The Unseen Cindy Sherman: Early Transformations 1975-1976, Mar. 21-Aug. 1, 2004, at the Monclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, N.J. 07042
Cindy Sherman is Meryl Streep without the accents. Instead of looking for precedents for Shermans remarkable corpus of film stills, fashion prints, fairy tales, sex pictures, clowns and such in the work of Marcel Duchamp of Francisco de Goya or Hieronymus Bosch, critics, curators and historians should turn to the silver screens finest. After all, the 50-year-old photographer is a one-woman repertory company. Besides being a gifted cinematographer, she is an actor, director, scriptwriter and make-up artist. She does it all. And she does it all memorably.
The Unseen Cindy Sherman: Early Transformations 1975-1976, currently on view at the Montclair Art Museum, less than 15 miles away from Metro Pictures, the artists long-time gallery, is a fairly modest exhibition. It features just 10 wall works and one artists book installed in a tiny lounge. Yet this sampling offers one revelation after another about this important artists initiall choices. Forget conceptual art. CS was ready for her close-up years ago.
Most of the work dates from Shermans college years.
She enrolled at Buffalo State in fall 1972 and graduated in the spring of 76. In Buffalo she met Robert Longo (who is also represented by Metro Pictures) and became active in Hallwalls, an alternate space he co-founded in 1974. But Montclair curator Gail Stavitsky, in her catalogue essay, picks up our heroines story even earlier -- her adolescence on Long Island.
A shy child, Sherman liked to dress up (I wasnt dressing up to be pretty. Id try to look like another person, the artist once said). She even made clothes for the paper dolls she designed. She drew a lot, and when she was ten, she took portraits of her friends with a new Brownie camera. The mature photographer has also recalled how she was glued to the television when I was a kid, and I loved movies. Million Dollar Movie, a program that broadcast the same film for several nights running, was a favorite show. Many TV addicts were able to watch the likes of Citizen Kane five nights in a row before they were old enough to read the classics or even attend a rock concert.
Looking back at those years, Sherman once told Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times critic, My idea of being an artist as a kid was a courtroom artist or one of those boardwalk artists who do caricatures. This isnt as corny as it sounds. In those days, it wasnt uncommon for young girls who lived near Manhattan to dream of becoming a Radio City Rockette rather than a New York City Ballet principal.
Sherman turned out to be talented -- and a quick learner. Longo, who was more sophisticated, opened her eyes to all sorts of possibilities. He took her, for example, to the Albright-Knox Art Museum, where she saw Gauguins Yellow Christ, Picassos La Toilette and other 19th and 20th century masterpieces. He introduced her to the world of art magazines. In one fell swoop, she discovered the Old Masters, Modernism and the art of the 1970s.
If timing is everything, Sherman had it. During the spring of 76, for example, Susan Rothenberg exhibited her first Horse paintings. The New Image sculptor Bryan Hunt had already made a number of airships and several bronze Lakes. And Bruce Nauman was pushing the envelope every which way. To be an artist, you no longer had to be an abstractionist.
In 1975, using a 35 mm camera, Sherman sequentially recorded in 23 black-and-white photographs her self-transformation from a bespectacled girl in a plaid shirt into a glamour-puss with a cigarette. In some prints, she hand-colored the red lips and tinted facial features.
A modest example of serial art, this work nevertheless calls to mind Andy Warhols portraits of Ethel Scull and Holly Solomon, particularly the photo booth strips where the Pop artist had the two women mug for a dime store camera.
When both Sherman and Stavitsky separately talk about ways that using cosmetics relates to art making, they both sound like Ballets Russe star Lydia Lopokova, who once said that when Picasso did her stage make-up for performances of Parade, she felt he was making a painting on her face. If you doubt this, rent the film Red Shoes and youll see how Leonide Massine in La Boutique Fantasque resembles a living canvas.
Another group of hand-colored photographs from 1975 -- a set of 25 -- in which Sherman pictures herself as a cigar-smoking trucker as well as a suburbanite with lacquered fingernails isnt as exciting. But she seems to have realized this. Today, she exhibits some of these shots as independent prints. To be sure, Sherman was never a card-carrying conceptualist. Thats why shes able to take old work and try to make it better.
At first glance, a row of 13 images of Sherman as a baby metamorphosing into a 20-year-old suggests the fledgling artist was only trying to portray the aging process. She ended up with something else: a Franz Xavier Messerschmidt-like collage of facial expressions.
And then there are the labor-intensive paper cutouts Sherman created in 1976. The Fairies is an animated chorus line in which Sherman posed as girls with wings who turn, bend and hold their interlocking arms in various positions. You might be reminded of Saturday Night Lives bumblebee routines starring John Belushi. Theres also a grouping of images of teenagers who resemble 70s ice skating star Dorothy Hamill, with her glasses and haircut. They wear platform shoes instead of skates, which suggests just how clever Sherman could be. Another artist might have been content to make more works like these. About his early Icons fluorescent light sculptures, for example, Dan Flavin once said, It took me three years to do eight of them. . . . It slowed me down. They werent worth the time. Sherman knew to keep going.
Later in 76, Sherman began making photographs with multiple characters and complex stories. While she continued to cut figures out from the black-and-white prints she made, the compositions are sparse. In the last work in the exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum, Sherman appears as The Son at the Funeral, a character from the Murder Mystery People Series. Printed in 2000, this image was left intact. Because the little boy in shorts, long socks and a double-breasted jacket was not trimmed with a pair of scissors, the shutter release cord remains visible on the floor. Sherman was on the threshold of her signature imagery. Once she realized the critical role backgrounds could play in her photographs, she made her first Film Stills.
Like Meryl Streep in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Cindy Sherman was ready for starring roles.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.