People are often amazed that someone as “nice” as Cindy Sherman could be a major artist. By nice, I mean friendly; modest, warm, considerate, and even-tempered—qualities that we do not usually associate with artistic ego, and which might seem antithetical to the disturbing and phenomenally influential work that this artist has produced over the last twenty-three years. Since the early nineteen-eighties, when her now famous series of “Untitled Film Stills” caught the art world’s attention, Sherman’s photography-based art has presented us with deformed, disfigured, or demented people; still-lifes of spilled food and vomit; wicked parodies of Old Master paintings; grotesque, part-human monsters; medical mannequins arranged in pornographic poses; and, more recently, hideously distorted masks and mutilated dolls. These and other manifestations of Sherman’s singular talent have brought her virtually universal praise. Her name figured prominently on most end-of-the-millennium lists of the century’s leading artists. (ARTnews placed her, along with Jasper Johns and Bruce Naumann, among the top ten now living.) One of the “Untitled Film Stills,” which originally sold for fifty dollars apiece, brought two hundred thousand five hundred dollars at Christie’s last spring, and the photographs in her current show, which opened at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles in March, were all sold before the opening, at thirty thousand dollars each. None of this seems to have left a dent in Sherman’s unassuming, unpretentious personality, or kept her from being the nicest girl on any block.
All right, she’s forty-six, well past girlhood, but the fact is that both men and women tend to see her this way. “Cindy is such a girl,” her old friend Brooke Alderson said recently. “When we talk, it’s usually about something like finding the right lipstick at Kmart.” A more recent acquaintance, Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, who has been interviewing Sherman for his public-access TV show “galleryBeat,” sees her as “a girl, like grrr-l.” He says, “She doesn’t have an ‘attitude.’ But I don’t know anybody who kicks ass the way Cindy does in her art.” When I asked Sherman about the violent images in her most recent New York show—the scarred and mutilated dolls—she agreed that they were pretty violent, and went on to say that, “as everybody knows,” she had recently gone through a painful divorce, and there was probably some anger being acted out in them. Nobody ever sees that anger acted out anywhere else. She could be a poster girl for T. S. Eliot’s dictum that the more perfect the artist, the greater the separation between the individual who suffers and the mind that creates.
Sherman was married for nearly fifteen years to the French-born video artist Michel Auder, who is ten years older than she is but not nearly as well known. She dealt with the strains that her growing fame placed on their marriage by shunning the spotlight, so rigorously that her New York dealers (and friends) Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring, whose gallery, Metro Pictures, has represented her since the start of her career, assumed that she took no pleasure in the trappings of her success. “I really had thought she didn’t enjoy it, and that she chose to lead this incredibly quiet life away from the art world,” Reiring told me. “But it wasn’t that at all. It’s amazing how she’s been able to change her life around.” She goes out more, to dinners and art-world openings. She’s found a house in Sag Harbor to supplement her SoHo loft. She keeps in shape by kickboxing at a gym twice a week, and she has even been linked romantically, if briefly, with Steve Martin, who escorted her to the Venice Biennale last May and to the opening of the “Sensation” show last October. Experiencing celebrity on Martin’s level was “a little scary” to Sherman, who is rarely recognized in public. They have remained friends, and Martin was the co-host (with Larry Gagosian) of a dinner for her at Mr. Chow’s, in Beverly Hills, after her opening.
For the Gagosian show, Sherman reverted to a device she had often used in the past: taking her own face and body as jumping-off points for large-scale photographs of fictional characters. There were twelve of them this time, and in Sherman’s mind they were all Hollywood types, women who had some connection, however peripheral, with the film industry. A big, busty, too blond number in a white dress, sporting an extreme (obviously fake) diamond ring and turquoise eye shadow, put me in mind of Linda Tripp until Sherman described her to me as “some collector’s wife, maybe, or a mogul’s wife.” (First wife, that is.) Another, even more heavily made-up creature, with glitter in her flyaway blond wig, was “an ex-bit player, who’s still thinking about the Hollywood life style.” There were former Valley Girls who had spent too much time in the sun; a New Age guru with long silver-blue fingernails, Indian beads, and a serene half smile; and a tattooed “biker chick,” as Cindy referred to her, who had “started out looking closer to Cher, but then I sort of roughened her around the edges.” It was a little odd, walking around the empty gallery with the artist—this was the day before the opening, when the show had just been installed—looking at portraits for which she had posed but in which she was not present. Sherman herself is slim, casual, and unaggressive. Her hair these days is short and blond. (It changes color periodically.) Her makeup is minimal. At the gallery that morning, she had on jeans and a red-and-white T-shirt, but she informed me that she had bought a dark-blue Prada dress for the opening, and had just had her nails done at Frédéric Fekkai, courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery. Her rental car was a red Jaguar—Hertz was offering a special on it, she said, giggling. In her relaxed, low-key way, Sherman is great fun to be around. This is not something that could be said of the women whose pictures lined the walls.
