Artist Dossier: Cindy Sherman

Artist Dossier: Cindy Sherman
Detail of Cindy Sherman's "Untitled #96," 1981
(Courtesy Christie's )

The following article appears in the February 2012 issue of Art+Auction.

Hailed for her chameleonic self-portraits in various guises, Cindy Sherman is considered an essential artist of her generation. “If you’re a collector focusing on 1980s or 1990s art, you have to have a Cindy Sherman. There’s no question about it,” says Scott Nussbaum, specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York. Since her debut Sherman has found favor with a broad audience by blending the political, the playful, and, on occasion, the profane. Demand for her work reached a new peak in May 2011, when one of her images became the most expensive photograph to sell at auction. A traveling retrospective opening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this week will further bolster Sherman’s position in the top tier of living artists.

In the past two years, works by Sherman have done exceptionally well at auction, even by the standards of her own market. In November 2010, a print from her “Fairy Tales” series, “Untitled #153,” 1985, in which she lies mud-smeared and seemingly expired in the grass — the only print in an edition of six not held by a major museum — met its ambitious $2 million to $3 million estimate with a winning bid of $2.7 million at Phillips de Pury in the Philippe Ségalot-orchestrated “Carte Blanche” sale. Six months later, “Untitled,” 1981, from the “Centerfolds” series, showing Sherman as a sweatered coed sprawled on the floor (est. $1.5-2 million), soared to $3,890,500 at Christie’s New York, a record for any photograph at auction at the time.

The seeds of Sherman’s success were sown in her early 20s. Born in 1954 in New Jersey and raised on Long Island, Sherman arrived on the downtown New York scene in the late 1970s, armed with a BA in fine arts from Buffalo State College at the State University of New York, where she’d started out in painting before switching to photography. Interested from a young age in the transformative power of wigs, makeup, and clothing, Sherman arrived at her modus operandi with a 1976 series of photographs called “Bus Riders,” for which she assumed various personae, from a sullen black teenage girl to a briefcase-toting businessman, and posed on a chair in her studio as if it were a bus-stop bench. The success of the images, which were printed in editions of 20 only in 2000, hinges on her acute powers of observation and nuanced performance rather than on any transformation of the photographic medium.

The same is true for the breakthrough 1977-80 series “Untitled Film Stills,” in which the artist portrays herself as an array of recognizable feminine types plucked from 1950s pop culture: the icy blonde, the coming-unhinged-housewife, the blasé vamp, the pouting naïf. Sherman’s subject is not her fictitious protagonists, however, but the viewers’ own preconceptions about her assumed identities, reflected back to them. To create the look of cheap publicity shots, Sherman dunked the prints in overheated developer, cracking and marring the emulsion.

The “Film Stills” became instant emblems of the postmodern moment, when artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were using photography to fracture the boundaries between high and low art. When Sherman’s works were exhibited, first at Artists Space in New York and later in solos at the Kitchen and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, they were acclaimed for their narrative ambiguity, for flipping photography’s promise of veracity on its head and suggesting meaning while deflecting interpretation. And although Sherman disavowed any overt feminist message, her early works were applauded for reintroducing the body at a time when many women artists were traveling along the opposite asymptote toward conceptualism and theory. She told British curator and critic Sandy Nairne in an interview, “I wanted to make something which people could relate to without having read a book about it first.”

In 1980 Sherman showed color photographs at Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring’s newly opened Metro Pictures gallery in New York to positive reviews, but, as Reiring notes, “it was her second show with us, of the ‘Centerfolds’ series from 1981, that seemed to change everything.” Images from this show, for which Sherman played on girlie mags’ clichéd poses to convey anxiety rather than availability, hit a nerve; prints were acquired by MoMA and the Boijmans Museum in Van Beuningen, Netherlands, and Sherman was invited to participate in both Documenta VII and the Venice Biennale the following year. She continues to be exclusively represented by Metro Pictures, though she sometimes has shown work with Sprüth Magers, in Cologne, London, and Berlin, and with Gagosian in Los Angeles and Rome; a show is being planned for his Paris space.

