All hail the retrospective! It seems as though New York City has been home to more blockbuster retrospectives within the past year than ever. This summer, the work of the American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning filled the entire sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in a grandiose, spectacular examination of the artist’s seventy-year career. In the fall, Italian prankster Maurizio Cattelan took over the Guggenheim—suspending his work from the ceiling of the museum like dirty laundry, creating a show that seemed to playfully question the nature of the retrospective itself. And this month the art of photographer Cindy Sherman is on view at the MoMA, displaying over 170 of her works.
Sherman, who was born in 1954 in New Jersey, is just as much a chameleon as an artist. While she originally attended school for painting, she began experimenting with photography early on, photographing herself in a range of costumes and disguises. In Untitled Film Stills, the set of photos that would make her famous, Sherman adopted the appearances of women seen in ‘50’s and ‘60s cinema.
In one, she sits in a windowsill dressed in buxom attire. In another, she dons a black wig and a headscarf. In perhaps one of my most favorites—Untitled Film Still #7—Sherman wears a nightgown and sunglasses, peering out of a sliding glass door, holding a martini glass haphazardly in her left hand. In any given still, you could mistake Sherman for Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day or Elizabeth Taylor—calling attention to the popular (and perhaps interchangeable) portrayals of women in film. And although Sherman has claimed her work is not feminist, questions about female identity and appearance continually serve as centerpieces for many of her photographs.
Perhaps this is why I’ve always been fond of Sherman’s work—inspired by her Untitled Film Stills and intrigued by the way her self-portraits are not portraits at all. Sherman’s photographs rarely provide the viewer with glimpses of the artist’s own self. Instead, the photos of Sherman wearing wigs, artificial noses, and thick layers of makeup capture exaggerated glimpses of modern womanhood. She uses herself as a sort of canvas on which to paint the identities of other women and other people.
But while I am undoubtedly a Sherman-fan, I remember becoming disillusioned with the path Sherman’s work took in the 2000s. I found some of my favorite Sherman figures replaced by grotesque, monumental caricatures of the contemporary middle-aged woman. In a series from 2008, Sherman abandoned film, taking digital photographs of aging debutants and wrinkled glamour-girls and positioning them in front of fictional, Photoshopped backgrounds. I remember seeing the large photos at Metro Pictures gallery in New York and feeling utterly crushed. Gone were the grainy mock film stills of the ‘70s, the provocative and gruesome pictures of plastic body parts from the ‘90s. Even the painting-style portraits of Sherman dressed as milkmaids and squires, from her series History Portraits, were nowhere to be found. I left the gallery thinking that maybe the artist’s best work was unfortunately, behind her.
Until, that is, I attended the current retrospective at the MoMA. Sure, some of my favorite photos are still from the formative part of Sherman’s career. But the retrospective forges a path through the artist’s production, showing how she got from grainy film-style stills, to large-scale pictures of dismembered plastic body parts, to giant, affronting, cartoonish female caricatures. The show arranges Sherman’s work chronologically and thematically; showing the way in which Sherman’s photos have taken subtle yet recognizable technical and thematic turns.
Webster’s dictionary defines the adjective “retrospective” as describing something that is “of or relating to the act of looking back.” But why look back? Why revisit the artwork of a living artist? Why devote entire galleries of a museum to a single person? Because perhaps in looking back, we can gain a deeper appreciation of something we’ve overlooked, a greater sense of respect for an artist’s work that we can carry with us in the future. Seeing the artist’s body of work in a way that is both cohesive and narrative gave me a newfound admiration for those gargantuan portraits of opulent middle-aged mistresses. Even if I still detest these photos on an aesthetic level, I’m able to see them as part of a larger story of work—a necessary stopping point for Sherman and her artistic vision. And if that’s not a good enough reason to look back, I don’t know what is.