Cindy Sherman: Woman of an Uncertain Age
“I’m not going to go into this aging process silently or happily,” said the artist, who is emerging from a creative slump with electrifying new work.
Will the real Cindy Sherman please stand up? The artist at her studio in New York City.Credit…Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times
- Jan. 24, 2024
The facial features in Cindy Sherman’s hyperenergetic new photo-portraits slide around crazily. Eyes spin out in different directions, competing clamorously for attention. Noses and mouths engage in pitched conflict. The electrifying images, now on view at Hauser and Wirth’s SoHo gallery, are primarily black and white, but there are patches of vivid color.
Butting one fragment of skin, makeup, hair and headgear up against another, Sherman dispenses with the capacity of Photoshop to smooth out edges. Instead, she creates a sense of instability by folding photographic nips and tucks right in with their aging subjects’ wrinkles. Finding physical comedy in the efforts women take to conceal the effects of time is the least of her concerns. There is also the dark humor she brings to the consideration of photography’s credibility. And the dash of pathos she adds to both.
When Sherman emerged, meteorically, in the late 1970s, it was with an extended series of black and white photographs she took of herself. They are not to be confused with self-portraits. In each, Sherman, newly arrived in New York City from Buffalo, was made up and dressed to suggest she was the (fictional) star of an (imaginary) noirish film. Her timing was perfect. The body-baring, soul-searching feminist art of the late ’60s and early ’70s had given way to more conceptually based work.
Femininity was understood to be a cultural construct, a masquerade, and Sherman’s photographs were considered exemplary of this turn. In the following decades, quite independently of the politics swirling around her, Sherman continued to deploy her face and body in fanciful guises that ran the gamut from an Italian Renaissance Madonna to an All-American clown.
For all its jangly discontinuities, the current work (all untitled) feels newly grounded. It emerged, Sherman told me, from a creative slump. In a conversation at the gallery, she was warm and open, and, as we settled in, she admitted, “I was going through a real creative block during Covid.” She had committed to the show in New York and a previous one in Zurich, and, she says, “I had no idea what I was going to do.” While “fooling around” with a body of photographs from 2010 — in color, as usual — she decided to flip them to black and white. It clicked.
The smaller works in the exhibition (dated 2010/2023) are assembled from the 14-year-old photographs. The larger ones, extending the series, are all new, made with a different camera that permitted higher resolutions — making the mood harsher or lighter “just by tweaking the contrast,” she said.
They seem less like “something you would have just shot with your phone and put on Instagram.”
Sherman and I met on a frigid, sleety day, and she was dressed fashionably to defy the weather in a big, blazing orange sweater, light-colored wide pants and bouncy, thick-soled white high-tops. By contrast, her face, devoid of makeup, is pretty in a timeless way, her eyes innocently blue. Only her shoulder-length hair, once blond and now gray, suggests that she is turning 70. She is a proverbial blank slate, and for all her fame, she is rarely recognized on the street.
Sherman sees the disjunctions in her new work’s faces almost as an exercise in cubism. “You’re seeing the face and imagining that it’s moved through space,” she explained. To maximize that effect, the black and white segments are joined digitally; the color bits are glued on top.
The photographs induce a surprisingly urgent search for something, anything, that feels nakedly real — perhaps a sliver of skin up by the hairline, just below the edge of a wig, or around the mouth. Of course, it’s all flesh, some of it so enlarged that pores gape and pancake makeup glistens like wet cement. The various directions in which features point, and particularly the misaligned eyes, invoke a very specific kind of human desire: It seems we quite insistently want to know where to direct our attention when looking at another person. The hunt can feel almost embarrassingly intense.
And for her, manipulating the features is sheer play, with “all my favorite eyes and noses, wigs and fabric.” No question, there is pleasure in this work, and also some plain silliness, both in short supply these days. But inevitably the question arises, are we laughing with aging women, or at them?
To put the question another way, how personal are these photos? “I feel like I’m preparing myself for it,” Sherman said of growing old. “This is what you’re going to get, so get used to it. It’s coming. It’s hanging over all of our heads.”
True enough; and I’m happy to report that there is no resemblance whatsoever between these patchwork crones and the artist. Yet this work seems clearly meant to own up to the real-life consequences of living for a while past youth. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to older women artists, a trend that Sherman confirms with qualifications. “I think things are changing, slowly,” she says. “It’s definitely better than it was 40 years ago for women and artists of color, but it’s still not quite where we should be.”
In a short essay of 2007 about the late work of the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin noted that an artist’s “late style” is presumed to involve a “luminous softening of boundaries,” as in Monet’s water lilies or Rembrandt’s dusky portraits. But Nochlin noted a potent variant, as in the case of Bourgeois, of late work that is intransigent, difficult and full of “unresolved contradiction.” I suggested to Sherman that she was in the latter camp, and got another reluctant agreement.
