NEW YORK - Odd, extra-aesthetic thoughts impinge on a viewer going through “Cindy Sherman.’’ The photographer’s very large, very impressive, and rather overwhelming retrospective runs through June 11 at the Museum of Modern Art. What must Sherman’s driver’s license photo look like? How many passports does she have? Does she consider the concept of identity theft absurd?
For 35 years now - 35 years! can it be? - Sherman has been a princess of our disorder, a defining yet indefinable presence in the life of the culture. She’s like Andy Warhol that way - central and peripheral, everywhere and nowhere. Yet where Andy created a single persona, blank and fascinating in its blankness, Sherman has created a mosaic of selves. In doing so, she has fashioned an artistic identity out of identity’s absence.
How large is that mosaic? There are 171 photographs in the show, nearly all of them examples of Sherman’s photographic self-presentations - self-presentations, not self-portraits - in which she assumes a role, creates a character, plays a part, or enacts a type. Sometimes she does all four at once. Her work isn’t just at the intersection of performance art and photography. It’s also at the intersection where a constant who and unpredictable how combine to form an unsettling what.
Sherman patrols the interstices of personality, saunters along the fault lines of the self, shuffles photographic identities like a darkroom croupier. Notice how her last name starts with a feminine pronoun. Notice, too, how the name ends with a noun of the sex opposite hers. In her photographic take-offs on Old Master paintings, from the late ’80s and early ’90s, she does occasionally pose as a male (and flirt with kitsch). Man, oh man (as one might say), things in the Sherman canon certainly can get complicated.
Except that the basic conceit of the work is so blindingly simple. Sherman is one of art history’s great hedgehogs. In his celebrated essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,’’ the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin quotes the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’’ Berlin then suggests that various writers and thinkers fall under either heading. Where a single defining idea animates hedgehogs, multiplicity characterizes foxes. To apply this typology to art, one might say that Cezanne and Matisse are hedgehogs, Picasso and Warhol foxes (Picasso surely qualifies as multiple foxes - a skulk of them).
Sherman’s hedgehog-idea is the slipperiness of identity. In her work, that slipperiness is everywhere (and thus the self is nowhere). It’s in the film stills, from the late ’70s, which made her reputation; the “centerfolds’’ of 1981, the one series she’s done that has real emotional power; her portrait series of clowns and ladies who lunch, in the last decade. All of Sherman’s series are variations on the same theme: who we as individuals might be. But this theme is so central to, well, who we as individuals might be that its thematic richness and suggestiveness seem inexhaustible. Sherman’s myriad reworkings of costume, makeup, hair, lighting, setting, prosthetics, props (the list goes on) demonstrate her great ingenuity, but that ingenuity would be so much gimmickry without the shared elasticity of self that inspires and sustains it.
It’s been said that the whole world looks like a nail to a kid with a hammer. Sherman wasn’t quite a kid when she came into possession of her hammer/idea, but she was young - still a college student, at Buffalo State College of the State University of New York. The first work in the retrospective is a grouped set of 23 small, hand-colored photographs Sherman did of herself in 1975 undergoing (enjoying? suffering?) a radical transformation of appearance. A bland-looking young woman in a plaid shirt with oversize glasses and a shag haircut gradually evolves into a heavily made-up, cigarette-smoking temptress in a camisole. Does the first picture show the “real’’ Cindy Sherman and the last one a fantasy version - or vice versa? What matters is how the progression manages to be part photo booth, part psychiatrist’s couch, part screen test.
Sherman’s work is unimaginable without the example of film. The show closes with an amusing stop-motion short she did in 1975, “Doll Clothes,’’ and in 1997 she wrote and directed a feature, “Office Killer’’ (the title nicely conveys how often her work blends humor and menace). There’s nothing literary about her images. So many of these pictures indicate narratives, but those narratives are invariably visual and filmic, rather than verbal. That’s the point of the “Untitled Film Stills,’’ of course, all these characters desperately seeking scenarios. But it’s true with so much else of her work, too. Words articulate and explain, as images do not, and so much of the power of Sherman’s work has to do with how she gives away everything on the surface and then withholds anything beneath.
The heart of the retrospective is the 70 film stills. Seeing them all together is a remarkable experience. A few have become so familiar as to risk overexposure: Sherman in a little straw hat with skyscrapers in the background (she could be a premonition of Naomi Watts at the beginning of “Mulholland Drive’’), or emerging on a sunny patio, in slip and sunglasses. But most are little known, which makes many of them a revelation. Sherman’s mastery here of mood and implication, locale and intimation, makes seeing these pictures in toto endlessly absorbing. In a weird way, “Untitled Film Stills’’ is akin to a primitive, fictive forerunner of Christian Marclay’s “The Clock.’’ The sense of an immensity of (imaginary) celluloid that lies beyond what we actually see is transfixing.
Sherman consciously evokes Monica Vitti in that patio still. In another, looking into a mirror, she’s a dead ringer for Gena Rowlands. She bears a resemblance to Ellen DeGeneres in one of the centerfolds, and Laura Dern in another. Not that Sherman even knew at that time who those two women were. Such visual coincidences are part of what makes her work so often uncanny. Presumably, Sherman did know in 1983 who Meryl Streep was - and there she is (Sherman, that is) wearing an off-the-shoulder evening dress and looking startlingly like that other great female chameleon of our time (it’s the tightness of the eyes and moue of an expression). Who knows, maybe Sherman is Streep, or Streep is Sherman. Does it even matter? Yeats’s wondering how we can know the dancer from the dance seems like an awfully long time ago.
City of light
“Documents pour artistes’’ (documents for artists) were the words on the sign outside Eugene Atget’s studio. By the time of his death, in 1927, he had taken more than 8,500 photographs of Paris. A few artists have connected with a city as deeply as Atget did (Joyce and Dublin, say, or Dickens and London), but in words not images. As the creator of an urban visual record, Atget is unrivaled.
“Eugene Atget: ‘Documents pour artists’ ’’ runs at MoMA through April 9, which means that April 10 will be a very sad day for anyone who loves photography, Paris, and beauty. (Surely, anyone who loves one must also love the other two.) It consists of 106 photographs, divided into six groups, meant to offer an overview of Atget’s work. There are images of courtyards, the handsome formality of the Luxembourg Gardens, the raggedy disrepair of the Parc de Sceaux, street people, the Fifth Arrondissement, and the kind of incongruous juxtapositions (mannequins in shop windows and the like) that made the Surrealists adore Atget.
MoMA, which owns the Atget archive, mounted four mighty exhibitions of his work in the 1980s. Consider this show a distant-in-time pendant. It is a surpassingly lovely and moving pendant, and the distance in time is fitting. All artists’ work is about how. Sherman’s, as noted, is preeminently concerned with who and what. Atget’s is where and when. Perhaps no other photographer has ever addressed those two simple words in such a way as to produce such enduring and complex satisfaction.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.