On ViewHauser & Wirth
May 4–July 29, 2022
In 1977, having recently moved to New York City, photographer Cindy Sherman began a series of small black-and-white photographs. Working alone, as was her preference, she scouted locations, gathered props, pieced together costumes, and tended to her own hair and make-up before photographing herself posed in frames suggestive of Hollywood dramas. In what would become the groundbreaking series “Untitled Film Stills,” Sherman troubled the subject of women’s portraiture, bringing into question mass media’s complicity in reducing women to stereotypes. Now on view in their entirety at Hauser & Wirth as part of Cindy Sherman: 1977–1982, the seventy photographs that make up the series mime classic (if also simplified and degrading) depictions of women in postwar American films—the ingenue, the housewife, the bombshell, the moll. What separates Sherman’s images from their prototypes is her particular bend toward irony and a reflexiveness in which she allows her viewer to be in on the joke, requiring them to reevaluate along with her the ways they metabolize the pseudo-reality of commercial images.
In every photo, Sherman’s sense of light and shadows is breathtaking, her images as beautiful as they are unnerving. A photograph from 1979 (all are untitled) shows Sherman in a long, dark wig, lighting a cigarette. A shadowy backdrop gives the scene the feeling of a noir film, making Sherman an ill-fated heroine, or perhaps a cold-blooded villainess. In another photograph from the same year, a short-haired Sherman stands against a pair of darkened windows looking fearfully at the camera. Black contusions ring her eyes and her lower lip is swollen. Other photos place the artist in abandoned cityscapes, domestic interiors, or standing alone on the side of a road, her gaze often directed off-camera, as if she is sizing up an impending threat. A photo from 1978 shows her neatly coiffed in a tweed suit and trim little hat, a career girl on her way to the office with an expression that teeters between independence and victimhood.
Turning to color photography in 1980, Sherman began work on “Rear Screen Projections,” a series that incorporated a special effect often used by Alfred Hitchcock. For this series, Sherman posed in front of a screen onto which an image of an exterior location was projected. This allowed her final photograph to be made completely in her studio, giving her more control over the mise en scène. The backgrounds soften in focus and flatten behind her while sharp studio lighting falls over her face and body. The effect is a heightened sense of artifice; a frank admission of process and an unraveling of what is and isn’t to be trusted in what is seen.
A year later, Artforum commissioned Sherman to create a series of images for their magazine, which led to the “Centerfolds” of 1981, large-scale images of Sherman posed in horizontal compositions in frank reference to men’s magazines of the time such as Playboy. When Artforum opted not to publish the twelve images, they were shown at Metro Pictures gallery in an eponymous exhibition later that year which firmly established Sherman’s prominence in the New York art world. The photographs, all of which are on view, range in mood from wistful to melancholic to terrifying. One photograph finds her crouched on a bare wooden floor, clad in a white T-shirt and short tartan skirt, looking fearfully over her shoulder at something—or someone—off screen. In another photograph, she sits on the edge of a bed, an innocent wrapped in a dressing gown which she holds demurely closed at her neck, a light behind her creating a halo around her hair. In other images, her camera floats above her as she assumes supine poses and gazes into unseen distances, lost in private moments of thought. The series is both alluring and uncomfortable, with Sherman slyly reminding the viewer that they are both witness and voyeur to the fates of her characters.
The final chapter of the show includes nearly a dozen large-scale vertical works from Sherman’s “Color Studies” of 1981–82. In these, Sherman sits tall, her eyeline even with the camera. In one image, she seems to disappear into the velvet blackness of her background. In another, her expression is defiant, assured of her agency as she exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke. A set of four images from this year show the artist with minimal makeup and hairstyling and wearing a deep pink robe. She looks directly at the camera, and by extension, the viewer. I see you looking at me, the woman in the robe seems to say, and something about her eye contact makes me squirm. For a moment I wonder if Cindy Sherman is at last appearing as Cindy Sherman, but of course, it is never that simple. Like all of Sherman’s photographs, it requires a long look, a thorough interrogation of what is true and what is not.