Cindy Sherman Life and Art Periods

"The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told."

Cindy Sherman

CINDY SHERMAN SYNOPSIS

Cindy Sherman is a contemporary master of socially critical photography. She is a key figure of the "Pictures Generation," a loose circle of American artists who came to artistic maturity and critical recognition during the early 1980s, a period notable for the rapid and widespread proliferation of mass media imagery. At first painting in a super-realist style in art school during the aftermath of American Feminism, Sherman turned to photography toward the end of the 1970s in order to explore a wide range of common female social roles, or personas. Sherman sought to call into question the seductive and often oppressive influence of mass-media over our individual and collective identities. Turning the camera on herself in a game of extended role playing of fantasy Hollywood, fashion, mass advertising, and "girl-next-door" roles and poses, Sherman ultimately called her audience's attention to the powerful machinery and make-up that lay behind the countless images circulating in an incessantly public, "plugged in" culture. Sexual desire and domination, the fashioning of self identity as mass deception, these are among the unsettling subjects lying behind Sherman's extensive series of self-portraiture in various guises. Sherman's work is central in the era of intense consumerism and image proliferation at the close of the 20th century.

CINDY SHERMAN KEY IDEAS

Recalling a long tradition of self-portraiture and theatrical role-playing in art, Sherman utilizes the camera and the various tools of the everyday cinema, such as makeup, costumes, and stage scenery, to recreate common illusions, or iconic "snapshots," that signify various concepts of public celebrity, self confidence, sexual adventure, entertainment, and other socially sanctioned, existential conditions. As though they constituted only a first premise, however, these images promptly begin to unravel in various ways that suggest how self identity is often an unstable compromise between social dictates and personal intention.
Sherman's photographic portraiture is both intensely grounded in the present while it extends long traditions in art that force the audience to reconsider common stereotypes and cultural assumptions, among the latter political satire, caricature, the graphic novel, pulp fiction, stand-up comedy (some of her characters are indeed uncomfortably "funny"), and other socially critical disciplines.
Sherman's many variations on the methods of self-portraiture share a single, notable feature: in the vast majority of her portraits she directly confronts the viewer's gaze, no less in the case of posed sex dolls, as though to suggest that an underlying penchant for deception is perhaps the only "value" that truly unites us.
Long assumed to be a medium that "mirrors" reality with precision, photography in Sherman's hands simultaneously constructs and critiques its apparent subject. In this sense, Sherman's unique form of portrait photography functions, in part, as a sign for the subjective nature of all human intelligence and the unstable nature of visual perception.
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CINDY SHERMAN BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Cindy Sherman was born January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey (virtually a suburb of New York City). Shortly after Cindy's birth, the family moved to Huntington, Long Island, where Cindy grew up as the youngest of five children. Although her parents shared a general disinterest in the arts-her father was an engineer and her mother a reading teacher-Sherman chose to study art in college, enrolling at the State University of New York, at Buffalo, in the early 1970s.

Early Training

Cindy Sherman Biography

Sherman studied in Buffalo from 1972-76; she began as a painter, but she quickly found herself frustrated by what she considered certain limitations of the medium. The 1970s was an eclectic era for painters working in the aftermath of Minimalism, and feeling as though "there was nothing more to say [through painting]," Sherman shifted her attention to photography. Although initially failing a required photography class, she later elected to repeat the course, which ignited her passion for the subject. During her studies, Sherman met fellow artists Robert Longo and Charles Clough, with whom she co-founded Hallwalls Center for Contemporary Art in 1974 (it continues to function to the present day as a dynamic, multi-arts "hub"). Longo and Sherman dated until 1979. During her studies, Sherman was exposed to Conceptual Art and other progressive art movements and media under the widely influential art instructor, Barbara Jo Revelle.