Through the 1980s and 1990s Sherman’s work grew in scale and took on a darker and more experimental tone, perhaps because she thought her early work had been “too quickly embraced,” says Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which will host MoMA’s show this fall. “She felt that it wasn’t quite understood or maybe that it was a little too easy. As a response, she introduced more abject subject matter, daring people to like it.” The “Fairy Tales” of 1985 swap magic and wonder for grotesqueries and horror, and the exploration of violence against the female body continues in “Disasters” (1986-89). Sherman donned fake noses and prosthetics for her “History Portraits” (1988-90), reenacting famous paintings, and moved further into using surrogate body parts for her “Masks” (1994-96) and “Broken Dolls” series (1999). More recently, in a 2008 series the artist wore make-up to suggest the effects of excessive cosmetic surgery among aging society women. The results exemplify the pull between satire and poignancy that characterizes her best work.

Largely spared the early-1990s art-market crash, Sherman’s works started appearing at auction in the middle of that decade. “The quantum leap for the pricing of her work at auction happened with the sale of ‘Untitled Film Still #48’ in May 1999,” says Andrew Massad, international director of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s New York. This 16-by-20-inch black-and-white gelatin silver print of the image popularly known as “the hitchhiker” was estimated to fetch between $60,000 and $80,000; it shot up to an artist-record $200,500. Less than 10 years later, in 2007, another print from the same edition was included in the house’s postwar and contemporary evening sale, tagged $800,000 to $1.2 million; it bested the high estimate with a final price of $1,217,000.

While Sherman’s works are steadily gaining in value, the precipitous rise in prices does not apply across the board. Collectors after the most famous images from each series can expect to pay a steep premium in the multiple millions, but lesser-known examples can be had for $100,000 or less. Among the “Film Stills,” which come in three sizes, Reiring points to number 48, the hitchhiker, along with number 21, the apprehensive career girl and number 13, the busty bookworm, as the most sought after, going for anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million, but others start at $70,000 and top out around $300,000. “The gap between the top price and the next tier can be quite large,” notes Nussbaum, of Sotheby’s. “That can be confusing to new collectors,” admits New York dealer Per Skarstedt, who has sold Sherman’s work on the secondary market for two decades. “What I tell them is that some pieces are icons of our time. And if you have an edition of 10, and 6 or 7 are in museums, the price is going to be higher.”

Starting with the “Fairy Tales,” Sherman began printing her color works in editions of six, with few exceptions. The earlier, rare-to-market “Centerfolds” — only 12 prints in editions of 10 were produced — remain the most expensive, with the “History Portraits” and the mid-2000s “Clowns” earning from the mid-six figures up to $3 million. Beyond these, however, there are several opportunities at lower price points. For example, an early “Bus Rider,” “Untitled #372,” from the 2000 printing, fetched  17,080 ($22,700) at Villa Grisebach in Berlin in November. Series previously dismissed as difficult, such as the “Sex Pictures” of 1992, featuring plastic genitalia and made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, have not fared well in the marketplace and occupy a lower price stratum.

Nussbaum points to high-concept fashion images, which Sherman has returned to periodically over her career, as undervalued. One of these, “Untitled #282,” 1993, featuring the artist as a Gaultier-clad Medusa figure, reached a mid-estimate $818,500 at Sotheby’s New York in November. Massad suggests a 1980 series of rear-screen projection images, printed in editions of five, in which Sherman’s Everywoman poses in front of filmic scenery, as a “vastly underrated” category. “Some examples have a wonderful sense of color and mise-en-scène,” he says, noting that their technique cribs from director Alfred Hitchcock — “a very important influence on the artist.”

Sherman’s most recent works — first shown at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev and the Metro Pictures booth at Art Basel in summer 2010, later at the 2011 Venice Biennale — return to the idea of figures disassociated from their backgrounds. With subtle digital manipulations to her face, she is pictured as various characters on a wallpaper-scale, Toile de Jouy-like surface that is custom-sized to fit the installation site. Several have sold, at prices ranging from $175,000 to $300,000 per wall, depending on the number of figures and size of the wall; they will have their American debut at MoMA.

The nearly unanimous opinion is that Sherman’s market success, far from diluting her vision, has allowed her to pursue it without fear of consequence. As Nussbaum says, “She’s not affected by the market and is unafraid to do things that are difficult or challenging.” Reiring adds, “Her prices have risen gradually over the years, and most important is the quality of work she has continued to do over a long career… she continues to evolve and not repeat herself.” In fact, the key to Sherman’s resilience may be the freedom her success affords her: a rich paradox, just like her images.