LOS ANGELES — I have not always been an unalloyed fan of Cindy Sherman. I came to know her work through the Untitled Film Stills, black-and-white images in which she made and remade her own appearance in order to play with Hollywood tropes of female representation. It was the 1970s, a moment when groups of women artists (whether they called themselves feminists or not) and academics were beginning to use a feminist analysis of film culture to theorize about gender representation and its political consequences. A plethora of these new ideas seemed to coalesce in Sherman’s modestly scaled, 8-by-10-inch Untitled Film Stills. This distillation was recognized immediately by feminists, curators, and critics and has made that early body of work a favorite among many, including myself. For Sherman, it was the beginning of a long career examining artifice and masquerade in the construction of female identity as mediated by film and advertising.
When an artist gets a lot of attention early in her career, the work that follows is carefully scrutinized; the most important question becomes what to do next. After the Film Stills, Sherman moved into color photography, working on a larger scale and eventually veering toward the grotesque, with photographs of dismembered mannequins and creepy clowns. The work referred less specifically to Hollywood, and I found that I became less engaged. The images looked somewhat generic and free-floating, which made them feel slightly arbitrary. In retrospect, the lack of an immediate target may have seemed more egregious at a time when the feminist critique of media felt so new and urgent.
In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) mounted a survey of Sherman’s work. The show seemed somehow underwhelming — I remembered every body of work and knew roughly when it had been made, but the exhibition as a whole never cohered, and I wasn’t sure why. The answer came to me earlier this year, when Sherman debuted her most recent body of work at Metro Pictures. The new series takes us back to her early, eerily precise critique of Hollywood by featuring the artist posed as aging starlets from the 1920s and ’30s. These lush, spectacular images utilize a new technology, dye sublimation on metal, to create incredible depth and sheen. In them Sherman takes on the Hollywood publicity still, and we see the aging women fight a losing battle between seductive image projection and the maintenance of dignity. The exhibition at MoMA did not, of course, include this body of work, because it hadn’t yet been made. But the arc it engenders — from the film stills to the aging starlets — is an important one in Sherman’s career. It made me think that perhaps the MoMA show came too soon.
The Broad in Los Angeles is now attempting another survey. One of the first things you notice is that it benefits from a different architecture than the exhibition at MoMA — a space vastly more congenial. In the first-floor galleries at the Broad, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the proportion of the rooms feels flawless. The way the galleries are laid out in relation to one another creates an easy and unconscious flow, unlike the rooms where the work was shown at MoMA, which felt dark, cramped, and ill-proportioned. What’s more, the choices of the Broad’s guest curator for the show, Phillipp Kaiser, are pitch perfect. Each decision feels deliberate and well-thought-out. Every wall seems to have the exact right number of works, installed at the perfect height, with some walls painted to enhance the viewing experience. Some selections are hung salon style, some with very tight spacing, some sparsely. All are successful.
The survey at the Broad includes Sherman’s new series from 2016, which, when combined with the exhibition’s title, Imitation of Life, as well its location in Los Angeles, suggests a certain lens through which to see the work: Hollywood. The title refers simultaneously to a book, a 1934 film, and the famous last film made by director Douglas Sirk in 1959. The latter was shot in Technicolor, and Sherman’s most recent body of work, with its deeply saturated color, brings to mind Sirk’s lurid palette, so well-suited to melodrama. Despite the fact that films and stills were once both shot on the same material, 35mm film stock, they are not made by the same process, nor do they create for the viewer the same experience. Film is collaborative, often involving hundreds of participants; the production of still images can be — and in the case of Sherman, seems to be — a solitary activity, taking place in the artist’s studio. Film controls the duration of time spent in front of the work (unless you walk out of the theater), while stills are open-ended and can be contemplated for long periods of time or walked by with barely a glance. In film, duration creates the expectation of a narrative arc; the story behind still images is far less clear.