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Upon graduation, Sherman moved to New York City to pursue her artistic career. In 1977, with her downtown residential and studio loft as her primary backdrop, Sherman began taking a series of photographs of herself, a project she would eventually refer to as the Untitled Film Stills. In this series, Sherman embodies the character of "Everywoman." Re-fashioning herself repeatedly into the guise of various female archetypes, Sherman played the girly pin-up, the film noir siren, the housewife, the prostitute, and the noble damsel in distress. The black-and-white series occupied her for about three years, so that by 1980 Sherman had virtually exhausted a myriad of seemingly timeless cliches referring to the "feminine."

Mature period

With the debut of Untitled Film Stills, Sherman secured her position in the New York art world, leading to her first solo show at the non-profit exhibition space, The Kitchen. Shortly after, she was commissioned to create a centerfold image for Artforum magazine. Photos of a pink-robe-clad Sherman were ultimately deemed too racy by editor Ingrid Sischy and rejected. There is no knowing whether a subsequent series shot from 1985 to 1989, Disasters and Fairy Tales, was in some sense a response to that act of rejection, but, notably, it is a much darker endeavor than its prettified predecessor. Its gloomy palette and scenes strewn with vomit and mold challenged viewers to find beauty in the ugly and the unqualified grotesque.

Cindy Sherman Photo

Sherman's next series took on the hallowed subject of the art tableau. History Portraits again presented Sherman-as-model, but this time she assumed the air of European art history's most famous "leading ladies." Living in Europe at the time of its creation, Sherman drew inspiration from the West's great museums. That interlude gave way, in 1992, to Sherman's Sex Pictures, a project taken up in response to the censorship of the art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. In the Sex Pictures, Sherman substituted her own figure for that of a doll. Intending to shock and scandalize the public, the images present close-ups of doll-on-doll sex scenes and prosthetic genitalia. Shortly after she began work on this series, Sherman received a MacArthur Fellowship.

In 1997, Sherman crossed over from still art photography to motion pictures, aided in part by her husband at that time, film director Michel Auder (the two divorced in 1999). She made her directorial debut with the thriller, Office Killer, starring Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn. A year later, Sherman played herself in John Waters's 1998 comedy, Pecker.

Over the last decade, Sherman dons clown's make-up in a series of still photography (2003) and, even more recently, she explored carefully staged female "suburban" identities in a solo show at Metro Pictures, NY (2008). In the latter series, Sherman photographed herself in various states of awkward make-up, superimposing stodgy, highly self-conscious portraits over contrived domestic and faux-monumental backdrops. In 2006, Sherman was honored by a retrospective of her work at the Jeu de Paume Museum, in Paris. Sherman continues to live and work in New York City, where she is dating David Byrne, of the band, "Talking Heads." It has recently been announced that she will celebrate a solo exhibition at MoMA in early 2012.

CINDY SHERMAN LEGACY

The ultimate participant-critic of mass consumer culture, one perpetually partaking of its daily realities while nonetheless challenging its underlying assumptions, Cindy Sherman epitomizes the 1980s technique of "image-scavengering," and "appropriation" by artists seeking to question the so-called truth potential of mass imagery and its seductive hold on our individual and collective psyches. Sherman's depersonalized approach to portrait photography, in particular, has suggested a new, socially critical capacity for a medium that was once presumed a tool of documentary realism (or aesthetic pleasure). This "readymade" quality of the critically applied photograph, whereby a preexisting image or convention is appropriated intact by the artist and subtly turned into something more conceptually problematic, if not psychologically disturbing, has come to characterize much work of a new generation defying easy categorization.

In addition, Sherman's work has been specifically cited as opening onto a new, "expanded field" of photography since the late 1990s, in much work characterized by a "fusion of narrative and stasis," such as in the photography of Jeff Wall, Anna Gaskell, Justine Kurland, Jenny Gage, and Sharon Lockhart. Such artists extend Sherman's anti-narrative approach to the medium and its subject matter, in work that frequently suggests unresolved stories and scenarios wrenched from contexts both common and disturbingly mysterious.

