Making the Seams Visible: Cindy Sherman at the Museum of Modern Art

by Laura Leffler, Spring 2012

By unsetting the conventions through which imagery within these various genres operates—making the seams visible and, on occasion, the boundaries utterly porous—Sherman prompts viewers to recognize both codes by which identity is constructed and conveyed, and the artifice, (mediated, social, psychological) underpinning such cultural norms. -Johanna Burton, “Cindy Sherman: Abstraction and Empathy,” Museum of Modern Art, 2012

In the catalog that accompanies the Museum of Modern Art’s current survey of Cindy Sherman’s photographs, the artist cites Diane Arbus as an influence. Walking through the galleries devoted to Sherman’s work, the connection between the two photographers becomes obvious: simply put, both artists set out to capture the artifice of culture. Arbus achieved this by documenting real people, documenting the “flaw” in her subjects, or what she called “the gap between intention and effect.” Sherman has added a layer to that artifice by casting herself as the subject, rather than a real person. Like Arbus, Sherman has created a body of work that was, from the start, hugely popular—with critics, collectors and casual viewers alike. What accounts for that popularity despite Sherman’s often dark and disturbing portrayal of the viewer’s own constructed society?

The late 1970s and early 1980s was the era of simulacra. Jean Baudrillard had popularized the theory of a simulated world—the idea that reality had been replaced by cultural signs, and that those signs had lost even the thing to which they referred, leaving us with fake built upon fake. Baurillard had his predecessors in Roland Barthes and Guy Debord, who formulated these ideas in the 1960s with the advent of television and big budget films. The era of simulacra was the perfect moment for Cindy Sherman to create and unveil her now iconic series, The Untitled Film Stills. 

Writers and critics have made countless attempts to push Sherman’s early work into a particular feminist or semiotic theory, while the artist herself remains frustratingly ambivalent on the subject. What is clear, however, is that there is a connection between the artifice explored by these theorists and the images that Sherman has created—whether that connection is intentional or not. The artist is adamant that the photographs are not based on actual films, but on the ideas of certain films; in other words, and without getting too bogged down in jargon, Sherman removes the original sign (the Hitchcock or Antonioni film, for example, which depicts a certain kind of woman) and creates a new sign (herself-as-character) that has become twice removed from original signifier (a real woman).

At MoMA, the entire series is presented as one stunning, thrilling whole. Indeed, these are Sherman’s easiest pictures to view, and they remain her most popular. It’s not hard to see why. She has both embraced and shrugged off the pervasive theories of the time, just as she has both embraced and shrugged off the idols of mass culture. These pictures exist somewhere in between, somewhat prettily, somewhat sexily, high-brow and low-brow at once.

But on the heels of The Untitled Film Stills and all the acclaim it bought the artist, Sherman set off to find a more challenging visual world. What she found were the centerfolds of the early 1980s. In her conversation with John Waters published in the MoMA catalogue, Sherman says of these works: “I also wanted to comment on the nature of centerfolds, where you see a woman lying there, and then you look at it closer and suddenly realize, Oops, I didn’t mean to invade this private moment. I wanted to make people uncomfortable. But then, years later, I’d hear, ‘I have that centerfold hanging over my bed. It’s so sexy.’”

Sherman draws a line here between the public moment (her film stills) and the private moment (her centerfolds). How fascinating, then, that she completely flips the scale of the two realms—making the public moment intimate, and the private moment oversized and scaled as much to fit a movie screen as a Playboy magazine. Either way, Sherman obviously did not intend these pictures to titillate, but in some ways, and to some people, they did.

The centerfolds were so successful that they traveled to the Venice Biennale, and here, Sherman admits to feeling “guilty” and “scared” about the success of her work. She began to diverge from her norm—using herself as the “subject” —and began a body of work much more disturbing: the disasters of the late 1980s and the sex pictures of the early 1990s. Here Sherman is pulling herself out of her own camera’s lens. She pursues signs of trouble: vomit, blood, decay, rot, feces. There is nothing pretty or titillating about these pictures. Indeed Sherman claims that they were created as a kind of dare to her collectors.

Yet she also claims that these photographs are the aftermath of a bloody battle with herself—that she chopped herself up, and these are the remnants. This violent act makes sense as a turning point in Sherman’s oeuvre, especially in view of the MoMA exhibition. Out of the bloody mess comes the figure of Cindy Sherman once again—from the History Portraits to the clowns to the Hollywood/Hamptons series to the Society Pictures.

The History Portraits is the first body of work that truly belies Sherman’s ambivalence about the feminist question so often put to her. Here, Sherman is not looking at the constructed-ness of femininity, but at the constructed-ness of culture. Put together as a whole, her plastic body parts, her ridiculous (but historically accurate) costuming, the genius of her work with makeup, all shatters the illusion of “pretty old pictures.” Sherman has transformed the famous paintings of history into parodies. Even if only one of these works is actually based on a real painting, the idea of the iconic masterwork exists in each of them, just as the idea of the iconic film existed in her earlier work. Sherman is still playing with simulacra, only now she is examining it in a different era.

This temporal distance between contemporary viewer and historical parody helped in making these works almost as popular as the Untitled Film Stills. Again, Sherman is playing around with the idea that Arbus dealt with in her own pictures—cultural artifice. Sherman jeopardizes the norms that society takes for granted, “showing the seams” of this constructed world, but here, she is doing so without actually accusing her audience.

Quickly, though, she takes that back. The Hollywood/Hamptons series and the Society Portraits take Arbus’s “gap between intention and effect” a giant leap forward. In 1974, Judith Goldman wrote of Arbus: “Each picture acts as a visual boomerang; freaks and lonely people scare us into looking first at them and then back at ourselves.”

It is clear that Sherman’s work in the Hollywood/Hamptons series has a similar effect. These pictures are hard to look at, and they are impossible to ignore. They create anxiety in the viewer, as well as empathy and ridicule. Although Sherman herself poses for these pictures, they seem so genuine that accusations of cruelty have been lobbed at the artist. Sherman responds in her interview with Waters, saying: These photographs “were criticized as if I was making fun of these people. But I empathize with these characters.”

These are pictures of people trying too hard, their intentions too obvious, their effects stymied. There is a desperation in them, which the people of our own era must understand. The accusation of Sherman’s cruelty only exposes the notion that we all feel some sort of human connection with these characters.

The MoMA exhibition is a blockbuster. As viewers, we understand Sherman’s work as special, iconic, near Warholian in its recognizably. Many of us seek the human being that exists behind all the make-up and costumes, but perhaps this exhibition will help us look more critically at pictures that Sherman is actually presenting to us—seams, stitches, warts and all.