At the opening the next night, which was hugely crowded, a woman in a fur stole asked me what I thought of the pictures. I mumbled something, which neither of us could hear above the din. “I’ve been looking at her work for a long time,” the woman said, in a firm and measured tone, “and these are the most disturbing things I’ve seen yet. There is no empathy in them, none at all. Every woman I’ve talked to here feels the same way.” I asked if she meant that the pictures were cruel, and she said yes, emphatically. I could see her point. Several of Sherman’s Hollywood types projected a kind of desperation that went beyond parody. They weren’t losers, exactly, but you couldn’t help seeing how hard they worked to hang on to things—youth, glamour, hope. Although the women might appear shallow, with their silicone implants and their gaudy makeup, their stories ran deep, and this, of course, is what has made Sherman’s work so powerful and so influential. She reclaimed the oldest trick in the book, storytelling, and gave it new life in visual art. An amazing number of younger artists have followed her lead; the galleries are full of what has come to be called setup photography, in which complex and often highly enigmatic scenarios are plotted, constructed, and photographed, and much of the newer painting and sculpture on view these days has a strong narrative content. Nobody’s stories, however, are more gripping than Sherman’s, or more merciless. Although her Hollywood portraits didn’t strike me as cruel, I had the sense, whenever I glimpsed one of their real-life counterparts circulating in the opening-night crowd, that to some people they could be very upsetting.
At the dinner immediately following, in Mr. Chow’s dynastic, Art Deco palace, I never even saw Sherman. She had disappeared in the cloud of stars and potentates: Robin Williams, Jacqueline Bisset, David Hockney, LL Cool J, Chloë Sevigny, Cheryl Tiegs, Ahmet Ertegun, Eli Broad, Mike Leigh, Elle Macpherson, among many others. Several people I talked with, including Steve Martin, thought it was interesting that Sherman had come full circle, so to speak, with photographs that had to do, in one way or another, with the movie business. Sherman herself once talked to an interviewer about the stereotype of a girl who dreams all her life of being a movie star, and either succeeds or fails. “I was more interested in the types of characters that fail,” she had said. And now here she was, a star in her own right, celebrated yet virtually anonymous. Dinner guests who didn’t know her kept asking which one was Cindy.
She left town two days later, a few hours before the Academy Awards ceremony. “I was just as happy not to go to that,” she told me. “It would have seemed a little pretentious—and I was pretty stressed out from the opening.”
Growing up in suburban Long Island, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Cindy Sherman watched a lot of movies on television. “Million Dollar Movie” played the same film five nights running, and she’d watch all five showings. She watched horror films, and classics, and occasionally an art film on PBS; she vividly remembers seeing Chris Marker’s “La Jetée,” a post-nuclear-holocaust story done almost entirely in still images and voice-over. Cindy was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, but when she was three her family moved to Huntington Beach, Long Island, where her father worked as an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught in the public schools. She had what she remembers as a normal, happy childhood. “The summers were great,” she told me. “We could just take a towel and walk to the beach, ten minutes away down a wind-ey little road.” Cindy—her given name was Cynthia, but nobody called her that—was the youngest of five children, two of whom had grown up and moved out by the time she came along. (She was nineteen years younger than Bob, the eldest.) Her brothers and her sister remember that Cindy spent a lot of time alone in her room, and that she loved to play dress-up. She had a trunk full of old clothes, some of them inherited from her grandmother, with which she could transform herself into a little old lady or a witch or a monster; she never seemed to want to be a ballerina or a glamour girl. Cindy didn’t have a problem with the way she looked out of costume; it was just that she really enjoyed becoming someone else. Because she was the baby of the family, she was probably spared some of the difficulties that the others had gone through with Charles Sherman, their father, whom they all seem to have disliked in varying degrees. Cindy once described her father to Peter Schjeldahl as a “creep,” an insensitive and self-absorbed man who “would criticize with hate.” Their mother, she added, “was always shielding him from the world and us from him.” Cindy’s brothers and sister went on to have families and productive lives, all except Frank, who committed suicide when he was twenty-seven. Frank, who never settled on a career, had moved back into his parents’ house while Cindy was still in school, and during the last year of his life the two of them were very close.
Another thing her siblings remember is that Cindy was always drawing. Even when she watched TV, she would be working on a school art project or making skillful likenesses of people or objects. She got her best grades in art, and, since her family couldn’t afford private-college tuition, she chose the State University College at Buffalo, whose art department offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Sherman entered college in the fall of 1972. She did very well in drawing and painting—she could copy anything with great precision—but the basic B.F.A. curriculum required her to take a photography course, and she flunked that, not having mastered the technical aspects. Obliged to take the course again as a sophomore, she had a different instructor, a young woman named Barbara Jo Revelle, one of the few teachers there who were aware of conceptual art and other contemporary trends. “She felt that to have an idea was what mattered,” Sherman recalls, “and right away that made so much more sense to me.” Sherman had recently met Robert Longo, a charismatic older student who knew a lot about modern and contemporary art. On one of their first dates, he took her to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a first-rate museum right across the street from the college, which she had never thought to visit on her own.
In the spring of her sophomore year, Sherman was living off campus with Longo, and worrying herself silly about her photography class’s upcoming field trip. “Barbara Jo’s class had a history of going out every spring to a local waterfall—not Niagara, just some idyllic spot—to get naked and take pictures,” she said. “Me being the prude I was, and still am, I dreaded that so much! So I decided to confront the idea. I took a picture of myself just standing in a room of the apartment I shared with Robert, stark naked, like a deer in the headlights. After that, I did more pictures using my body; distorting it by weird angles. I guess that was the beginning of using myself.” She passed the course this time, and soon afterward decided to change her major from painting to photography. Her adviser said she didn’t seem very committed to either, and had her switched from a B.F.A.- to a regular B.A.-degree program.
