Then and Now: Cindy Sherman, Photography Pioneer

Installation view of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life," 2016, at the Broad, Los Angeles. BEN GIBBS

Installation view of ‘Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life,’ 2016, at the Broad, Los Angeles.


With an excellent show of new photography at Metro Pictures, a comprehensive survey of her work at the Broad in Los Angeles, and an exhibition of her large-scale photographs since 2000 at the Gallery of Modern Art in South Brisbane, Australia, Cindy Sherman has already had quite the summer. These three shows highlight just how much her work has changed since the ’70s. She’s moved from miming female characters in films, to creating grotesque scenes of violence, to pictures of mixed-and-matched dolls, to portraits of clowns, to, finally, in her latest Metro Pictures show, reflections on what it means to be a career woman. Needless to say, Sherman has changed our minds about what photography is or even could be, and she continues to in her new work. Below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives, charting how Sherman went from being a near-overnight success to one of the most important photographers of all time.

September 1983

That Sherman’s photographs should have met with success in the art world (and they did, almost immediately) is perhaps not so surprising. For like much of today’s art, they are made strategically, with the issues raised by other art in mind. There would be no Cindy Shermans without past examples of Minimal, Conceptual and Performance art for her to react and expand upon.


Few women artists have had more of an impact on their own generations. The irony is that Sherman’s generation has emerged as a virtual men’s club—or so it would seem from the galleries and the big shows in Europe. Sherman is not certain what she should (or can) do about this, but it is always on her mind. Leo Castelli has occasionally mentioned the possibility of having a show at his big Greene Street space in conjunction with Metro Pictures (which just moved in next door). This kind of Castelli double-gallery extravaganza has come to be something of a young-artist rite of passage. Sherman is intrigued by the possibility. “It would be great if I could use the space like that show a group of women artists or something like that,” she says. As a member of a loose-knit group of women artists that meets regularly to talk art and art politics, Sherman helped organize such a show last year at White Columns, the SoHo alternative space. “But I don’t want to do things just because the guys do them—that kind of macho competitive thing.”

What Sherman says she would really like to do is “play it cool for a while.” One of the most toxic by-products of success is that pressure to keep on keeping on, to do more work and better work and have it ready by tomorrow. “Sometimes I think I’d like to go a year without showing, you know, but sometimes I just get sick of looking at myself.”

—“Imitation of Life,” by Gerald Marzorati

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981, chromogenic color print. ©CINDY SHERMAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND METRO PICTURES

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981, chromogenic color print.


December 1985

The 14 huge color photographs in this show represent a great leap forward for Sherman, the young artist who has gained fame and critical acclaim for her photographs of herself in various guises.


These are intense, terrifying photographs for the most part—nightmarish variations on folk legends and archetypes: an Arabian princess bares false breasts in her tent; a creature, half woman, half pig, grovels in the mud; a bald gnome rises in a wheat field; a figure clutches crazily at wet gravel; a medieval warrior lies bloodied on the ground. The ominousness that lurked beneath the surface even in Sherman’s wry “film stills” of 1977–80 here erupts in full force; these are brutal and unforgettable images of terror, desperation, victimization and deformity. While the film stills tapped into our cultural consciousness, suggesting media images of the 1950s and ’60s, Sherman has now reached into the collective unconscious, grabbing the viewer at the most visceral, elemental level.

In a sense, Sherman is still shooting film stills, but she is now a more accomplished director.

—“Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures,” by John Sturman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #70, 1980,chromogenic color print. ©CINDY SHERMAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND METRO PICTURES

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #70, 1980,chromogenic color print.


October 1987

Cindy Sherman’s latest pictures appear to have been disgorged from her psyche, not composed in front of a camera. And these gruesome, somewhat crude scenes of exhaustion and despair down at Metro Pictures seemed all the more urgent and cathartic when seen later in the context of her uptown retrospective at the Whitney.

While much of the new work fails—childishly mimicking cheap horror movies without adding enough irony to compensate—some of it was surprisingly affecting. These were pictures of stricken females in daily-life-turned-nightmare situations. In big, luridly colored C-prints, taken from sharply careening angles, we come upon Sherman’s prostrate form in the dirt, staring numbly at tufts of furred flesh spotted with flies; or a sweets-and-vomit-strewn beach blanked and a pair of sunglasses, which reflect the fact of the anguished blond bulemic. In these and other shots, the ground is littered with female accessories—make utensils, sullied underthings, discarded tampon containers, a diaphragm. And Sherman herself has become little more than an accessory—as in both “to the whole” and “to a crime.”