She admitted that an early body of work, of crime scenes and nauseating expanses of molding food (she calls it the “disaster” pictures), produced in the mid-1980s, was meant to be challenging.
“I felt that I didn’t want to be the flavor of the month,” she recalls of her newfound success, and so she dared collectors to “put vomit over your couch.” But she resisted the idea that her more recent series of “socialite” photos from 2008, featuring wickedly sharp portraits of wealthy older women, were intended to skewer the collector class.
Sherman explains that she didn’t think of the socialites as, necessarily, art collectors. “I definitely saw them as wealthy people, a certain type of wealthy people,” she says, but added that she felt sympathy for them, not contempt.
“I think what I identified with is a sort of sadness” behind their lavish homes and gardens. “They’re putting up a good front to hide a terrible marriage or children who don’t love them, or God knows what they’ve had to sacrifice to have that fur coat. I’m seeing what it’s cost them, and hopefully that comes through in the image,” she said. And she senses a personal connection. “In terms of aging like them,” she says, “I feel I’ve become more like them in real life, in some sad, funny way.”
While she allows that there is an element of defiance in the current work — “I’m not going to go into this aging process silently or happily,” she said — certainly, humor matters to Sherman’s current portraits in a way it doesn’t in, say, late Rembrandt. Of a photo in which a face pokes through a boxwood hedge, she pointed out, “That’s one of the goofy ones.” Another, featuring a comically perplexed subject with ham-handedly applied lipstick and eyebrow liner, her head and shoulders wrapped in massive terry cloth towels, Sherman deems “the only one that almost seems a little too narrative. Maybe she’s just stepped out of the shower, or she’s going to a spa.” It’s also the only one, she thinks, that could be reasonably compared to the early film stills.
As she has from the outset, Sherman works alone in her studio in TriBeCa, with cameras and a mirror and an ocean of props: wigs, costumes, fabrics, plastic foliage, prosthetic noses, oddments gathered 30 years ago in flea markets that no longer exist.
The New York that offered cheap treasures for urban scavengers is gone, and Sherman, who still lives and works mainly in the city, has spent more time since Covid in East Hampton, where she has a garden and chickens, and a studio in a small converted barn that she’d like to expand. The eager cosmopolitan ingénue of the film stills is visible only in the rearview mirror.
In a 2018 talk (viewable on YouTube), the art historian Hal Foster, who championed Sherman early, returned to the theme of masquerade, saying that her work represents the condition of being seen, specifically by the male gaze. The argument, unquestionably illuminating and influential — it is indeed helpful to see her work in that way — was also promoted in the ’80s by the critics Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens; looking back, it seems fair to say it was shaped to a striking degree by male gazers.
When I suggested as much to Sherman, she laughed. The framework never had much traction for her, and has less now, she said, though she guessed it might speak to younger female artists trying to find their place in the world. “I just feel at this point, as we age, we become a little bit more invisible,” she said. “So maybe there is not much gazing going on.”
But Sherman keeps a wary eye on the commercial media that were long judged the main instruments of women’s objectification by men, from Hollywood movies to print publications, and fashion magazines in particular. She still prefers to read on paper, and finds fashion design and its representation fertile territory. Even really terrible ads sometimes interest her, helping her hone a seemingly unimprovable feel for how to construct a striking image.
For more positive influence, she cites the photographer Kristin- Lee Moolman and the stylist Ib Kamara, whom she follows on Instagram. She’s also been inspired by the costume designer Machine Dazzle, imp_kid, and others.
When I said Hal Foster believes the world of selfies owes a great deal to Sherman, she bristled at the notion. “I don’t think of my work as selfies at all. A lot of people were taking photos of themselves before me,” she protested. But she does use Instagram creatively. “When I have free time — in a cab, say — I’ll play around with various apps,” she said. “I started with apps people use for selfies, then found ways of subverting them. That’s where these weird avatars came from,” she said, referring to her popular posts.
Sherman has also used artificial intelligence programs in her posts, but like other artists, she’s concerned about being ripped off by A.I., and said, “I did try using it to see if it could at all replicate something in the style of Cindy Sherman.” The result, she happily reports, was “pathetic.” But, she conceded, “That’s not to say it’s not going to happen.”
The conversation I had with Sherman was recorded on my smartphone and transcribed (almost instantly) by an A.I. program; it’s not impossible that some credible but digitally hallucinated words, using algorithms we didn’t control, have crept in among the ones we spoke. Sherman has been the sibyl of such proliferating confusions, toying with representation’s integrity and the boundaries of identity for more than four decades.
There are now over 600 models of Sherman’s transformations to choose from. Each asks that we avoid confusing the dancer with the dance. The newest ones confirm that she’s still running as fast as she can.
Through March 16, Hauser & Wirth, 134 Wooster Street, SoHo, 212-542-5660; hauserwirth.com.