Robert Longo graduated from Buffalo State in 1974, but he stayed on and, with his friend Charles Clough, started Hallwalls, a nonprofit exhibition space in a former Buffalo ice-making plant. (It was modelled on Artists Space in New York, and other “alternative” galleries that were springing up in the early seventies.) Longo and Clough wangled grant funds to renovate the premises, and they invited artists whose work they admired to come and lecture or lead workshops; in the first year, visitors included Robert Irwin, Jonathan Borofsky, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden. As Longo’s girlfriend, Sherman struck Clough and the other artists and students who hung out at Hallwalls as a quiet, background presence but a presence nonetheless. Now and then, for exhibition openings or parties, she would turn up as someone else—Lucille Ball, on one memorable occasion, or a pregnant housewife, decked out in one of the clunky outfits she was always picking up at local thrift shops. She never tried to act out the character she had become, or to call attention to herself; it was just the same quiet Cindy, playing dress-up. Eventually, encouraged by Longo, she began to photograph some of these people she could turn herself into. Linda Cathcart, a newly appointed curator at the Albright-Knox, put a fold-out book of her photographs—a series of head shots in which she transformed herself using makeup—in a regional group show there in 1975, along with work by Longo, Clough, and other Hallwalls artists. “The more Cindy’s work accessed Cindy, the more it grew,” Longo recalls. “Cindy’s work was growing a lot faster than mine.”
Sherman graduated that year and would have been happy to stay in Buffalo indefinitely, even though most of her artist friends said she should be in New York. The city scared her—as a kid, growing up less than an hour away, she almost never went there. Then, in 1977, she won a three-thousand-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Longo had just been selected as one of five artists in an important show at Artists Space, and he decided it was time they made the break. “I’ve got the show,” he said, “and you’ve got the money.”
They moved that summer, subletting a loft on Fulton Street from the artist Troy Brauntuch. “Cindy had a real hard time for the first few months,” Longo recalls. “She’d get dressed and put on her makeup, and then never leave the apartment.” She was hired for an entry-level buyer’s job at Macy’s, but she quit after one day. Helene Winer came to the rescue at that point, by making her the receptionist at Artists Space. As the director there, Winer had visited Hallwalls, met Longo and Sherman and the others, and shown their work in New York. “I wanted Artists Space to be a place where artists felt comfortable, and right from the start everybody adored Cindy,” she told me. Sherman worked there from 1977 to 1981. And there, too, she occasionally came to work as someone else—a nurse in a white uniform, a fifties secretary-type—and everyone found that weird and funny, but she stopped doing it because, she said, she was afraid of losing her street identity, “which you really need in New York.” One day in 1978, she brought in some eight-by-ten black-and-white photographs. It was the first work she had been able to do since leaving Buffalo, and it struck Winer and others as original and very exciting.
“Untitled Film Still #7” (1978). A young woman in a white slip and white stockings stands in the open doorway of a cheap motel. She faces us directly, bending forward at the waist, holding a full Martini glass by the rim as, with her left arm, she pushes back the curtains. Oversized dark glasses shield her eyes from the harsh sunlight raking one bare shoulder. Another woman (Sherman’s friend Nancy Dwyer) sits in the sun to the left of the door, her face hidden by a straw hat. Vegas showgirls getting it together after a hard night? A scene from an early Hitchcock film, which we can almost, but not quite, place? Like real film stills, which are not frames from a movie but working photographs, designed to tout a product on billboards or in ads, Sherman’s tell stories that viewers can read in different ways. “I wanted them to seem cheap and trashy, something you’d find in a novelty store and buy for a quarter,” she told me. “I didn’t want them to look like art.”
There are sixty-nine in all, sixty-nine single-image dramas in which Sherman plays all the roles: primly dressed office worker, small-town librarian, jilted lover, bimbo, film-noir heroine, suburban high schooler, angry housewife (scowling over a broken bag of groceries). The sheer range of self-transformation is astonishing. Using only makeup, wigs, clothing, and a few props, she makes herself look vulnerable, sexy, gauche, put-together, a total mess, plump, slender, tough, childlike, worn—every kind of woman except Cindy Sherman. You could study the pictures for an hour and then fail to recognize her on the street. Some of the characters are loosely based on actresses in specific films (Sophia Loren in “Two Women”; Monica Vitti in “L’Avventura”), but the details are made up, and viewers who tell Sherman they “remember” the scene that is being re-created are remembering wrong. One reason the pictures are so compelling is that Sherman never seems to be acting in them—she projects the character through subtle, understated relationships between her expression, her clothes, the background, the lighting, and a general atmosphere unique to each image. She took many of them herself, using an extended shutter release; for others, she set up the scene and got Longo or someone else to snap it. Her father, who was retired and living in Arizona, took the most famous one, which shows her as a blond waif in a plaid skirt and white socks, standing with her cheap suitcase on a country road at dusk, waiting for—what? Sherman says she imagined the character waiting for a bus, but the picture’s unofficial title, conferred by others, is “The Hitchhiker,” which carries a frisson of anxiety about who or what will appear around that darkening curve in the road. Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” are now considered to be one of the landmarks of late-twentieth-century art. Ten prints were made of each image, and most of them have been sold at least once; the Museum of Modern Art has the only complete set, purchased in 1996, for a price believed to be in excess of a million dollars. According to Peter Galassi, the chief curator of moma’s photography department, they are the work of “a very young artist who, following her own nose, figured out something that worked for her, and that resonated with all kinds of concerns and passions that were outside her.”