Original content written by Bonnie Rosenberg
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CINDY SHERMAN QUOTES

"I didn't want to make 'high' art, I had no interest in using paint, I wanted to find something that anyone could relate to without knowing about contemporary art. I wasn't thinking in terms of precious prints or archival quality; I didn't want the work to seem like a commodity."

"The work is what it is and hopefully it's seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff."

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman Influences

Interactive chart with Cindy Sherman's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Robert Longo
Robert Longo
Robert Longo is a contemporary American painter, sculptor and filmmaker. Longo first became prominent in the 1980s for his "Men in the Cities," a well known series of paintings depicting well-dressed young men writhing and jutting their bodies in improvised movements. Longo is also known for designing several album covers and directing music videos, for bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements. Longo was also a co-founder of the Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, along with Cindy Sherman, Charles Clough and several others.

Modern Art Information Robert Longo
Charles Clough
Charles Clough
Charles Clough is a contemporary American painter and sculptor. A native of Buffalo, NY, Clough attended Buffalo State College, where he befriended Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, whom Clough dated for a brief period. Clough's paintings are characterized by his philosophical bent toward themes of spirituality, the metaphysical, being and nothingness. In many ways, Clough's work mixes both the visuals and ideals of Abstract Expressionism and Fauvism. Along with Sherman, Longo and several others, Clough was a co-founder of Buffalo's Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center.

Modern Art Information Charles Clough
Barbara Jo Revelle
Barbara Jo Revelle
Barbara Jo Revelle is a photographer, film/video maker, installation and public artist. She is a Professor and the Director of the Photography Area at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where she served as Director of the School of Art and Art History from 1996-2000.

Modern Art Information Barbara Jo Revelle
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Performance Art
Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer known for his large-scale, highly stylized black and white portraits, photos of flowers and nude men. The frank, homosexual eroticism of some his work triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks and censorship.

Modern Art Information Robert Mapplethorpe
Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano
Andres Serrano is an American photographer and artist who has become notorious for his photos of corpses, as well as his controversial work "Piss Christ," a red-tinged photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass container of what was purported to be the artist's own urine.

Modern Art Information Andres Serrano
Catherine Opie
Catherine Opie
Catherine Opie is an American artist specializing in issues within documentary photography. Throughout her work she has investigated aspects of community, making portraits of many groups, including the LGBT community.

Modern Art Information Catherine Opie
John Waters
John Waters
John Waters is an American filmmaker, actor, writer, journalist, visual artist, and art collector, who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his cult films, like Hairspray and Cry-Baby. He is recognizable by his trademark pencil-thin moustache, a look he has retained since the early 1970s.

Modern Art Information John Waters
Postmodern Art
Postmodern Art
Postmodern art is a general term applied to artistic genres that are believed to have followed modern art forms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mired heavily in critical theory and academia, postmodern art forms include such disciplines as Conceptual art, Installation, Land art, Sound and Video art, and Process art.

Modern Art Information Postmodern Art
The Pictures Generation
The Pictures Generation
The Picture Generation was a loosely knit group of artists working in photography, film, video, and performance. They were named after an important exhibition of their work held at Artist's Space in New York in 1977. The show featured 45-rpm records and projected short films by the California artist Jack Goldstein.

Modern Art Information The Pictures Generation
Feminist Movement
Feminist Movement
The movement emerged in the early twentieth century to define and achieve equal rights for women. The first organized movement was led by Western nations, but the issue of women's rights continue to be hot topics across the world.

Modern Art Information Feminist Movement
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Jeff Wall
Jeff Wall
Jeff Wall is a contemporary Canadian artist who is perhaps best known for his back-lit work with cibachrome (now known as ilfochrome), a photographic process that uses azo dyes on a polyester base, resulting in vibrant prints that resist discoloration and deterioration. Wall's work has arguably revived in recent years a wider appreciation for pictorial art, in the tradition of Velazquez, Manet and Hopper. His photographic work has been described as single-frame cinematic productions.

