Cindy Sherman: Clothes Make the Woman


What struck me about the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA was not her famous and beloved photographs, but a small room at the end of the exhibition. Some curator, seemingly as an afterthought, placed a video and two collages the artist had created at the beginning of her career in the 1970s. These works were so exciting to me because they indicate other directions that the artist might have gone. Sherman, one of the most famous artist today, creates photographs that offer provocative glimpses into the nature of contemporary identity and media. Sherman’s typical tableaux featuring herself in costume arguably have become formulaic over the years, while these early unfamiliar works not only suggest unexplored avenues but remind me why I love her work in the first place.

Untitled Film Still #11, 1978

Cindy Sherman, now on view at MoMA through June 11 and later traveling to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Dallas Museum of Art, brings together more than 170 photographs to trace the artist’s career. The show mainly consists of Sherman’s photographs depicting a person (the artist, elaborately made up) in a carefully staged environment. There is a great range to the characters and scenes. In works from the 1970s to the present, the roughly chronological rooms take you from her early Untitled Film Stills (still my favorites) through to her most recent portraits of aging society women. In between she touches on art history, clowns, and a variety of other things.

Untitled #132, 1984

These works are known for being provocative in terms of identity and gender. They are also beautifully arranged and suggestive. In each, the viewer enters a distinct world with clues to a narrative. Seeing all these works together drove home for me how routine Sherman’s photographs became. While the exhibition takes you through different series and her disguises are many and varied, Sherman is always present. That is her strength. The repetitive way she explores identity is, perhaps, not. Think how much more interesting it might be for the artist to experiment with other mediums, or models, or processes.

Untitled #175, 1987

Refreshingly different isn’t what you would immediately think of with the above photograph, part of a series where the artist backs out of the picture and focuses more on disgusting still lifes where sexuality is mauled and food is rotting. Yet after fifty portraits of Sherman in different poses, it’s exciting to see where she has strayed from her customary works.  Perhaps because they are so straightforwardly grotesque, or because they lack the clever social critique and imaginative suggested narrative I appreciate in her other works, I don’t consider them Sherman’s best work.

Still from Doll Clothes, 1975

What is perhaps Sherman at her best is tucked away into a room at the end. Doll Clothes is a black and white video (watch a clip here) in which Sherman, acting as a sort of paper doll, tries on different outfits from an oversize book of paper clothes. As much than anything she produces later, the video suggests the idea of the individual as a table rasa—made and unmade by clothes and other social coverings, posing for society. It’s also a delight to watch, consistently stopping traffic while I was there and, uncommonly for video art, attracting an audience that watched the whole thing.

Untitled #488, 1976

Two collages nearby from the same period are also fascinating examples of what might have been. Untitled #488 is a collage made of black and white images of Sherman in slightly different poses that overlap to create a spectrum of expression. Untitled #489 uses a different, more masculine character in the same manner. All at once you see the multitudinous characters Sherman can and will contain. These Muybridge horse type of collages suggest movement rather than stasis. They don’t obscure Sherman’s identity as much as her later photography does, while exploring many of the same ideas regarding identity and gender.

Untitled Film Still #470, 2008

Almost all of the photographs in the show are great individually. Yet seeing them together underscores how repetitious they become. The video and collages are fascinating insights into what might have been—they play with the themes of identity and gender that Sherman continued to explore, but they do it differently and successfully. It makes me wonder if  the artist would have been more inventive if her Untitled Film Stills hadn’t been so commercially successful. Could there have been more video? Perhaps the artist would have produced work more concerned with her transformations (the most interesting part of her work as a whole) rather than the finished product. It  is always easy for the path less traveled to look more attractive, but in this case its downright tantalizing.

Cindy Sherman’s current Exhibition at MoMA

Linnea West writes about contemporary art, culture, and travel–all subjects she feels passionately about. She lives in New York City–except for those times when wanderlust gets the better of her. This happens often. Fortunately her laptop travels well. She is finishing her first novel.