The Unbearable Lightness of Being Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman's "Untitled #463," 2007-08, chromogenic color print
(Courtesy the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman)

Cindy Sherman
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
February 26–June 11

I was raised in Detroit. It was the early 1960s, and the city was booming. My father worked at Ford’s famous River Rouge plant, where he managed an acre of accountants, and some days after school my mother would drive me over to see my dad, and then we’d go to Patsy’s restaurant for a special dinner. But on the day President Kennedy was shot—that’s how I remember the date—my brother and I were packed into the backseat of my mother’s sky-blue Fairlane wagon. She was crying, had been doing so all afternoon, and we went to get my dad. On East Henry Street by Burke, as the light was falling, there was a woman in a man’s black tails, a white shirt, and a pale vest like the one the president wears in the pictures of his inauguration, and she was standing there with a camera on a tripod beneath a streetlight, taking pictures of herself. That was really weird, I thought.

Of course, every picture is an elegy for what it shows. I learned that later. But what was the purpose of this act of picture-taking? To imitate or commemorate or grow close to or grow distant from? To find, in the face and the body, the depth of unfathomable disconnection or the intelligibility of lost speech? Or was it—is it—all the forms of imagining remembrance, of grieving and holding, of running away to really run toward, or was it just to show something, maybe just to play, to not simply be a self like a corner, but like a wide and populated avenue, a cityscape, a universe of selves? This picture-making is what I would call a form of in-personating (one self penetrating another), which is a curious way to realize knowledge through action, but every construction that borrows from the inventory of the real in pursuit of a revealed consciousness serves nothing, finally, but the ethics of the imagination.

There’s a thing that Heinrich von Kleist says in his famous little essay from 1810, “On the Marionette Theater,” in which he tells the story of a beautiful young boy whose grace was tied precisely to his obliviousness to it. Eventually, the boy became aware of his grace. He became obsessed with it, and an “incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures. A year later nothing remained of the lovely grace which had given pleasure to all who looked at him.” At the end of the essay, Kleist imagines a kind of math of redemption, a multiplication of the self, in which each of us has a second chance to look at ourselves and find something else. He calls this “eating of the tree of knowledge to enter the state of innocence,” as if we could slip through the back door of Paradise, and he adds mysteriously that this is “the final chapter in the history of the world.”        

To look into the faces of others and imagine ourselves, we do what Cindy Sherman does in her pictures, and what I see in her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in the 170 images made over 35 years, quirkily organized by curator Eva Respini into baggily loose themes, with rooms here and there dedicated to specific series, beginning with the great “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80, and offering Sherman’s cast of pretty girls, white trash, elites, victims, sex objects, figures from historical paintings, clowns, and occasionally boys. Here we come to a knot of ideas about the self, to the 18th century’s Enlightenment belief that under the weight and corrosion of social artifice, we each hold a natural, unblemished self, which is what Kleist’s tale is about, and against this is the late 20th-century notion that artifice no longer has a self inside it. Sherman is Kleist’s boy, looking again and again in the mirror. Yet instead of the destruction of grace, she offers a sad kind of happiness—the release from the self into parts—while always tendering that sense of incontrovertible lonesomeness in each of us.

I remember another time, sitting in my car with Marley Krieg. We’d been driving around and had stopped at the athletic field of our old junior high. We must have been 16. I recall saying to her with complete, unwavering assurance—the kind only teenagers have—that I understood myself perfectly, that I was so transparent to myself that I was like a book in which every sentence was pure prose, totally clear. But later the burden of self-consciousness accumulates, and the yearnings, questions, and illegibility, so that it’s possible to understand the need for the doubled self in Sherman’s pictures, which aren’t self-portraits by other means, but write out, so to speak, a myriad possible selves—the more-than-I, the I-as-them, amplified, fragmented, and free. With the more than 500 different selves she’s made over the years, there’s something about Sherman’s approach that’s giddily American: not about slow depth, but about rapid, productive impressions; a way to be in the world that’s somewhere between rectitude and the pleasure of busy hands, of doing as the preferred form of thinking. Room after room, Sherman’s taut images of so many I’s-as-them present their common qualities: specificity, precision, the heft of detail delivered with efficient speed, vessels of great technical, dramatic fluency that argue for the verve of hard work, for endurance through the long haul of the imaginative life.

There’s a very great picture from 2011 in the show, very noble and odd in feeling, and immensely elegant, Untitled #512. In it, She—as I’d like to call Sherman’s chimerical females, who are otherwise as nameless as they are singular—floats artificially on a background, obviously disjointed in the physics of space. She is an early 20th-century type here, fancily cloaked. Her left knee is slightly bent, giving her a formal, fashionable air. She’s grave against this backdrop, which has the austerity of a Courbet landscape. The gray of the sky is about age and barrenness to me, about what we can’t hold on to, which is there in her drawn face, her chin declining somberly, while the scene is exactly opposite in its sense of grandeur: an announcement of social wealth, of culture flashing its satisfaction in the midst of nature. She could have dropped there like a visitor to Mars.

The image has that Shermanesque compression of playfulness, weightlessness, and an oppressive airlessness that stands for constriction of every kind, while somehow the figure edges up into the sky, a deadpan angel of rich impossibility, who captures the slippery strangeness of what transformation is. This is what Sherman does. She transforms herself in endless theatrical ways, repeating the act at the origin of art-making: the magus’s practice to renew matter by releasing a thing inside another thing, overcoming its source. The magic is in showing that source at the moment it shifts shape, affirming that within each thing in the world, there’s something explosive unseen, which is made visible and mastered.

All great art advertises that hand of power as a gift of control, and one of its controls is the breaking of time. The figures of Sherman’s women are intensely static, while their eyes are—what should I say?—time-porous. Time leaks through their eyes, along with pathos, because both are lashed to the elusive glint of narrative inferred as they look out of the frame or into the middle distance. We imagine them moving through an experience, time moving like a music of actions and emotions. Someone else is there, outside the frame, someone who did something with or to her that She now captures in her body, as rigid as a figure in a Grecian frieze. Particularly in the exhibition’s most recent pictures, featuring women shot in front of a green screen and set against a background Photoshopped to exaggerate displacement and weightlessness, time is unhinged as gravity is unhinged, so that time’s power to carry us toward the not yet of the future is held aloft, suspended, and the inevitable march toward death is underscored and lightened. Each She that Sherman makes is a playful jolt of other-life, floating off like a bubble from her factory of selves. But then Sherman is the one who changes; the women are fixed, immemorial, and so as I said, each picture is an elegy for what it shows.

That’s the peculiar bite of Sherman’s images, like salt added to chocolate to give its sweetness an extra depth. The photographs place big philosophical questions amid local details so they seem at once large and intimate, which is the scale of ambiguity. Her women are silly and warm, proud, offensive, and asking for care. Saul Bellow once remarked how much he ached for his character Augie March—“poor bastard,” he called him. Sherman, in her conversation with John Waters in the exhibition catalogue, says something similar about the women in her “headshots” series from 2000 to 2002: “Some of the most pitiful little characters in that series, my heart goes out to them.” The images we eat from are a way to spit out a part of ourselves. We need self-consciousness to understand why we need to escape from it. We need to see these things and make these things. Which is why, thinking about this remarkable artist and her remarkable show, I’ve made my own story up.    

Click on the slide show to see images from the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MoMA.

This article will appear in the May issue of Modern Painters magazine.