From Film Stills to Centerfolds, Take a Virtual Tour of Cindy Sherman’s Bewitching MoMA Retrospective

Installation view of the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MoMA
(Photo © Kyle Chayka)

WHAT: "Cindy Sherman"

WHEN: February 26 through June 11

WHERE: Museum of Modern Art, New York

WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: Cindy Sherman is already a household name, so how can we make her work fresh and surprising?” asked Eva Respini, the curator of the artist’s MoMA retrospective, at the exhibition’s press preview. Though it was Sherman’s 2008 show of new work at Metro Pictures that convinced Respini it was time for a career-spanning show, a MoMA retrospective is only the next logical step for Sherman, who is without a doubt one of the most important living artists in the world. With the help of an endless variety of costuming, makeup, and props, she has relentlessly questioned the politics of identity and the instability of the image through her staged self-portraits in which the self is conspicuously absent.

Even though art-world audiences will already be familiar with the hallmarks of Sherman’s oeuvre, the exhibition is still filled with fireworks. Its first knock-out moment comes in a gallery dedicated to the iconic “Untitled Film Stills” series, presented salon-style in a long row. The way the photos fill the space, echoing and re-echoing, a relentless barrage of recycled tropes, is overwhelming, and might be the highlight of the retrospective. In a dramatic, gray-walled space, Sherman’s “Centerfolds” series is installed, comprised of larger photographs that play on the cinematic qualities of the earlier “film stills” but heighten the drama with vertiginous angles and super-saturated color.

Two enormous prints occupy the entirety of one wall. In their grotesque aesthetic and over-the-top subject matter, they exemplify Sherman’s ‘80s work, which saw the artist turn away from photographing herself in favor of using dolls and prosthetics, a move that curator Respini says was both caused by the photographer feeling “sick of using herself,” and was a reaction to the AIDS crisis. In “Untitled #190” (1989), a face frozen in a glaring rictus, tongue lolling, licks its way out of a muddy pile of chocolate and sweets reminiscent of Marilyn Minter’s painted concoctions. In “Untitled #191” (1989), a lumpy, bruised doll face stares out of the frame, her(?) hair strewn violently over engorged breasts. The pairing is pretty disturbing.

Beyond marshaling the sheer power of Sherman’s visual whirlwind (which surpasses in impact even of the museum’s recent De Kooning retrospective), Respini mixes it up between periods of the artist’s work to keep the juxtapositions intriguing. Sherman’s “Society” portraits, representations of wealthy wives, matrons, and art patrons, crop up often, providing an underlying bed of class anxiety, as if the retrospective were anxious to critique its own privileged place in the art world. Another self-conscious gesture is the single, red-walled gallery devoted to Sherman’s “History” portraits, photos in which the artist appropriates her way through the Western canon of art history. The room provides a brief pause and seems less frenetic and more thoughtful than other parts of the Sherman cavalcade. 

This artist's power, Respini and MoMA director Glenn Lowry both noted, is to be ironic and empathetic at the same time. She identifies with each of her characters, inserting a heavy dose of pathos into all of the best work. But Sherman’s defining quality in this retrospective is her mania, the headlong momentum she throws into becoming one character. And then the next. And the next after that. Her work functions like a self-propagating virus that has enduringly undermined the integrity of the photographed portrait and our trust of the human form represented in art. The show makes you think that anything we look at could be Sherman in disguise.

For a virtual tour of Cindy Sherman’s MoMA retrospective, click on the slide show