates. There are no actual titles to these sections/rooms, so the names in parentheses are my placeholder subjects.
1 pigment print on PhotoTex adhesive fabric, 2010
Room 1 (introduction)
1 set of 23 hand colored gelatin silver prints, 1975
5 gelatin silver prints, 1975
4 chromogenic color prints, 1983, 1985, 1992, 2008
Room 2 (untitled film stills)
70 gelatin silver prints, 1977-1980
Room 3 (fashion)
8 chromogenic color prints, 1983, 1984, 1993, 1994, 2007-2008, 2011
Room 4 (centerfolds)
12 chromogenic color prints, 1981
Room 5 (backdrops)
8 chromogenic color prints, 1980, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007-2008, 2008
Room 6 (grotesque)
7 chromogenic color prints (including 1 diptych) 1986, 1987, 1989, 1992
Room 7 (history portraits)
22 chromogenic color prints, 1988, 1989, 1990
Room 8 (headshots)
13 chromogenic color prints, 2000
Room 9 (fairy tale/carnival)
8 chromogenic color prints (including 1 diptych), 1985, 1994, 2003, 2004
Room 10 (society portraits)
6 chromogenic color prints, 2008
Room 11 (multiple figures)
1 16mm film, 1975
2 cut-out gelatin silver prints mounted on board, 1976
3 chromogenic color prints, 2004, 2007-2008, 2008
Comments/Context: I’m probably the last of the photography critics to weigh in on the spectacle that is Cindy Sherman, now on view at the MoMA. In the past two weeks since the show opened, the press coverage has been a veritable deluge of uninterrupted and well deserved praise for Sherman, a re-coronation of one of the now generally undisputed greats in American artistic history. But let me say at the outset that I think there are two different topics worth discussing here: Cindy Sherman (the artist) and Cindy Sherman (the exhibit), and their paths diverge quite quickly I’m afraid.
As I wandered through the winding rooms of this show, I came to the distinct and strongly held conclusion that Cindy Sherman has hardly made any uninspired work in her entire career, which of course isn’t probably true on the margin, but certainly seemed so in these galleries. Surprisingly, I found myself thinking this not because of the three unparalleled rooms that hold respectively the entire Untitled Film Stills, the entire set of centerfolds, and a deep collection of the history portraits. These three rooms are simply a walk off home run, a stand up and cheer celebration, a jubilant, ecstatic, jaw dropping, crowd pleaser. Seeing them in this level of completion, as fully formed series, they shine and sparkle with incandescent originality, even decades later.
When I took a moment to breathe and recenter myself after immersing myself in these treasures, what really impressed me were the lesser known works and the in-between periods, and this is where the exhibit unfortunately flies off the rails. More than half of the rooms in the show are thematic groups, mixing images from various projects and connecting them via content, style, or approach. While I certainly understand the desire to use something other than a standard, chronological structure (in the hopes of bringing a new perspective to work which is clearly already well known and loved), in this case, I think it was a major mistake. These thematic bunches, from loosely gathered fashion related works to those that use different kinds of backdrops, and from the grotesque (broadly defined) to those containing multiple figures, fail to be thought provoking or illuminating, and they bind this retrospective in ways that prevent a bigger, more robust, and more complete reading of her entire career. Sherman has always worked in series format, and I am mystified as to the logic behind pulling images from different series into separate, unconnected thoughts – it just feels like there are clowns everywhere. I carefully pored over the catalogue essays in the hopes of finding a set of defendable reasons for this framework, but alas, there is no such coherent or lucid argument presented.
The reason a comprehensive chronological approach is of paramount importance for Sherman is that we need to see the subtle progression in both ideas and technique that was happening from project to project. Her student work gets scant attention, a couple of pieces in the first room and a couple more at the very end. I actually think there’s probably an entire stand alone exhibit to be done on these pictures that pre-date the film stills. I was fascinated by the stop motion doll clothes film, the repetitive collages, many of the seeds of the future there to be seen.
I have a similar complaint about the period of the 1980s and 1990s, after the centerfolds and bookending the history portraits. There were only a handful of images from this entire period, with some entire series overlooked altogether. I would have loved to see several more rooms of the harsh, ugly, and still engrossing photographs she made then, and to see them as distinct, separate projects, rather than all jumbled together. Many of these are hard, perhaps unpopular pictures I realize, but these were the ones that I wish there were more of, as they show Sherman extending her aesthetic and challenging her limits. Without the benefit of strict chronological context, we can’t see the patterns of when she started using prosthetics, or when she removed herself from the images altogether, or when she experimented with projected backdrops (a couple of which are stuffed into a side room). I found this lack of order befuddling, even though I was starved for more of Sherman’s work from these missing years.
Sherman’s headshots from the early 2000s were so much better than I remembered that they were like a new discovery for me. I suddenly saw the beginnings of the ideas that ultimately manifested themselves in the recent society portraits (there is a specificity to these headshot characters that is more aspirational and personal than what came before). These kind of connections are what retrospectives are all about. A single room of clowns should have come next, instead of spreading them all around the exhibit to continually unsettle visitors with their creepiness. The reason this would have been critically important is that this series signalled the beginning of Sherman’s use of digital technology. Placing these in front of the scathingly perceptive society portraits (which are also digital) would have given us the ability to see how she was refining her technique and mastering the new tools. Then the progression to her newest work (buried in the fashion room) and the huge murals in the entry would have made more sense. In these monumental pictures, Sherman has begun to digitally manipulate her own features as well as expanding her notion of painterly background, turning more knobs and opening up new possibilities.
My ultimate reaction to this exuberant show was a kind of maddening schizophrenia, where I was truly awestruck by certain rooms, only to be disappointed by the ones that followed. This reaction had nothing to do with the quality of the photography and everything to do with the chain of thinking that was being presented; it just didn’t hold water for me. That said, 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 cliches, our delusional hopes and shattered dreams. For those who are passionate about photography, this exhibit is not an optional excursion; it’s on the required three star syllabus, and for many, its parade of undeniable greatest hits will be more than enough to happily fill an afternoon. For me, I left the galleries torn: on one hand, gleefully glowing from the reflected brilliance of all that I had seen, and on the other, muttering over the lingering whiff of the superlative retrospective that had somehow slipped away.
Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum show, there are, of course, no prices. Sherman’s works are ubiquitous in both the secondary markets for contemporary art and photography, so much so that a sale can hardly happen without a Sherman picture as an anchor or cover lot, with dozens more available in every season. Recent prices have ranged from as low as roughly $2000 (for one of her large edition prints) to as high as nearly $4 million for her iconic vintage works (at the time in 2011, this $3.89 million price was the largest amount ever paid for a photograph, only to be subsequently eclipsed by Gursky).