Her timing was perfect. In the early eighties, after a decade of relative quiescence in contemporary art, new energies were heating up the scene. Neo-expressionism, which emerged more or less simultaneously in Germany, Italy, and New York, unleashed a wave of large-scale, semi-figurative painting and sculpture, along with the operatic egos of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and other local practitioners. The appropriationists, meanwhile, were undermining the whole concept of artistic originality with deadpan re-creations of older art. Another trend had been identified in a 1977 show at Artists Space called “Pictures”—the show that made Robert Longo decide to move to New York. Longo, Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch, and the other “Pictures” artists all worked with photographs or photo-based imagery that reflected the media-saturated environment they had grown up with—television, movies, advertising, rock music. Although Sherman was not in the show, her “Untitled Film Stills,” some of which were displayed at Artists Space in 1978, in the first of a widening gyre of exhibitions which continues to this day, established her firmly within that group, and when Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring (who had worked for the Castelli Gallery) set up Metro Pictures, in 1980, to showcase the media-oriented newcomers, their core artists were Longo, Goldstein, and Sherman. What set Sherman’s work off from the others’ was its performance element. As a student in Buffalo, she had admired the work of Eleanor Antin and other performance artists, whose one-person scenarios were often documented in photographs or videos. Although Sherman felt no inclination to perform in public, she had found, in the film stills, a way to use her gifts as a unique and endlessly inventive actress.
She spent the next year teaching herself how to work in color, and on a larger scale. In her first solo show, at Metro Pictures in 1980, Sherman presented a new series of female characters, posed against outdoor backgrounds that she had photographed and then projected onto a screen in her studio. Sherman and Longo had broken up a year earlier, quite amicably—they remained and still are close friends—and she was enjoying a new sense of independence. She wanted to work in the studio alone—no more depending on others to snap the shutter—and she learned, through trial and error, how to make photography do what she wanted, which was to create characters and tell stories. She was using the camera, as one critic observed, “for an end result that didn’t necessarily have very much to do with the camera.”
Her next series, after the rear-screen projections, was the result of a 1981 commission from Artforum’s editor-in-chief, Ingrid Sischy, who frequently invited artists to do special projects for the magazine. The format—two facing pages—led Sherman to think about the “centerfold” photographs in Playboy and other men’s magazines. She came up with several large images, two feet high by four feet wide, showing clothed women in supine or semi-supine positions. The pictures never ran. Sherman remembers Sischy being worried that they might be “misunderstood” by militant feminists. As Sischy explained to me, she thought the pictures, appearing first in a magazine, would look “a little too close” to the pinups in men’s magazines, and that the irony in Sherman’s approach would be unclear. (It was the only time Sischy ever rejected an art work she had commissioned for Artforum; three years later, she commissioned and published another Sherman photograph, and she has been a strong advocate of the work ever since.) At any rate, Sherman wanted to continue with the horizontal format, and she went on to make a series of “Centerfold” photographs that caused a stir when Metro Pictures showed them, later in 1981. With their highly sophisticated color, life-size figures, and a sense of incipient drama, her new prints had the power and authority of oil paintings. They were, moreover, misunderstood by a number of politically minded art students (male and female), who accused Sherman of undermining the feminist cause by depicting females in “vulnerable” poses.
“I was definitely trying to provoke in those pictures,” Sherman told me one day as we were leafing through a catalogue of her work. “But it was more about provoking men into reassessing their assumptions when they look at pictures of women. I was thinking about vulnerability in a way that would make a male viewer feel uncomfortable—like seeing your daughter in a vulnerable state. But the horizontal format was a problem. Filling that space meant using some kind of prone figure, and that made it seem to some people that I was glorifying victims, or something. This one in particular”—she stopped at an image of a girl lying in bed, black sheet pulled up to her chin, her damp features and tangled blond hair inundated by harsh daylight. “My idea when I shot it was that this is someone with a hangover, waking up to the sun and thinking, Oh, God, what time did I go to bed? It wasn’t anything at all about rape, although that’s how it’s been described. I realized later on that I have to accept that there will be this range of interpretations that I can’t control, and don’t want to control, because that’s what makes it interesting to me. But at the time I was sort of disturbed that people could so misinterpret my intentions, and I guess that’s why I tried to clarify them in the next series.”
The so-called “Pink Robes,” which came next, are four vertical images of a young woman (Sherman, of course, in nothing but a pink chenille bathrobe) sitting and glaring straight into the lens. Sans wig, sans visible makeup, she still manages, by means of facial expression and lighting, to look nothing like her real self. Sherman envisaged a centerfold model resting between shots, and “pretty annoyed that this is her lot in life.” After that, she went on to do vertical portraits of other characters, including some who are either androgynous or male and don’t look vulnerable at all.
One reason Sherman identifies all her photographs by number, rather than giving them titles, is that she wants whatever is going on in them to remain somewhat ambiguous. This didn’t prevent radical feminists from claiming her as their anointed vessel. Scores of articles in academic journals used the “Untitled Film Stills” to illustrate studies of gender, identity, and the dehumanizing male gaze. This was O.K. with Sherman, although she admitted that she never read the articles, and said once that she had never heard of the male gaze. (“It is necessary to fly in the face of Sherman’s own expressly non-, even anti-, theoretical stance,” one leading feminist concluded.) Sherman shared the feminists’ goals, all right, but it wasn’t in her nature to be a militant. She was bored by art talk, especially when it bogged down in political issues. Her idea of a good time was to go dancing with friends; the first thing the choreographer Bill T. Jones noticed about her, when they met and became friendly, in the mid-eighties, was that she was a terrific dancer.
