Cindy Sherman at MOMA

Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman – From ‘untitled film stills’

It took me three years of living in New York to finally visit MOMA. I’d made plans in the past and there were certainly exhibitions I wanted to see but for no good reason I never made it. Then a few weeks ago I started reading about the Cindy Sherman exhibition and after doing a bit of research learned that there was an Atget exhibition going on at the same time. It would be inexcusable not to check them out. It also helped that I had a Thursday off from work.

To ensure I’d make repeat visits this year I decided to purchase a membership. $70, not a bad deal. After paying my membership dues, I started my journey through the museum (and modern art), beginning with the recent acquisitions which included a few Nan Goldin photographs. Then I made my way up to the third floor where the Atget show and photography gallery are located. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that until three floors later. Picking up a map might have been a good idea.

So I marched on, up to the fourth floor where I came face to face with Pollock, de Kooning, Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Rothko and many others. As I wandered through the galleries I almost forgot about Cindy Sherman and the reason I was there. Looking at art is always a rather meditative, soothing experience.

Then it was up to the fifth floor which is where many people visiting MOMA from out of town probably head to immediately. Coming face to face with walls of Picasso’s and van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ for the first time is awesome. Then there’s Monet, Joan Miro, and Dali. I was getting exhausted from looking. Too much art for my brain.

Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman

As I walked up to the sixth floor I started to formulate some thoughts about Cindy Sherman. “Ok, what do I actually know about her work? Not much. The untitled film stills, centerfolds, clowns, the Art 21 episode, hype, accolades. What’s my baseline sentiment? How do I feel about her work? Not really my thing, but I like the film stills, so I’m curious. Will I be looking at photography, or art? That’s a stupid question. Must eradicate that impulse. Just look at the fucking pictures.”

At the entrance you’re greeted by a wall of large murals (above), which are Sherman’s latest body of work. The exhibition is divided into 11 galleries based on theme, not chronology. The complete series of ‘untitled film stills’ and ‘centerfolds’ take up two galleries. These are the two bodies of work that I was most familiar with and curious to see in full view. Neither disappoint.

In all, there are 70 photographs in the ‘untitled film still’ series. Viewing the entire series displays Sherman’s various approaches to composition. There are portraits, intimate candid photographs, documentary style, voyeuristic, blurry, abstract, all with a very cinematic feel to them, which naturally was the objective.

‘Centerfolds’ contains the photographs that I’m guessing most people casually familiar with her work will recognize. The girl in orange laying on the kitchen floor (Untitled #96) for example. It’s a pleasure to see great prints of famous photographs on a wall, but what I was more interested in were the photographs that were unfamiliar. Viewing the entire series clearly brings out much more nuance in the work. The darker, saturated palette in the series was appealing as well.

Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman – From ‘centerfolds’

After those two series is when Sherman really starts experiment and disappear into more diverse characters. The work from middle ’8os to ’90s  includes her series of fantasy and grotesque images, as well as her history portraits. Most of these photographs are intentionally absurd and provocative which I didn’t find that interesting.

The ‘headshot’ work from the 2000s (below) was the series that I found most interesting. I wasn’t familiar with it going in, so I was pleasantly surprised. In these photographs Sherman the satirist comes alive. The best satire works by existing an inch away from reality. These portraits inhabit that terrain. This is Sherman at the top of her game in my opinion. She’s fully immersed in a diverse set of female characters that are recognizable American stereotypes. Most wear too much makeup and have a hint of sadness, and yet seem to be very proud to be in front of the camera. I spent a good amount of time absorbing these portraits, and thinking about the way Sherman channels so many styles of portraiture into her work. It’s impressive.

After viewing this series and the large scale society portraits I began to have a much deeper appreciation for Sherman’s work. It’s difficult to not enter these type of exhibitions without a whole host of assumptions, mainly that I wouldn’t enjoy or appreciate the work, which is silly considering I’d never really taken the time to look at it. I felt very fortunate that I was able to experience her work in such a setting.

Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman – From ‘headshots’

Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman – From ‘headshots’

As I strolled through the galleries for a second time, I found myself not really even thinking about photography. Yes, these were photographs but that didn’t matter, I was engaged with Sherman’s ideas and most importantly how she articulated them visually. There’s simply no way you can look at this body of work and not realize you’re encountering an extremely gifted, original artist. It’s much the same feeling I had while browsing the work of the great painters in the floors below.

That said, there were certainly photographs such as the ‘clown’ series that simply didn’t resonate with me visually, but I still appreciated Sherman’s willingness to push herself as an artist, which naturally is important, and necessary.

Too often I find myself gravitating to the type of work I know that I’ll enjoy. These days I actively try to avoid this tendency because I’m interested in exploring a diverse range of photographic approaches, and not simply retreating to what’s comfortable.

As I left the exhibition, I pulled out my phone and searched for Atget and MOMA so I could figure out where I should be going. Turns out, the third floor. Atget would be my last stop in a very long day of looking at art, but I’ll cover that in a later article.

Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman
February 26–June 11, 2012

Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

It’s worth noting that the entire exhibition is available in a special section on the MOMA website. It’s very well done. Not perfect, but it’s not flash, the images are nice a big, and there’s plenty of additional audio commentary.


Courtesy of MOMA ©2012 Cindy Sherman – From ‘Untitled Film Stills’

  • whitedog35

    We were fortunate to have this exhibition visit the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and it had an opposite effect on me Bryan. I thought that the power of Sherman’s ideas diminished as their scale grew- by the end reaching absurd proportions as the content veered towards caricature. The later pieces (our show may’ve been more linear) seemed drained of the abundant empathy and poignant questions regarding identity that her earlier series’ held. Possibly the point, but I saw little more than an effort to increase the artifacts price point with affluent collectors. Not that art is required to convey a didactic, or to hold profound “meaning,” I merely found very little there there.

  • Joseph O. Holmes

    I’ve found that Sherman’s work really has to be seen in person, rather than on the Web. Every time I’ve seen her images hung as prints, I’ve really gotten into it. On the Web, there’s some missing dimension.

    Also, Sherman is one of the few major living artists whose work can make me laugh out loud.

  • Anthony R

    I enjoyed your thoughts on her work. She’s never done much for me, but now I’m curious..

    It IS a shame it has taken you this long to visit MOMA. The best place to see photographic exhibitions, no, but they do have some good ones and there’s of course everything else.