For decades, it’s been clear that Cindy Sherman is one of our most important and influential artists. And she’s seemed to suffer from a classic great-artist dilemma, verging almost on tragedy. In 1977, when she was 23, Sherman came up with the brilliant idea of trying on all the different roles, and clothes, that women put on in life, and then documenting the results. That produced a series of masterpiece self-portrait photos called the “Untitled Film Stills.” The near-tragic dilemma lies in what came after that series: a huge number of self-portraits in a very similar mode that only occasionally equalled the “Film Stills,” and often fell short of them. Like so many great artists, but even more dramatically than most, Sherman seemed to have had her genius moment young, and then was forced to work in her own shadow.
A fabulous new Sherman retrospective that opens Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York reveals that that notion – my long-held notion – is bunk. The 171 photos in this brilliantly hung show reveal a profound, important difference between Sherman’s earliest works and her later ones, and prove that the two bodies of images address very different subjects and conditions. The difference, I came to feel after long hours spent in the survey, has to do with a distinction that we ought to be making between acting and clowning.
That distinction is suggested right on the surface of at least some of the works. A room that includes all 70 of the “Film Stills” shows Sherman acting – literally, in that she seems to present herself as an actor playing in some unnamed b-movie, and, more figuratively, in that she is losing herself in a role whose goal is to make reality (Cindy Sherman the artist) disappear behind a surface of fiction (the character she takes on in the shot). Realism is the basic, classic mode here, with Sherman’s pictures working more or less as windows onto an alternate world. The acting may not be perfect – the window has flaws that we’re absolutely supposed to notice – but the fiction-building goal doesn’t falter.
And then there are some much later color photos, made early this century and wisely scattered here and there in this show, in which Sherman stops being an actor and takes on the role of clown instead, complete with pancake makeup, an assortment of red noses and bizarre oversized, overbright clothes. For once, she’s not playing anyone in particular – unless it’s herself, strangely got up. Sherman has always insisted that her pictures are not self-portraits in any normal sense (she says that she’s just the most docile model she knows), so it’s all the more striking that one of those clowns wears a jacket labeled “Cindy.” This clown, I’d say, is the author of all of Sherman’s later works, which means she is also the figure posing in them.
The photos that came after the ”Film Stills” don’t so much create credible fictions of how women might be as present us with caricatures. They are almost always closer to mugging and burlesque than to acting. Even though Sherman has come to have all the sophisticated tools of Photoshop at her disposal, the later pictures are almost all more evidently cobbled-together – more like clown-face – than the low-tech “Film Stills.” In photos from the 1990s and 2000s, Sherman presents herself as a face-lifted doyenne, trailer trash in hot pants, an overtanned Arizonian or a fading hunt-country belle, but in every case it’s left clear that the new identity has been constructed from crude parts. Makeup is often coarse and obvious and Sherman’s special effects almost always leave their tell-tale seams exposed. Whereas the “Film Stills” could almost all pass as real views of real women living moments in their lives, few of the works that come after could pass as anything other than a latter-day commedia dell’arte. It’s a near-paradox that in the “Film Stills,” with their very modest manipulations, Sherman can disappear into her characters, whereas in the later works, despite their high-tech rejjigings, she’s always very present as a person – a clown – mugging-out a persona we can never really believe in.
For the sake of a skit under the big top, a clown can take on the role of toff or bumpkin or doctor, but it’s never more than crude window dressing; the whiteface and red nose never go away. That’s Sherman in her later work. Which mean the tone changes, too, and dramatically. Straight realism always implies some kind of tenderness for the subject depicted: The care that’s taken in getting the depiction right seems to rub off on the subject itself, and that’s true of Sherman’s “Film Stills,” too. There’s some kind of benevolence in them. Whereas clowning, even when it’s cheery, always has a tinge of darkness to it. It makes toddlers cry. Sherman’s later pictures often make an adult wince.
The later photos stop being about the rigid roles that women inhabit, and start to be about an artist’s tragic inability to do anything to loosen them up. Those roles are too fully fixed in place to be touched by any tool the artist has at her disposal. Representation – acting; portraying – just isn’t up to the job. Sure, Sherman can show the wind-tunnel face of an aging trophy wife; she can reveal the caking makeup on a doyenne whose wrinkles refuse to stay hidden. But that doesn’t make either figure a jot less rich and powerful, or make either one any better a role model. All that’s left for Sherman is to make a ruckus, take a pratfall, and hope that somebody attends to her skit.
Fools may be wise, even in their foolishness, but they are always also impotent to act on their knowledge– in fact, that seems to be a precondition for the wisdom they’ve got. Art, in the late works of Cindy Sherman, becomes a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing – but better that sound and fury than silence.
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