Sherman’s breakthrough year was 1982. The “Centerfolds” show at Metro Pictures brought invitations for her to exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam, and at the important Documenta 7, in Germany. She was in the Whitney Biennial in the spring of 1983, and on the cover of ARTnews that September. Success made her uneasy. “I was feeling guilty about being accepted as an artist, especially since some of my friends weren’t getting the attention I was,” she recalls. (One of those friends was Richard Prince, a Metro Pictures artist whom she lived with for a year or so; they broke up in 1982.) The actor and writer Eric Bogosian, who had become a close friend, remembers a Sherman opening at which he sensed enormous discomfort on her part. “She didn’t know what to do with all the attention she was getting,” Bogosian said. “And then later she kind of digested that and moved on, went back to being a new form of Cindy the way she always was.”
Her reaction to success was to make tougher and more provocative work. Two commissions from fashion designers, for photographs in Sherman’s storytelling manner, produced a run of images that progressed from hilarious sendups of the clothes to pictures of ugly women with fake scar tissue and angry or homicidal expressions. The “fairy tales,” which came next, featured even more nightmarish scenes: a pig-snouted woman lying in muck; a drowned girl; a turbaned, kneeling houri with huge fake breasts and horribly grinning false teeth. (Many of the props came from Gordon Novelty, a gold mine of tricks and disguises that Sherman had discovered on Broadway.) She worked in sustained bursts of energy, spending long days in the studio until she had completed a series of images, and then making no new pictures for several months, or longer. Her dealers marvelled at her apparent lack of ego. “I don’t think her ambition is clear to this day,” Helene Winer said last spring. “I know it’s there, because it couldn’t not be. But she never even knew or cared who the important critics and collectors were. I couldn’t think of another artist with comparable innocence or disinterest.” There is one slight problem in representing Sherman, according to Janelle Reiring: “It’s very hard to get her to say what she wants. She doesn’t like to ask for anything.”
In truth, Sherman went through a period of feeling quite negative about the overheated eighties art world, with its opportunists, and what she called its “nouveau, flavor-of-the-month collectors,” who bought whatever their art consultants told them to buy, and its male art stars, like Julian Schnabel, whose big, macho paintings were selling for as much as ninety thousand dollars at auction in the early eighties, while her photographs, which were issued in editions of ten, brought only a thousand dollars apiece. From the start, Sherman’s gallery had presented her as an artist, rather than as a photographer. Some collectors, including Charles Saatchi and Eli Broad, had been quick to recognize this, to see her as a major talent who used the camera for work that was not in essence photographic, but for others it was hard to see beyond her medium. The photography world did not recognize her at all—understandably, since her pictures, though technically sound, had nothing to do with the traditional concerns of documentary or fine-art photographs. When Sherman’s pictures first started coming up at auction, in the mid-eighties, they were put into the photography sales, and they did rather poorly; later, Sotheby’s and Christie’s began putting them in their contemporary-art auctions, where they did very well.
“Everybody knows Cindy as this incredibly sweet person, but she also has a great edge and anger to her, which comes out in the work,” Robert Longo said recently. “At one point in the eighties, I think she got pretty angry about Schnabel and Salle and me, and she made some really nasty work, great work. It was like she was saying, ‘Well, fuck you.’ ” The “Disaster” series, as this work has come to be called, occupied her from 1987 to 1989, and included some amazingly revolting images concocted from fake body parts, spilled and rotting food, and anatomically rearranged dolls. In some of them, for the first time, Sherman herself is not present, or is present only minimally, as in a large-scale closeup of food and vomit, in which her horror-stricken features are reflected in a pair of sunglasses. Seen from a distance, some of these pictures are remarkably beautiful, their details unreadable in the mass of glowing colors and subtly modulated light and shadow. This was intentional. “I wanted something visually offensive but seductive, beautiful, and textural as well, to suck you in and then repulse you,” she told one interviewer. She has nothing against beauty. “What I’m against,” she explained to me, “is how your mind is fucked with about what you should be, instead of what you are. Most models in fashion magazines are repulsive to me. The few times I’ve seen models up close, live, they seemed as freakish as someone with a third eye. The tiny head and long, skinny body, and perfectly symmetrical features just looked bizarre.” Her increasing fascination with grotesque and ugly images, she said, had “definitely evolved out of the work I was producing,” but there was another side to it as well: “The fake blood and false noses and stuff like that were fun for me to use. I saw really interesting things in what other people call ugly. Besides, I find gross things funny.” It was the kind of fun she’d had as a child, when she’d make herself look as horrible as possible on Halloween.
Success on a truly embarrassing scale arrived with Sherman’s 1989 show of “history portraits,” at Metro Pictures. By then, she had pretty much “worked out the guilt,” as she put it, and much of the anger as well. After being mostly absent from her photographs for several years, she went back to using herself in this series, costumed in what appear to be the silks and furs and velvets and elaborate hairpieces of Renaissance courtesans and madonnas, Biblical heroines, and haughty, Old World aristocrats, both male and female. The costumes are constructed from thrift-shop remnants, and the grandees are all somewhat off, with false noses or pendulous breasts, but they are also weirdly convincing. (A bejewelled virgo lactans, squirting a jet of milk from one of Gordon’s trick titties, has the lush physical presence of a Veronese.) Although Sherman worked on this series while she and Michel Auder, whom she had married in 1984, were spending three months in Rome, most of the poses were suggested by reproductions in art books, and very few duplicate actual paintings. When Metro Pictures showed them in 1989, priced from fifteen thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars, in ornate, Old Master frames that Sherman had chosen to set off their bravura scale and sumptuous colors, it was one of those killer art-world events—rave reviews, tremendous word of mouth, every available print sold. Naturally, Sherman felt guilty about that—all the more so because the series had been such fun to do. Anyone who knew her could have predicted that more punishing visions lay ahead.