Modern Art Information Jeff Wall
Anna Gaskell
Anna Gaskell
Anna Gaskell is an American fine art photographer, best known for her staged scenes depicting anonymous figures - usually adolescent girls - in foreboding, generic settings. Gaskell's subjects are often in some form of danger, or appear distressed, but the effect is more one of psychological rather than physical jeopardy. Gaskell's photo series are loosely based on popular tales in which the female protagonist is stuck is some surrealist nightmare, a la Alice in Wonderland, Carrie, or The Exorcist.

Modern Art Information Anna Gaskell
Justine Kurland
Justine Kurland
Justine Kurland is an American fine art photographer. Some of Kurland's best known series suggest nineteenth-century genre and landscape paintings, in the neo-romantic tradition. Many of Kurland's landscapes, however, evoke dystopian settings rather than the utopian ideal. She is currently based in New York City.

Modern Art Information Justine Kurland
Jenny Gage
Jenny Gage
Jenny Gage is an American photographer, video artist and filmmaker. Gage is perhaps best known for her photos of young, scantily-clad women, placed in compromising positions that defy the standard poses and aesthetics of fashion photography, although Gage happens to be well known fashion photographer as well. Gage is professional partners with her photographer husband, Tom Betterton, and was a former classmate of Anna Gaskell's at the Yale School of Art.

Modern Art Information Jenny Gage
Sharon Lockhart
Sharon Lockhart
Sharon Lockhart is a contemporary American fine art photographer and filmmaker. Lockhart's subject matter has dealt with socio-economic issues like the demise of American industry. She lives and works in Los Angeles, where she teaches at USC.

Modern Art Information Sharon Lockhart
Untitled Film Still #13
Untitled Film Still #13

Title: Untitled Film Still #13 (1978)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Untitled Film Still #13 issues from Sherman's epic "Untitled Film Still" series (they did not actually derive from a larger movie) of the late 1970s, by which she first made a widespread reputation for herself as a witty commentator on the female role models of her youth, as well as those of an earlier generation. In this example, Sherman employs her own image as to suggest the central character in a 1960s "coming of age" romance, the young female intellectual on the verge of discovering her "true womanhood," or the prototypical virgin. Maturing in the 1970s in the midst of the American Womens' Movement, later known as the rise of Feminism, Sherman and her generation learned to see through mass media cliches and appropriate them in a satirical and ironic manner that made viewers self conscious about how artificial and highly constructed "female portraiture" could prove on close inspection.


Black and White photograph - The Museum of Modern Art

Untitled Film Still #21
Untitled Film Still #21

Title: Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)

Artwork Description & Analysis: When the Museum of Modern Art announced in 1996 that it had just acquired Sherman's complete Untitled Film Still series, the curators knew they had laid claim to one of the most representative works of the early 1980s American movement of "appropriation," and "simulationism." Both terms refer to American artists' mimicking, in the first half of the 1980s, former art masterpieces or widely circulating images in the mass media, and critically reworking them to arouse a sense of unease in the viewer, indeed often suggesting that culture had become largely a game of theatrical posing and egoistic pretense. As Peter Galassi, then-curator of photography stated, "Sherman's singular talent and sensibility crystallized broadly held concerns in the culture as a whole, about the role of mass media in our lives, and about the ways in which we shape our personal identities. Here, Sherman takes on the role of the small-town girl just happening upon the Big City. She is, typically, at first suspicious of the metropolitan lights and shadows, only to be eventually seduced by its undeniable attractions.


