With a rigourous practice that investigates many of the concerns that have occupied artists since the 1970s — appropriation and representation, the artifice of photography, the gaze, and identity construction — Cindy Sherman’s more than three decade long career has secured her place as one of the most influential artists to have emerged in the later decades of the 20th century. In February, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the largest survey exhibition of Sherman’s work to date. While we are unable to catch the show before it closes next week, we picked up a copy of the accompanying catalogue in the hope that it might provide some semblance of the experience of viewing this legendary exhibition in person. Publishing a monograph on Sherman that offers more than mere repetition of what already exists is no easy feat, yet despite this obstacle curator Eva Respini has assembled an interesting selection of essays, proving that it remains possible to present a fresh interpretation of Sherman’s work.
Since the late 1970s when she first exhibited her Untitled Film Stills to widespread acclaim, Sherman not only has been a pivotal figure in contemporary art, her work has also been at the center of the critical discourse on the nature of representation and authorial identity, feminism, conceptualism and postmodernism. Sherman has consistently used herself as her model, and her presence in her work has instigated an abnormal amount of critical writing devoted to both her photographs and to trying to locate the “real” Sherman within them. In reference to the plethora of wigs, prosthetics and costumes that Sherman has donned over the years, and to critics’ attempts to label the artist, Respini titled her thoughtful introductory essay “Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up.” Respini delivers a cogent assessment of the theoretical discourse that surrounds Sherman and her work, and identifies the role that Sherman played, along with artists such as Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Barbara Kruger among others, in defining postmodern artistic practice. The inclusion of a number of lesser-known early works such as A Play of Selves, and an installation view of the Untitled Film Stills when the series was exhibited for the first time in Buffalo, is enlightening. Respini also places Sherman’s early production in the context of both her diverse influences and larger trends in conceptual and performance art in the 1970s. Her work assumes new meaning when juxtaposed with that of artists as varied as Hannah Wilke, August Sander, Man Ray, and John Baldessari.
The essay by art historian Johanna Burton is also particularly compelling and presents a new approach to assessing Sherman’s oeuvre. Like Respini, Burton uses existing critical writing as a starting point for her discussion of where empathy and abstraction can be located in Sherman’s pictures. The highlight of the book for us is the conversation between Sherman and filmmaker John Waters, which offers a glimpse into the artist’s working process and her own motivations and intentions. We always appreciate when an exhibition catalogue affords a platform for the artist’s voice, and this conversation, with the equally as eccentric and inventive Waters, is a rare treat.
What really distinguishes Cindy Sherman from the throng of other publications devoted to the artist is the quality of the reproductions. Nearly 180 works are illustrated, many for the first time, and the publication takes advantage of a new printing process that allows images to be reproduced with a colour fidelity, clarity, and tonal range not previously possible. With a more than three decade career that shows no signs of abating, it seems like an appropriate moment to pause and reflect on Sherman’s practice, to reassess older work in relation to more recent production. While a book can never replicate the experience of seeing an exhibition or a work of art in person, MoMA’s Cindy Sherman comes very close.