Aside from a few pieces that precede the Untitled Film Stills, the show at the Broad begins with Sherman’s most familiar series and ends with her most recent. Having these two strong bodies of work sandwiching everything that comes between leaves a much stronger impression than the 2012 survey did, and casts the old work in a new light. For instance, here, Sherman’s images of dismembered bodies from the mid ’80s are not merely creepy but also bring to mind that great cinematic subgenre: the serial killer film based on a true story. There are a shocking number of these, some made before and some after Sherman’s series: Gacy, Summer of Sam, Ted Bundy, Dahmer, The Boston Strangler, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to name a few. Sherman’s half-buried body parts, stockings, and women’s glasses even go so far as to suggest the mythical underbelly of this subgenre: the snuff film. Meanwhile, her images of clowns made in 2004 have their own kind of darkness — John Wayne Gacy did, after all, dress like a clown — but also call to mind Fellini’s incredible 1970 film The Clowns. And her History Portraits from the late ’80s give you the period drama. Once the Hollywood lens was set in place, I could see many of the works in the show through it without much difficulty.
Yet, ironically, I also found it a hindrance. Earlier in Sherman’s career, her less specific, less gendered images struck me as too generic and open to interpretation; at the Broad, channeling all possible interpretations into a critique of Hollywood seemed limiting. While the film industry does play an outsize role in the construction of identity in popular culture, there are so many other contingencies to consider. Sherman’s series easily attest to other fields in need of critiques of representation — for example, her History Portraits, which poke fun at historical traditions of portrait painting.
According to a recent feature in the New York Times, Sherman is interested in making another film, or at least working with video. However, what her works do at their best and what films do are not the same thing. Funny how even an artist who is revered for her critiques of Hollywood yearns in some way to be part of it. Her last effort, Office Killer, made in 1979 and on view at the Broad, was neither a critical success nor a commercial one. Why does Jack Skellington want to be Santa Claus when he’s so good at Halloween?
The over 120 works in the current show are culled primarily from the collection of billionaire philanthropists Edythe and Eli Broad, the founders and namesakes of the museum. I was told that a smattering of works were loaned by other institutions to fill out the exhibition. There has been understandable criticism that a show in a private museum, which really represents the tastes of one couple, cannot be a properly scholarly exhibition. In this case, though, the Sherman holdings at the Broad are pretty extensive. And it’s hard to argue with the exhibition once you’ve seen it. It’s the best and most careful display of her work I’ve seen to date.
Private museums have been proliferating in recent years, a consequence of the concentration of extreme wealth in the hands of the few. These institutions do neatly encapsulate the social climbing and branding of the ultra rich, but I have to wonder: Were art museums ever really immune from this? Haven’t collections always been put together by the social elites and gifted to such institutions? Weren’t some individual curators, such as John Szarkowski, overwhelmingly responsible for what photographs were acquired by certain museums (in Szarkowski’s case, MoMA) for nearly 30 years? And don’t public museums now allow large galleries to put on scholarly shows that the latter essentially get to curate, so long as the galleries agree to underwrite the costs?
I don’t necessarily agree with any of this or think it’s a good idea, but the fact that the Broad functions in this way is hardly novel. My real beef with the Broad is that, despite its deep Cindy Sherman holdings, the collection of 173 artists includes, by my tally, only 30 women, not counting one couple. While the Broads are not single-handedly responsible for the success of Cindy Sherman as an artist, the kind of in-depth support they’ve given her can have an enormous impact, especially early in a career, on an artist’s ability to work. It seems ridiculous to have to say this, but the lesser success of female artists is due precisely to the fact that most collectors choose to give this support to men far more often than they give it to women. In the case of the Broads, their commitment to Sherman worked out pretty well. You’d think, then, that they would support more women, but recent acquisitions — listed in press materials as works by John Baldessari, John Currin, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Robert Longo, Julie Mehretu, Takashi Murakami, Robert Rauschenberg, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Christopher Wool — would suggest otherwise.
Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life continues at the Broad (22 S Grand Avenue, Los Angeles) through October 2.