More than anything, this group of pictures seems to be about the inner female self—no longer the manifestation of some external, usually male, vision. After playing out the female role in all its media- and popular-myth-inspired guises, Sherman now explodes that mystique, in an apparent fit of disgust, to give us only its unpleasant paraphernalia.

—“Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures,” by Mary Ellen Haus


Cindy Sherman.


May 1990

After excursions through the byways of cinema and the fairy tale, re-created with an ever-heightening emphasis on the obscene, the grotesque, and the bizarre, Cindy Sherman proves herself a chameleon yet one more time. With this new body of work, she metamorphoses herself into a collection of elegant Old Master portraits. Except for an occasional wart, bulbous nose, and (obviously) fake bosom, the physical deformities of recent personas are gone, replaced with rustling taffeta, wigs, lace collars, and ruffled shirts. With the new decorum, however, something seems to have been lost, as if even Sherman were a little horrified by the extremes of her last show.

—“Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures,” by Eleanor Heartney

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #47, 1979, gelatin silver print. ©CINDY SHERMAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND METRO PICTURES

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #47, 1979, gelatin silver print.


September 1999

Cindy Sherman is abusing dolls these days: Barbie and Ken, G.I. Joe, Disney’s Aladdin and Hercules, gay boy-toys Billy and Carlos, and many others. Dolls are in great favor lately, from vintage Hans Bellmer to Laurie Simmons to Paul McCarthy; we zing the body plastic, to paraphrase Walt Whitman. And Sherman does it with gusto.

She strips them, twists them, dismembers, and burns them. Then she reassembles the parts mix-and-match—or rather, mismatch—session: an old man with a flaccid chest lying on his back like a baby equipped with a penis of startling dimensions; a hairy, bulging Mr. America body topped by a delicately androgynous face; male figures with vaginas; female figures with phalluses; and so forth. Then she arranges and shoots.

—“Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures,” by Kim Levin

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #424, 2004, chromogenic color print. ©CINDY SHERMAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND METRO PICTURES

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #424, 2004, chromogenic color print.


Summer 2004

[Sherman] portrays the clowns, who harbor their stereotypical associations (sad, typical, wise) as actors who, in turn, masquerade as both stock and ersatz characters (male, female, cat, other clowns), Masked by a mask, Sherman is no longer the principal palette, although she does let her own lips show through, like raw canvas, or a director making a cameo appearance. The extraordinary thing is the way we are forced to suspend our disbelief twice, to look beyond Sherman the artist performing other characters, and then beyond the clowns playing actors. Instead of serial shots as in a film, or in the evolving characters at once before our eyes, impersonating herself impersonating a clown, impersonating an actor playing a role.

—“Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures and Montclair Art Museum,
Montclair, New Jersey,” by Barbara A. MacAdam

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #512, 2010/2011,chromogenic color print. ©CINDY SHERMAN/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND METRO PICTURES

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #512, 2010/2011,chromogenic color print.


February 2012

Starting with the game-changing black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills” she created in the late 1970s, Cindy Sherman has shown herself to be the ultimate master of self-morphing, utilizing everything from old-fashioned makeup and prosthetics to digital technology, inventing and portraying extraordinary alter egos and multiple identities that brilliantly reflect our image-saturated culture—and in the process inventing her own genre.

Call it the Cindy Sherman effect. Whether it’s those iconic stills of faux cinema moments or her more recent scary-funny clown series, the tragicomic coven of aging society women or the larger-than-life photographic murals that popped up at the 2011 Venice Biennale (much to the delight of visitors who posed with them), Sherman’s brilliant manipulations of her own image have mirrored—and in some cases anticipated—the zeitgeist. Now, with the major career retrospective that opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on February 26 (up through June 11), the full extent of Sherman’s imagination and prescient vision will be on display.

“Her work has in some ways presaged the media age that we live in now and also absolutely responds to it,” says MoMA photography curator Eva Respini, who co-organized the retrospective, which includes 175 images. “A number of younger artists are very much indebted to Sherman in their exploration of not just identity but also the nature of representation. Now we all take it for granted that a photograph can be Photoshopped. We live in the era of YouTube fame and reality-TV shows and makeovers, where you can be anything you want to be any minute of the day, and artists are responding to that. Cindy was one of the first to explore the idea of the malleability or fluidity of identity.”

—“The Cindy Sherman Effect,” by Phoebe Hoban

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