Cindy Sherman

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through June 11.

At first glance, artist Cindy Sherman, who first leapt to prominence in the 1970s, seems to have anticipated today’s endlessly self-photographing, narcissistic culture because she, too, photographs herself. Just as many people now constantly capture images of themselves and curate entire galleries of them online, the MoMA’s retrospective of Sherman’s art features Sherman’s face in all but a handful of the photographs.

And yet that’s misleading, for though Sherman is the model for her photographs, she’s never the subject. Before she ever snaps a photo, Sherman the artist has costumed and styled herself to create a character, often to such an extent that Sherman the individual is unrecognizable. Her art is self-obscuring, not self-revealing—which is not to say that it lacks a point of view. Her perspective (like that of any artist) is definitely there. When you look at one of Sherman’s photographs, you’re not simply looking at her; you’re simultaneously looking at her and at not-her and through her eyes, and that strange paradox is part of what makes her work so fascinating.

When I was a teenager, I saw Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series at the MoMA (which had recently acquired the collection) and was immediately entranced. Stills evokes film noir, B-movies, and Euro art-house dramas of the 1950s and 1960s by presenting Sherman as a variety of stereotypical female characters: the ingenue, the career girl, the free spirit, the vamp, among others. As a modest film buff (particularly of noir), I was delighted to recognize the clichés, and once I realized that the photographs don’t satirize any particular movie but instead evoke the generalities that pop up across movies, I was freed from the drive to “decode” the stills and instead appreciate how evocative they are. Sherman’s attention to detail is exquisite: the clothes and locations are perfectly chosen, and Sherman herself is a remarkably expressive “actress,” making it easy to imagine that the stills really do come from a larger narrative. Somewhere some professor must use those images as writing prompts; it’s difficult not to start spinning a story in your head when you look at them.

My love of the storytelling power of Untitled Film Stills came pouring back at the retrospective, but I appreciated something else, too: the artistry, seen in that series and throughout the exhibit. Sherman clearly composes every shot with keen attention to the formal aspects of an image—balance, line, color, light—that any great seventeenth-century painter would appreciate. That Old Master composition style is particularly obvious—if arch—in her History Portraits series, which references specific works by painters such as Rafael, Caravaggio, and Botticelli, but it’s hardly limited to those parodic images. Even her most grotesque, disturbing photographs are beautiful in a raw aesthetic sort of way. Take her eerie image of a “corpse” (played by Sherman, of course) just beginning to decay in the wet muck of some wood, dirt caught in her eyelashes, a ligature mark around her neck. It’s dismaying to look at the photo yet impossible to turn away: the color palette, all gray and blue and green, looks like something from a fairy tale gone horribly wrong, and the details—the pale wavy hair, the fragmented turf, the wisp of material to the body’s right—seem to hang together in perfect equilibrium.

As it is with many of Sherman’s photographs, the “meaning” of that corpse portrait is opaque. People love to write about Sherman’s photographs—they’re provocative, they play on familiar touchstones, they possess a deceptive accessibility—but in the end, it’s often hard to know what, exactly, she intends. Are her “society portraits” of aging grande dames cruel or sympathetic? Is her series of clowns meant to come across as unfathomably creepy, and if so, to what end? And what of those History Portraits, impish to the point of camp, with the exaggerated lighting, the false moustaches and eyebrows, the obviously prosthetic breasts and noses?

I don’t know, and Sherman herself is famously unrevealing in interviews, always polite but nonetheless avoiding any explanations for her art. She leaves the art to stand on its own, and it does. The opacity, the eternal suggestion that there is a story she isn’t telling you, is part of what makes of her photographs so compelling. You have to bring something of yourself to each image. You have to have a story of your own. In a way, when you study one of her photographs, you are as much its subject as she is.