In the late 1980s and early '90s, Cindy Sherman created a series of photographic scenes that challenged even some of her most ardent fans. Plastic female torsos were depicted with objects protruding from their sexual organs. Stretches of surfaces were shown littered with vomit, feces, and other graphic discards. And, through it all, Sherman was nowhere to be seen. The beloved Cindy Sherman — the woman of 1,000 disguises, who'd been front and center of her own work for more than a decade — had virtually disappeared from view. "I think," Sherman once said of those photos, "I wanted to make something that I couldn't imagine anyone buying. 'I dare you to like this.'"
Sherman's snub of the art market only solidified her reputation as someone who defied convention and was worth investing in — either by buying into her idealism or just buying her photos. Parsing these ideals has been the purview of art historians and social theorists, and therein lies the dichotomy: She's tried to reach people who weren't hardcore art-goers. She wanted her dress-up roles to resonate with mainstream audiences, to be an artistic version of, say, Lily Tomlin's Laugh-In characters — from precocious child Edith Ann to telephone operator Ernestine, Tomlin played for laughs, but with harder edges underneath. With Sherman, it's the opposite: You get the hard surface first, then an occasional laugh, as with her series of lascivious clowns, or her aging society matrons trying like hell to stay vibrant.
The dramatic contours of Sherman's three-decade output are on display in the touring show at SFMOMA. It's Sherman's first major exhibit in San Francisco, and among its revelations is that Sherman was a mischievous prankster from childhood — so much so that in 1966, at age 12, she convincingly dressed up as an old lady and paraded in the street with a similary made-up friend. A photographer captured these two preteen poseurs and their pancaked faces. A star was being born.
As Sherman takes on wrinkles that are all too real, she accentuates them for the camera, continuing her feminist critique of the way women are boxed into unforgiving roles. "Untitled Film Stills," her breakthrough series from 1977 to 1980, had Sherman masquerading as a glamorous actress and as other female visions who are caught in candid moments at home and in public. There was Sherman in skimpy clothing, reclining on a bed like Cleopatra as she gazed at the ceiling. There was Sherman as a Marilyn Monroe figure, her long coat bunched up against the cold night. And there was Sherman with two black eyes and a look of complete astonishment, as if she'd just been battered by a drunken Marlon Brando. Playing with Hollywood versions of a woman's place in the world, Sherman created 70 lampoons that elevated herself — someone of real-world looks and high intensity — into the pantheon of a high-class pinup. With their black-and-white graininess and dramatic settings, "Untitled Film Stills" inspired Andy Warhol to declare, "She's good enough to be a real actress."
SFMOMA devotes an entire room to "Untitled Film Stills." By themselves, these 70 photos are the crown jewels of the exhibit. Four months ago, Sotheby's auctioned a signed edition of one photo — Untitled Film Still No. 21, which shows Sherman as a kind of Girl Friday on the streets of New York — for almost $750,000. (In 1978, original "Film Stills" editions were priced around $50.) Last year, a print of a 1981 Sherman work — Untitled No. 96, showing her as a woman lying on the ground, holding a personal ad — went for $3.89 million, then the most ever paid for a photograph at auction. Sherman is a titanic force in the art market, and at SFMOMA, the first images that visitors see are giant, blown-up copies of Sherman from 2010, when she stepped out in a parade of costumes and weathered clothing that makes her look entirely frumpy. Because Sherman is front and center in most of her photos, it's easy to think of her as a kind of egoist or glorified narcissist — someone who got addicted to playing dress up; someone who found an approach that was original but is now just empty entertainment.
To me, though, Sherman's recent work — especially her 2008 society portraits, where she takes on poses that show the difficulty of getting older in a youth-oriented society — confirms that Cindy Sherman still matters. She blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Photography gives her leeway to play with stereotypes, and the power of her images derives as much from exaggeration as facts. "The one thing I've always known," Sherman once said, "is that the camera lies." With her, we're in on the lies. We accept them with a wink and a nod. And Cindy Sherman becomes a stand-in — and a role model — for anyone who's ever wanted to assume another identity.