Cindy Sherman is clearly a major artist, arguably the most important American artist of her generation, probably the most influential. She is one of those transformational figures whose appearance divides art history into a before and after. The 2012 survey of Sherman’s work at MOMA offers evidence aplenty of her strengths. Each work in the show grabs you and doesn’t let go until you have absorbed every artful detail, every cultural nuance, every art-historical allusion, every sign of the artist’s genius for visualizing and embodying memorable personae.
Walking through the show I thought more than once that Sherman may have grappled more brilliantly with the legacy of Old Master painting in the 1980s and ’90s than did any of her brush-wielding contemporaries. I, for one, would rather look at her audacious reworkings of Holbein or Caravaggio than submit to John Currin’s belabored pastiches. I also think that other series (the 1981 “Centerfolds” and the 1986-89 “Fairy Tales and Disasters”) deftly extend their reach into the domain of painting. Sherman has the generosity, the curiosity and the apparently inexhaustible reservoir of ideas typical of artists on whom we bestow the term “great.”
So why did I leave the exhibition with a twinge of disappointment? I think it had to do with the Untitled Film Stills, the works that launched Sherman’s career. Despite the many impressive things she has done since, the Untitled Film Stills remain her best work, and poignant reminders of what has often been missing from Sherman’s subsequent photographs. My preference for the Untitled Films Stills (and the Rear Screen Projections that followed just after) doesn’t mean that I concur, even for a moment, with Jed Perl’s ill-founded rejection Sherman’s work a few months back in The New Republic—brilliantly dissected by Christopher Stackhouse in the April 2012 Brooklyn Rail—yet I agree with Perl’s assertion that the Film Stills possess a “genuine poetic spark.”
Their “poetry” lies, I think, in their ability to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. When we look at the Untitled Film Stills, each of us becomes a moviemaker, concocting scenarios, backstory, dialogue and musical soundtracks, sketching out in a matter of seconds the worlds that her personages plausibly inhabit. Anyone in search of the effect Sherman can have on a lively imagination should read Mary Jo Bang’s poem “Untitled #70 (Or, The Question of Remains),” which teases out the narrative implications of one of the Rear Screen Projections, (it’s in Bang’s 2004 collection The Eye Like a Strange Balloon.) These images elicit a richness and variety of response that is largely absent from the work which followed. In part, this is because so much of Sherman’s later work is so incredibly specific, while the Film Stills remain beautifully general. This generality allows us to project our own thoughts onto the photographs. The difference between the Film Stills and the later work is like the difference between a star and a character actor; stars throb with universal potential, character actors execute precise roles. The Film Stills also draw strength from their historical moment, excavating the cinema-saturated psyches of the Baby Boomer generation against a backdrop of semi-derelict 1970s New York. Although Sherman has hardly been blind to contemporary history since, she has never connected so deeply with her moment.
Of course, Sherman knows better than anyone the power of the Film Stills, and has at various times sought to build on them and strike off in different directions (most dramatically in the “Disasters” and “Sex Pictures” of 1992). Along the way she has developed into an extraordinary image-maker and a caustic social observer. One can hardly blame her for exercising her talent and highly developed skills, for doing what she can do better than anyone else, but maybe that is part of the problem. I can’t help wondering what would happen if Sherman would sometimes work against her talent, even at the risk tearing apart her art. After all, not every successful artwork has to immediately grab its viewers. With less programmatic images, and maybe lower production values, she might find a way to reopen space for the poetry, the active involvement of the viewer, that still inheres in the Untitled Film Stills.