“Cindy, for God’s sake!” Cindy and my wife and I are sitting at a long refectory table in Sherman’s SoHo living room, looking at a catalogue reproduction of one of her 1992 “Sex Pictures.” This one shows a recumbent figure whose dissociated elements are a granny fright mask and wig, artificial arms bent at the elbow, a fake rubber torso (nude), and a detached groin in which an oversized red sponge-rubber vagina harbors a string of bratwursts. Sherman, as always, is cool and unflustered. She strokes Frieda, her green macaw, who perches on her shoulder throughout the interview, interrupting us now and then with piercing shrieks. (Sherman has had a bird ever since her college days, when someone gave her a dove. Nancy Dwyer, whom Sherman roomed with for a while after breaking up with Robert Longo, recalls being a little unnerved at seeing the dove, which had gone blind, pecking bits of egg from Cindy’s lips at the breakfast table.) But the “Sex Pictures”? “I’d been wanting to do some sexually explicit pictures, with real nudity, but I wasn’t interested in being nude myself,” Sherman explains, in her matter-of-fact way. “And then I found this catalogue you could get, of medical things, to teach medical students about different bodily functions.”
Sherman ordered a number of mannequins from the catalogue, altered and dismembered them, combined them with props from her vast inventory, and photographed them in combinations that make sex look about as appetizing as the bubonic plague. Her sex pictures were in some sense a response to the political storms over “pornography” in art (Jesse Helms versus Robert Mapplethorpe, et al.), and also to Jeff Koons’s copulation images, which she had greatly disliked. (She found them puerile and sensationalistic.) The guardians of public virtue never turned a hair over Sherman’s images, which have been widely exhibited, and which strike me as far more confrontational than anything produced by Mapplethorpe or Koons. In a gruesome way, they are also extremely funny. The series was not nearly as popular as the history portraits, though, which came as a relief to Sherman.
Honors rained down on her nonetheless: a Whitney Museum retrospective in 1987; a second major retrospective, organized in 1998 by the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles, which travelled to six other museums; steadily rising prices; a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; a Vesuvius of critical articles and catalogues and monographs, so many by now that a graduate student could specialize in Sherman Studies. With each new show, it seemed, Sherman challenged herself and pushed her talent to a new level. She kept surprising the critics, many of whom reacted to her work with helpless admiration. They, and many artists, agreed that she had put photography, for the first time, on the same plane as painting and sculpture. Peter Galassi, who took over as chairman of moma’s photography department in 1991, is unequivocal in assessing her impact: “The rhetoric of the postmodernist revolution has turned out to be a good deal less persuasive than it first seemed to many people,” he said last week, “whereas Sherman’s work only seems more and more persuasive.”
The more famous Sherman became, the more she withdrew from the art world. She avoided interviews, refused invitations from the David Letterman and the Charlie Rose shows, stopped going to parties and openings. She spent a lot of time at a house that she and Auder had bought in Stephentown, New York, in the Hudson River highlands. She cooked (beautifully of course); she patronized the local antique shops; she made imaginative Christmas gifts for friends. Auder is an expert skier, so she became one, too. He had a daughter and a stepdaughter from his previous marriage to Viva, Andy Warhol’s former superstar. Unable to have a child of her own, Sherman grew very close to her stepdaughters, whom she has continued to see since she and Auder were divorced; they stay in her loft when they come to New York. “I thought about adopting a child,” Sherman said once, “but in talking to my husband it seemed like maybe it wasn’t a good idea.” According to Janelle Reiring, “She was really happy with Michel, and he was great about her success for a long time.” In the end, though, her success was too big, and the marriage foundered. “Cindy didn’t want it to end,” Helene Winer told me. “She went through a lot of therapy. But when she saw it really was over, she wanted it over that day. She’s still sad about it, but right now she’s the best I’ve ever seen her.”
The new Wes Craven slasher flick, “Scream 3,” is playing all over, and I arrange to see it with Sherman. She slides down in her seat like a teen-ager, knees pulled up, and giggles at the gory parts and the in-jokes, like the casting of Roger Corman in a bit part, and afterward she says it isn’t anywhere near as scary as Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which is one of her all-time favorites, along with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” She loves the adrenaline rush that she gets from even the worst of these films, and she also believes that they help fortify you for the horrible events that can invade your life at any moment. When the independent producer Christine Vachon came to a Sherman Christmas party in 1994 and said she would love to produce a low-budget horror film directed by Sherman, Sherman was immediately interested. The result, three years later, was “Office Killer,” which had a brief run at a few art houses in 1997. (It is currently available on video.) Miramax bought the rights, but sold them to another firm, which never got it into general release. One thing to be said about “Office Killer” is that the film, though written by someone else, could have been made only by Cindy Sherman. The protagonist is a clinically repressed copy editor (played by Carol Kane) who accidentally kills a male colleague, and then, not accidentally, dispatches several others and a couple of children selling Girl Scout cookies, and arranges the corpses in sociable groups in the basement of her house. Laurie Simmons, an artist who is one of Sherman’s best friends, says she literally can’t watch some scenes in the movie, such as the one where Kane, humming to herself, repairs the rotting chest cavity of her first victim with Scotch Tape. “I’ve never worked on a movie where I felt the director and I were both creating the character, and that she was as much a part of the character as I was,” Kane told me. “She even did my eyebrows every day.” As a director, Kane went on to say, Sherman was open to suggestions from everybody on the set. “She was definitely in control, but never needed to show her control. There was a lot of laughing involved, too. The gorier things got, the happier she was.” The film received bad reviews, and must be judged Sherman’s only non-success to date, but some people loved it. “I could not stop laughing,” Ingrid Sischy said. “It was my favorite movie of the year. It should have won an Academy Award.” Sherman would like to direct another film sometime, but only if she can write the screenplay.
