Cindy Sherman Doesn’t Thrill Me

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #425. 2004. Chromogenic color print, 70 3/4″ x 7′ 5 3/4″ (179.7 x 228 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Clowns? Really? You’ve got to be kidding.

I’ll say it right here, right now: I don’t like Cindy Sherman’s work.

Wait, let me say that more clearly: I don’t like MOST of Cindy Sherman’s work. And I definitely don’t see her as some kind of brilliant artist. Maybe she was once, when she was just starting out.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York just opened a retrospective of Cindy Sherman that will run until June 11. It’s a chance to see her beginning and development into one of the most successful photographers alive. Not only is her work eminently collectible, she is now holds the record as the photographer whose work has sold for the most money.

I walked through the exhibit twice in order to really get a feeling for the work and to clarify my feelings about it all. Here goes…

The show is hung chronologically, which allows you to see how revolutionary Sherman’s work was when it first showed in the mid to late 1970s. That was a time of all sorts of new art, including punk music. In that way she fits in perfectly with the energy of the times. Her explorations of identity (in black & white) really resonate and seem so fresh and smart even now.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Stils #6 1977. Gelatin silver print, 9 7/16″ x 6 1/2″ (24 x 16.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Identity is the subject of so much art, including every college students  work.  So even though I have seen it repeated over and over, there are few photographers I feel really nail something deep.  Cindy Sherman‘s work from 1975-1981, which includes her “Untitled Film Stills”,  does exactly that: it throws all the stereotypical views of women in our society right back into our faces.  And she was one of the only photographers doing it in those days.

From damsels in distress to secretaries to sexpots, it s all there and I was honestly blown away.  I didn’t think I would like anything I saw.  I was wrong.

It was early in the 1980s when Sherman began her move to color film.  And it was also when she began to create the personas we have all come to know. First she photographed herself in costume against projected landscapes.  Then she was commissioned to  re-create  images from men’s  erotic  magazines.  This is where she began to lose me.  The images are nothing like what they are  supposed  to be, and I find them mundane.  Yet as a former photo editor I can see the allure in having this new photographer explore the topic.  For me it falls very flat, as if Sherman couldn’t really stretch herself to turn the idea on its head.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #96 1981. Chromogenic color print, 24″ x 47 15/163″ (61 x 121.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Carl D. Lobel © 2012 Cindy Sherman

In the mid-1980s into the early 1990s Sherman turned her attentions and productions to fairy tales, the Masters, sex and deconstruction.  Who cares?  This is when she really began to alter her own appearance to create vaguely recognizable people in large format.  I mean what can I say about a room full of large color portraits of people who might be seen in a Rembrandt painting?  For me it is crass and looks really cheap.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #213 1989. Chromogenic color print, 41 1/2″ x 33″ (105.4 x 83.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

I do find it interesting that the museum alludes to her work with sex toys, yet barely shows any of them.

It was also during this time that Sherman created a series of  fashion  photos, and as stated by the museum,  “challenge(d) the industry’s conventions of beauty and grace.”

Sherman photographs herself as a burn victim, as what looks like a crazy woman all the time wearing very expensive designer clothing.  But I ask you, isn’t there another level to turning conventions on their head than too skinny models at one end of the spectrum and Sherman‘s overly ugly women? It seems to me as if she is taking each chance to do something new, and just shoe horning her work into it.  Why is this so different than shooting a fashion spread in a slum area? Both characterizations hover on the surface without diving deeper into why it matters at all.

And how is a stereotype turned on its head by making herself, and consequently the women she looks to portray, as ugly as she can.  I’m not talking about standardized beauty, but it seems she goes out of her way to make herself uglier and uglier for some purpose that eludes me.

So Sherman moves on into the 2000s and that is where the clowns first appear.  Holy hell.  Am I supposed to take this seriously?  It makes me think of Jeff Koons and his porno sculptures with his then wife, Ilona Staller.  Or Damien Hirst and his suspended dead cow.  Is the point just to show that you can make people fall for anything and spend big bucks in the process?  Wow, banality rules.  What a surprise.

If it wasn’t bad enough that I felt I was seeing an artist becoming more and more irrelevant as her work progressed and she became more successful, I can’t understand why the photographs are so very large. The bigger they get, the more irrelevant they seem to me.  It’s as if you print large just because you can (and of course you can charge more at that size), not because it s warranted.

And so her most recent work, gigantic portraits of rich women not only do nothing for me, they hardly  presage(d) the financial collapse,  as the museum states.  I just see more ugly women in photographs that are printed way too large.  The colors are so saturated that they render them garish.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #474 2008. Chromogenic color print, 7′ 6 3/4″ x 60″ (230.5 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn and the Carol and David Appel Family Fund. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

I couldn’t help thinking as I wandered through this exhibit about people who adore Madonna, thinking she somehow empowers women by changing her persona thus challenging stereotypes.  That s what this exhibit wants you to believe about Sherman as well. I don’t buy it.   While Madonna always wants to be beautiful, Sherman strives for ugliness.  Yet both performers (yes, I said performers) choose an easily identifiable way of portraying women.

I’m interested in women who look for the middle ground between what is offered to women by our male-dominated society, that being either being beautiful or being dismissed as ugly.  I’m looking for women who turn convention on its head.  Why can’t we set our own ideas of what women are, and why aren t our artists leading the way?

Sherman reminds me of a band that releases one brilliant album with a dozen or so songs and then falls into endless mediocrity, doing basically the same thing over and over again because they can make a lot of money at it.


You must be rich enough by now.

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