The Art of the Impersonator

Cindy Sherman

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, February 26–June 11, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition by Eva Respini, with contributions by Johanna Burton and John Waters
Museum of Modern Art, 264 pp., $60.00; $40.00 (paper)
Cindy Sherman/Metro Pictures
Cindy Sherman: Untitled #353, 36 x 24 inches, 2000

Cindy Sherman has explored different kinds of photography, but she has become one of the most lauded artists of her generation for her photographs of her impersonations. Since she arrived on the scene, in a 1980 exhibition, when she was in her mid-twenties, she has come before her own camera in the guise of hundreds of characters, and as an impersonator—which in her case means being a creator of people, and sometimes people-like creatures, who we encounter only in a single photograph—she has been remarkably inventive. Especially as a portrayer of types of people, whether someone who appears to be a perky suburbanite in town for a matinee, or a woman in a sweatshirt who seems both tired and bristling, or a club singer belting out a note, Sherman—who is now, at fifty-eight, the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—has shown herself as well to be a witty and shrewd social observer. And the sheer human spectacle of someone continually transforming herself into one person after another has proved riveting.

But the playacting nature of Sherman’s photographs may account for why I, speaking perhaps for a small minority in the art world, have over the years found her art emotionally detached, even a bit bland. The work of a very particular talent, her pictures have seemed off in a province of their own. Hardly less important is that Sherman’s photographs, taken as objects in themselves, have felt merely serviceable. Generally in color and three or four, even eight, feet on a side, her shots lacked some distinctive formal altering of the medium. Diane Arbus, say, made the square-format photograph, where the center of the image often seems to push out at us, somehow synonymous with an apprehensive yet confrontational view of existence. Sherman the photographer, though, seemed chiefly at the beck and call of Sherman the mime.

There have been, of course, elements in her pictures that are personal to her. Her various accessories and props are appealingly economical and rudimentary, and, given that her art is based on deception, one could say that her large photographs, which sometimes come with transparently cheesy frames, are meant to have the appearance of fake paintings. During much of the 1990s, she also experimented, in pictures she herself was not in, with close cropping and artificial, theatrical color and lighting. But none of this quite erased the way that her pictures in general, and certainly those in which she appears front and center in some disguise, often had the disembodied presence of blown-up shots from one kind of movie or another.

At the Modern’s large show, however, I found that in some of her recent work, where she situates her characters in settings such as rooms or courtyards—settings that have a life of their…

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