Before we get to the where and when of Cindy Sherman, a few words are in order about art theory and the shifting practice of art. When Sherman attended art school in the mid-1970s, young artists faced a whole new set of possibilities with respect to their direction, and many were set adrift. Feminist artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, older by a few years than Sherman, had questioned many long-held assumptions in art - the idea of the singular male art genius, the valuation of painting over other media, objectifications of women's bodies, and the patriarchal practices of the art establishment. Their questions helped bring down the reigning paradigm of modernism and replace its sort of certainty with the give-and-take of postmodernism.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #24. 1978. Gelatin silver print. 6 7/16 x 9 7/16 (16.4 x 24 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase
The backdrop is one of the Holland Tunnel ventilation towers near Canal Street on the west side.
Postmodern practices, with the bent toward investigating the position of the reader/viewer with respect to the object, turned out to be much more fun than plain old modernism. It could be totally cool, for example, if you could make a picture of your self in some kind of socially conventional costume but also be the one taking the picture. So, if a woman were to do this at a time when people started really looking hard at media representations, let’s say, she could make a mark on the art world. In addition, minimalism was having its moment in the mid-1970s, and for many younger artists, minimalism seemed totally boring, as it didn't engage their searches for identity or connect with the urban landscape. Film seemed a better option than taking up a brush and drawing even stripes with masking tape.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #64. 1980. Gelatin silver print. 6 7/16 x 9 7/16 (16.4 x 24 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase
The setting is the arcade of the Municipal Building, Centre Street.
In the mid to late 1970s, for young artists in possession of a crazy amount of courage, New York seemed a good option. In the midst of an overall precipitous decline in the city's finances, the downtown scene, as it's come to be called, was taking off. Since the 1960s, artists had been moving into areas of the East Village, Soho, and what's now known as Tribeca, and loft squatting was made legal after a series of agreements in the 1970s. With a vibrant punk music scene at its core, downtown artists thrived on life, art, and experimentation, drawing inspiration from one another. Cindy Sherman moved to New York in 1977 with her boyfriend at the time, the artist Robert Longo.
New York set the stage for several location shots in Sherman's work of the later 1970s, the famous series known as “Untitled Film Stills.” While typecasting herself as office worker, secretary, potential stalking victim, or other stereotype in the cultural imagination, Sherman could also play off popular stereotypes of the big, bad city. In its size and cosmopolitanism, New York City also provides its residents, not just artists, with numerous types, role models, and characters for potential emulation, study, or revulsion. Depending on one’s mood or sense of subjectivity, New York can seem like the perfect city to hide and remain anonymous or, its opposite, a giant catwalk where every look and every step is followed.
Though she has often preferred to work in the studio, she has used New York locations to great advantage, especially in the earlier work and with her recent pictures, namely the 2008 portraits of the aging society matrons. For these digital images, Sherman took pictures of herself against a green screen and then added separate ones she took of settings. We often see these types of women in New York, sad souls stuck in expectations of their social class. Sherman has placed them in various backdrops, including Bethesda Terrace at Central Park, the Cloisters, and the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park. Where the 1970s photographs often emphasized women at work or at play in the city, in these newer and much larger works the women act like they own the place. But, as with the digital manipulation, it's just an illusion.
Thanks in part to Cindy Sherman, when we look at pictures now, we know when we are being fooled.
The who, what, where, and when -
Who: Cindy Sherman
What: Cindy Sherman, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Where: Museum of Modern Art
The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Gallery, sixth floor
11 West 53rd Street New York, NY
When: Through June 11, 2012
For a related film series, Carte Blanche: Cindy Sherman, the artist has selected several films that have influenced her work. April 2-10, 2012.