Feature

Exhibit of the week: Cindy Sherman

MoMA's overdue retrospective pays tribute to “the strongest and finest American artist of her time.”

Museum of Modern Art, New YorkThrough June 11

For a person who’s built her career on self-portraiture, Cindy Sherman is “a strangely elusive artist,” said The Economist. Across 35 years, the New Jersey native has been playing an elaborate game of dress-up—putting on wigs, costumes, and makeup, and creating photographs in which she might be a ’50s film actress or a figment of myth, a historical figure or a (clothed) centerfold, a used-up society lady or even a clown. Though Sherman is almost always in the frame, there’s not a single image in MoMA’s overdue retrospective that’s autobiographical. The artist is often her own model, yet “she is not her own muse.”

She is, however, “the strongest and finest American artist of her time,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. MoMA skimps on important phases of Sherman’s work, but the show that it has mounted “is as good as the movies.” From the moment we’re welcomed into the exhibit by an 18-foot-high photomural of a “variously bewigged” Sherman, the artist quickens and manipulates our emotions “as deftly as a Hitchcock or a Kubrick.” Though the mock “Untitled Film Stills,” completed in 1980, launched a thousand graduate-school theses, Sherman became a master image-maker only later, eventually producing beautiful and challenging photographs that “feel like paintings, infused with decision throughout.” In most, the artist is both director and actor, and the actor conveys an emotional state that’s deliberately “out of sync” with our expectations. Clearly, Sherman’s project is not about her but about every one of us: She “hammers ceaselessly” at the commonplace delusion that personal identity is something more than “a jury-rigged, rickety vessel.”

It’s a shame that the museum didn’t give her more space, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Sherman “may be the first woman in modern art history” who’s been as restlessly inventive and ceaselessly influential as Picasso, yet she doesn’t even get a full floor here. Left out or underrepresented are some of her angriest series, including the “jarring” sex pictures she made in the 1990s using masks, dummies, and prosthetic body parts. To fully appreciate Sherman, a viewer needs to see how relentlessly she’s waged war against the “tyranny” of the visual images we’re confronted with every day. Even so, this show is “a gift”—a chance to experience through Sherman’s art the courage, intelligence, and tirelessness that have made her one of the era’s true greats.

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