Sherman does her work in a long, euphorically cluttered room that adjoins the living room in her loft. Built-in cedar closets and drawers line the walls on two sides, and every one is crammed with props: costumes and fabrics, wigs, fake body parts (one drawer for heads, another for hands), costume jewelry; cosmetics, toys and novelties, masks, fake ants and bugs—twenty years’ worth of insatiable collecting. At the far end, in front of a pull-down paper backdrop, is a hard wooden chair flanked by professional tungsten lights, facing a Nikon on a tripod and, just to the right of it, an adjustable, full-length mirror. For the portraits in her Gagosian show, Sherman sat in the chair and developed each of her characters through a thousand small changes of costume, makeup, lighting, and expression. “I’ll just sit there and ham it up,” as she once explained, “looking in the mirror to see what works.” She has no preconceived ideas of what she wants. The character emerges through the process. Sherman has described that process as “trancelike,” and it can take a very long time. “When it works, it’s really exciting,” she once explained. “There is a flash when you see somebody else.” When it works, there is a moment when “something else takes over” and the character comes to life, but even then she doesn’t know exactly what it’s going to look like on film. “My way of working is that I don’t know what I’m trying to say until it’s almost done.”
This is all hearsay, because only Sherman’s ex-husband and her cleaning lady have ever seen her at work here. She does everything herself—costumes, makeup, lights, camera, action. A young photographic artist named Susan Jennings works for her two days a week (in a separate office around the corner), doing paperwork and dealing with the outside world, but in twenty years Sherman has never used a studio assistant. Come to think of it, watching her work might be a little creepy. How many of us have actually observed an artist in the act of disappearing into art?
To her friends, there is something mysterious about Sherman. Nancy Dwyer, who has known her since they were students in Buffalo, told me that, even back then, “she had a detachment that made it so she didn’t have to engage in showing who she was. Detached but kind. Sometimes you felt as though you weren’t getting to know her.” Brooke Alderson says she has “the banality of a great actress.” Sherman is not nearly as bland as she can appear to be—there is an edge to her opinions, and no one has ever accused her of sentimentality. But she is terribly nice, to everyone (“It’s sickening,” she concedes), and how do you reconcile that with the anger and the violence and the horrific images that keep cropping up in her work? You don’t. With this artist, the work and the life connect in ways that are as surprising to her as they are to us.
At the moment, she is adding to the series of portraits she showed in Los Angeles. The new pictures will not necessarily refer to people there, but they will all come out of Sherman’s limitless ability to be someone else. “I’m at a point where when I feel like using myself I will, and when I don’t I won’t,” she said the other day. “As time goes by, and I get older, it’ll be interesting to see how I incorporate that into the work.” ♦
Mural of John Coltrane by graffitti artist Omen. Photo by Deeboy/Flickr
In December 1964, over a single evening session in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, John Coltrane and his quartet recorded the entirety of A Love Supreme. This jazz album is considered Coltrane’s masterpiece – the culmination of his spiritual awakening – and sold a million copies. What it represents is all too human: a climb out of addiction, a devotional quest, a paean to God.
Five decades later and 50 miles downstate, over 12 hours this April and fuelled by Monster energy drinks in a spare bedroom in Princeton, New Jersey, Ji-Sung Kim wrote an algorithm to teach a computer to teach itself to play jazz. Kim, a 20-year-old Princeton sophomore, was in a rush – he had a quiz the next morning. The resulting neural network project, called deepjazz, trended on GitHub, generated a buzz of excitement and skepticism from the Hacker News commentariat, got 100,000 listens on SoundCloud, and was big in Japan.
This half-century gulf, bracketed by saxophone brass and Python code, has seen a rise in computer-generated music and visual art of all methods and genres. Computer art in the era of big data and deep learning, though, is a reckoning for algorithms, capital-A. We must now embrace – either to wrestle or to caress – computer art.
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In industry, there is blunt-force algorithmic tension – ‘Efficiency, capitalism, commerce!’ versus ‘Robots are stealing our jobs!’ But for algorithmic art, the tension is subtler. Only 4 per cent of the work done in the United States economy requires ‘creativity at a median human level’, according to the consulting firm McKinsey and Company. So for computer art – which tries explicitly to zoom into this small piece of that vocational pie – it’s a question not of efficiency or equity, but of trust. Art requires emotional and phrenic investments, with the promised return of a shared slice of the human experience. When we view computer art, the pestering, creepy worry is: who’s on the other end of the line? Is it human? We might, then, worry that it’s not art at all.
Algorithms’ promise holds potent popular allure. A search for the word ‘algorithm’ in the webpages of the empirically minded site FiveThirtyEight (where I’m on staff) returns 516 results, as I write. I’m personally responsible for more than a few of those. In the age of big data, algorithms are meant to treat disease, predict the decisions of the Supreme Court, revolutionise sports and predict the beauty of sunsets. They will also, it’s said, prevent suicide, improve your arugula, predict police misconduct, and tell if a movie will bomb.
