What is a Cindy Sherman photograph? For starters, not quite a photograph—or so it’s been said. Critics favor this kind of brow-furrowing negative when writing about Sherman’s art: it’s not quite photography, not quite self-portraiture, not quite mimesis. At the same time, her work is constantly being compared to what it literally isn’t. Arthur Danto thought Sherman created “performances”; others have suggested that she creates something like cinema. Of Sherman’s most recent show, at Metro Pictures, the New Yorker’s Andrea K. Scott offered this blurbable brava: “as psychologically intense and disarmingly beautiful as any two-hour film.” Writing for the same magazine on the occasion of Sherman’s 2012 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Peter Schjeldahl gushed that “we are thrown back into discontinuous feelings that she quickens and manipulates as deftly as a Hitchcock or a Kubrick.”
One does not lightly invoke Hitchcock and Kubrick in the same sentence. But that’s another thing about Sherman: her work attracts hyperbole the way a magnet, no matter how tiny, attracts iron filings. The ten works at Metro Pictures, all from 2019, had the hallmarks of Sherman’s late style: Thomas Kinkade palette; green-screen backgrounds; massive scale; and an inescapable sense of micromanaged construction. In the eye of the hurricane is Sherman herself, wrapped in Stella McCartney and appearing in a range of guises, from twenty-five-year-old fuckboy to seventy-five-year-old grande dame. (If there’s a constant here, it’s the fat stacks implied by these houndstooth capes and cashmere coats).
Sherman is a talented performer dulled by decades of A-list indulgence. Untitled Film Stills (1977–80) is still her best work: the funniest, the most cannily open-ended, the only one that truly wouldn’t have worked with anyone else at the center (compare it, if you dare, with James Franco’s 2013 rip-off—er—refashioning). Its famous, discussed-to-death concept—one chameleonic woman, scuttling through old movies that never existed—is mixed into the images rather than dumped over them, with the result that we’re enchanted by the illusion even after we’ve seen through it.
In these new works, the artist’s metamorphoses are as agile as ever, and we can always tell when she’s playing man, woman, or androgyne—even her vagueness is precise. But a good performance and a good picture aren’t the same, and, try as I might, I couldn’t convince myself that the vast non–Cindy Sherman parts of these pictures did much of anything that Cindy Sherman wasn’t doing better with her body and face. The backgrounds are all digitally brightened, interchangeable shots of interchangeable, rich-twit destinations, from Bavaria to Shanghai—kind of funny in theory, though walking from one to the next is like seeing a stand-up comic who insists on pausing every few seconds to make sure you’ve gotten the gag. Whatever beauty, say, the images of trees and gardens have to offer fades fast when they’re bunched together (which I assume is the point). Whatever tension, uncanniness, or satirical bite they generate fades faster (which I seriously doubt is the point).
In short: I’ve been to better two-hour films. It’d be one thing if Sherman were indifferent to her hype, but instead, she’s shown every sign of caving. As pictures on the whole have gotten smaller and nimbler, this Pictures Generation pioneer’s art has gotten bulkier and slower, not to mention pricier. We’re a long way from 1977, when Sherman aspired to make work that seemed “cheap and trashy, something you’d find in a novelty store and buy for a quarter.” A brave, full-bodied comedian, she’s also a textbook victim of blockbuster bloat, beholden to big-spender audiences who expect the same joke year after year.
This article appears under the title “Cindy Sherman” in the January/February 2021 issue, pp. 70—71.