In an interview with Artforum nearly a decade ago, Cindy Sherman said she was “not tempted by new technologies” nor by the big, masculine paintings that were in vogue when she came up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s (nor, for that matter, by the “guys who played up to that image: Julian Schnabel in his pajamas”).
But times change. Overwhelming visitors as they step out of the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth-floor elevator for the artist’s new retrospective is a towering, digitally produced wallpaper-mural of five 18-foot-tall Cindys. Sherman told the New York Times earlier this week that the work, being shown for the first time in the U.S., was a play on that big, “pretentious” style of painting. She remembered how “male artists would get invited to do a show somewhere, and they’d just fill up an entire wall of painting that is just this gigantic thing. . . . It made me realize not too many women artists think that way.”
Sherman began printing digitally for her 2003 series of clown portraits and now shoots with a digital camera as well as film. To create the photo-mural’s background, printed on adhesive fabric in 2010, Sherman photographed black-and-white scenes from Central Park and then computerized them to look more like drawings. Instead of making up her face with cosmetics and prostheses as usual, Sherman used Photoshop to thin and inflate her lips, widen the space between her eyes and elongate her nose. “It’s horrifying how easy it is to make changes,” she has said.
Sherman’s most recent work, catalogued by her gallery as Untitled #512, is another experiment in scale. The six-by-11-foot print depicts the artist in feathery white Chanel couture -- it was originally shot for Britain’s Pop magazine -- against a rocky Icelandic seascape. The melancholic setting was digitally inserted behind Sherman’s figure and embellished with expressive faux-brushstrokes.
“She’s taking risks,” said curator Eva Respini at the press preview, playing with size and asking, “What’s painting?”
But the real stand-outs, those that Respini thinks will resonate most with viewers today, are Sherman’s “utterly devastating” 2008 portraits of ghoulish society doyennes. The seven-foot-tall pictures are blown up into a surgeon’s-eye view of the compulsive plumping, stretching and injecting of women of a certain age.
“When I saw the society portraits at Metro Pictures, it convinced me that it was time for a retrospective,” Respini said. “For me, those pictures are so much -- more than ever -- about their time.”
Among the 171 pictures in the exhibition is the complete series of Sherman’s most famous body of work, “Untitled Film Stills” from 1977-1980. The retrospective then follows, non-chronologically, her forays into fairy tales, centerfolds, Old Master portraiture and fashion photography. There’s a gallery dedicated to the period when she grew tired of photographing herself and turned instead to grotesque props -- decaying food, vomit and other ambiguous bodily fluids.
Notably absent, however, are Sherman's troubling tableaux of mutilated, perversely posed Barbies. The black-and-white photographs were shot in the wake of her 1999 divorce from French video artist Michel Auder. Were they excluded, as one might think, because they were too intimately autobiographical? Respini didn’t say, noting only that, “even here we have limitations of architecture and space.”
The untitled Cindy Sherman retrospective is on view at MoMA Feb. 26-June 11, 2012, followed by stops at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center and the Dallas Museum of Art.