Black and White photograph - The Museum of Modern Art

Untitled, "Sex Pictures" Series
Untitled,

Title: Untitled, "Sex Pictures" Series (1983)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Intended by the artist to shock the unsuspecting viewer, the Sex Pictures series features anatomical dolls arranged in compromising positions. Set clearly apart from actual pornography, the photograph cruelly comments on the greater dehumanization of women in life, as well as in art since time immemorial. Her space is claustrophobic, the body little more than a tool of raw desire, while the accoutrements of "beauty," such as hairbrush, skimpy panties, and the like, are strewn haphazardly around her. Once again, Sherman extracts certain conventions from their usual contexts, where they are often obscured by a host of attendant desires, and baldly reframes them as objects of intense, analytical attention. The effect is something that neither a medical investigation nor a political speech could convey with such vivid precision. Sherman suddenly "makes strange" the everyday, or the familiar, in ways that suggest we often trod through our lives while sleepwalking.


Color photograph - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled #92, "Disasters and Fairy Tales" Series
Untitled #92,

Title: Untitled #92, "Disasters and Fairy Tales" Series (1985)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Part of the later Disasters and Fairy Tales series, this photo shows Sherman as a damsel in distress. Crouched on the ground, she fearfully looks away from the camera. With wetted hair and a tensed position, she appears as if she just walked off the set of a horror film. Sparse lighting centers the composition and lends an ominous tone to the entire photograph. Sherman successfully evokes one of the oldest, quasi-racist "cheap tricks" in the movie business, the setting up of a vulnerable female or private school girl (note the prototypical uniform of starched white shirt and plaid skirt) being preyed upon by some terrible, evil monster. The role goes back to Faye Ray's "scream queen" in King Kong, Judy Garland's Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and countless other popular culture favorites in everyday comic book series, graphic novels, Broadway musicals, and others media of the mid 20th century. By freezing the image into a kind of sorry, secular icon, Sherman demonstrates how art may act as a visual "truth serum," a force of social change by way of its ability to stop a viewer in his/her tracks and suggest how certain assumptions are culturally inherited, not necessarily "natural."


Color photograph - Metro Pictures

Untitled #209, "History Portrait" Series
Untitled #209,

Title: Untitled #209, "History Portrait" Series (1989)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In this three-quarter length, Italian Renaissance-style portrait, Sherman takes on the persona of the Mona Lisa. Donning a 15th-century Italianate dress, Sherman allies herself with one of art history's most famous, iconic paintings. No true replica, the photo is meant to call to mind the original, without literally copying it, the mental distance between the real and the imitation just barely apparent, yet somehow haunting. One might say that Sherman suggests that viewers rethink their familiarity with the original and question how its conventions of depiction continue to condition the way that even we, hundreds of years later, regard every representation of the "Female."


Color photograph - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled  
Untitled  

Title: Untitled   (2004)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Sherman poses as a sad, or pathetic clown for some of her more recent works. Wearing elaborate make-up and fanciful costumes, she positions herself in front of digitally manipulated backgrounds, against which she explores the extremes of the clown character - its intense, yet superficial humor, its implied sadness, and its potential, subliminal rage. Set up much like a glamour shot, this photo focuses on the clown's face as the strange character stares stoically at the audience. The viewer is almost challenged, by the multiplied aspects of gross exaggeration in color, body type, expression, and circumstance, to make sense of the farcical image. The retarded stare of the portrait suddenly prods us to ask ourselves why we find such a figure humorous, and if the reasons behind our common laughter may in fact be traced to a cruel truth of human behavior normally left unquestioned in everyday reality.


Color photograph - Metro Pictures

Untitled  
Untitled  

Title: Untitled   (2008)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In one of her most recent untitled series, Sherman explores the role of the suburban American housewife, or middle-American "everywoman," a character at once sympathetic, pathetic, and often too close to recognition for comfort. Juxtaposing female types trying desperately to look "cultured," yet failing miserably to cross the social divide between so-called "good breeding" and mere awkward "social climbing," Sherman's cast of characters once again give rise to feelings of unease and painful self-recognition. Never fully defining where she stands in relation to such images, Sherman leaves interpretation open to the individual viewer, something that ultimately says more about the person reading these images than the subjects portrayed in their glossy, mirror-like surfaces.


Color photograph - Metro Pictures

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.