For 35 years, artist Cindy Sherman has played “dress-up,” only, it’s much more than that. With an exuberant array of costumes, make-up, wigs, and giant pendulum breast prosthetics, she’s been a schoolgirl, a playboy, a partying heiress, a Leonardo da Vinci boy muse, and a tattooed seductress. “I really don’t think that they are about me,” Sherman told New York Magazine back in 2008, speaking specifically of the work in her famous Film Stills series. “It’s maybe about me maybe not wanting to be me and wanting to be all these other characters. Or at least try them on.” Sherman’s career retrospective opens this Sunday at MoMA and for the occasion, we’d like to introduce you to a few Cindy Shermans.
What’s so special about Cindy? Do not mistake her for a con artist or a master of cliché disguise. Her photographic self-portraits — taken sans assistants, in her studio — expose something beyond social stereotypes, a resonance, an essence on the inside of each persona. “The fact that she’s so self-contained gets to the very heart of her work,” Eva Respini, associate curator of photography at MoMA, who has spent the last two years organizing this retrospective, explained to W Magazine. “Taking on a persona, getting into character, and performing for the camera is a very private act for her. She can only let loose when she’s on her own.”
Sherman’s work can be grouped in series. For her masterful, black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980) Sherman played the vamps and heroines of ’50s and ’60s cinema. For “Rear Screen Projections” (1980-1981) Sherman posed in front ephemerally blurred, projected screens. “Disasters and Fairy Tales” (1985-1989) followed, turning to magic and horror, placing Sherman into distress, in a lush mess of a muddy, glittering landscape, sometimes falling to her knees, sometimes sprouting a snout. “History Portraits” (1988-1990) came next as a sort of historic synesthesia, recalling several paintings of the Great Masters at a time. For “Sex Pictures” (1992), Sherman stepped further into fiction, with modified, erotically explicit mannequins, delightfully disturbing until she outdid herself with the “Horror” phase (1997). The clown works (2003-2004) followed. Sherman had exaggerated clown culture through the use of near-psychedelic background and dramatized make-up, creating an overwhelming posse… of herself, in double-exposure. Her recent work featured the drag of aging socialites and high society women, shot on locations where such women would dwell.
And then, there’s here newest portraits, like the “Gaga-esque” portrait “sketch.” As if by a psychic string, it connects the recognizable pop starlet with every other of the kind, what New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz describes as the “towering frame-filling blonde Kabuki Venus… upturned angelic eyes blinded by starstruck self-image stupor. The girl next door dreaming of divadom of a half-thought dimension.” But as the 1001-plus costumes of this “modern-day Scheherazade” tell a 1001-plus stories, Cindy isn’t lost. She’s in there somewhere. Click through her many faces below to see the big reveal — Cindy, stripped of make-up and costume, Cindy as herself. Cindy as everyone.