The more grandiose would-be applications of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) are often preceded by ostensibly more manageable proving grounds – games, say. Before IBM’s question-answering computer, Watson, treats cancer, for example, it goes on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Google’s AlphaGo took on a top human Go champion in a ‘grand challenge’ for AI. But these contests aren’t trivial stepping stones – they can be seen as affronts to humankind. One commentator, realising that Google’s program would win a match, said he ‘felt physically unwell’.
It’s much the same for computer art projects. Kim and his friend Evan Chow, whose code is used in deepjazz, are members of the youngest generation of a long lineage of computer ‘artists’. (These two aren’t exactly starving artists, though. This summer, Kim’s working at Merck, and Chow’s at Uber.) As the three of us sat in a high-backed wooden booth in Cafe Vivian, on the Princeton campus, actual, honest-to-God human jazz played over the speakers – Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s frenetic ‘Pedal Up’ (1973) – and as Kim played me samples generated by deepjazz from his laptop, we were awash in an unholy jazz + jazz = jazz moment.
‘The idea is pretty profound,’ Kim said, as I strained to decipher what was human in the cacophony. ‘You can use an AI to create art. That’s normally a process that we think of as immutably human.’ Kim agreed that deepjazz, and computer art, is often a proving ground, but he saw ends as well as means. ‘I’m not going to use the word “disruptive”,’ he said, then continued: ‘It’s crazy how AI could shape the music industry,’ imagining an app built on tech like deepjazz. ‘You hum a melody and the phone plays back your own custom, AI-generated song.’
Like a profitless startup, the value of many computer-art projects thus far is their perceived promise. The public deepjazz demo is limited, and improvises off just one song, ‘And Then I Knew’ (1995) by the Pat Metheny Group (Kim wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce ‘Metheny’). But the code is public, and it’s been tweaked to noodle the Friends theme song, for example.
Of course it’s not just jazz music, and not just deepjazz, that has gotten the computer treatment – jigs and folk songs, a ‘Genetic Jammer’, polyphonic music, and quite a bit else has been put through the algorithmic ringer.
Visual art, too, has been subjected to algorithms for decades now. Two engineers created this image – probably the first computer nude – at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, somewhere geographically between Coltrane and Kim, in 1966. The piece was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.
The New York Times reviewed one of the first exhibitions of computer art, in 1965 (just a few months after Coltrane’s recording session) featuring work by two scientists and an IBM #7094 digital computer, at a New York gallery, now long shuttered. ‘So far the means are of greater interest than the end,’ the Times wrote. But the review, by the late Stuart Preston, goes on to strike a surprisingly enthusiastic tone:
No matter what the future holds – and scientists predict a time when almost any kind of painting can be computer-generated – the actual touch of the artist will no longer play any part in the making of a work of art. When that day comes, the artist’s role will consist of mathematically formulating, by arranging an array of points in groups, a desired pattern. From then on, all will be entrusted to the deus ex machina. Freed from the tedium of technique and the mechanics of picture-making, the artist will simply ‘create’.
The machine is just the brush – a human holds it. There are, indeed, examples of computers helping musicians to simply ‘create’.
Emily Howell is a computer program. A 1990s creation of David Cope, now a professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz, ‘she’ was born out of Cope’s frustrating struggle to finish an opera of his own. (Howell’s compositions are performed by human musicians.)
This music is passable. It might even be good and, for me, is safely on the right bank of the uncanny valley. But another thing that makes it more interesting is the simple fact that it I know it was composed by a computer. I’m interested in that as a medium – an amplification of Cope’s artistic expression, rather than a sublimation. But the tension persists.
I’ve fallen down other rabbit holes, too: for one, the work of Manfred Mohr, an early algorithmic art pioneer who is himself a (human) jazz musician, as well as an artist. Namely his painting, P‑706/B (2000), based on a six-dimensional hypercube. I spent the next hour reading about Mohr, the man.
Courtesy Manfred Mohr
Sometimes in ‘computer music’ it’s also the other way around – humans name the tune, software dances to it. And in one of these cases, the market has spoken loudly. Vocaloids are singing synthesisers, developed by Yamaha, and anthropomorphised by the Japanese company Crypton. One popular Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku (the name translates to ‘the first sound from the future’), headlined a barn-burning North American tour this year, where Miku appeared as a hologram, drawing lines around the block for $75 tickets at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Miku is a huge pop star, but not a human. ‘She’ also appeared on the Late Show with DavidLetterman.
So it’s increasingly not just dorm-room hackers and cloistered academics pecking at computer art to show off their chops or get papers published. Last month, the Google Brain team announced Magenta, a project to use machine learning for exactly the purposes described here, and asked the question: ‘Can we use machine learning to create compelling art and music?’ (The answer is pretty clearly already ‘Yes,’ but there you go.) The project follows in the footsteps of Google’s Deep Dream Generator, which reimagines images in arty, dreamy (or nightmarish) ways, using neural networks.
But the honest-to-God truth, at the end of all of this, is that this whole notion is in some way a put-on: a distinction without a difference. ‘Computer art’ doesn’t really exist in an any more provocative sense than ‘paint art’ or ‘piano art’ does. The algorithmic software was written by a human, after all, using theories thought up by a human, using a computer built by a human, using specs written by a human, using materials gathered by a human, at a company staffed by humans, using tools built by a human, and so on. Computer art is human art – a subset rather than a distinction. It’s safe to release the tension.
A different human commentator, after witnessing the program beat the human champ at Go, felt physically fine and struck a different note: ‘An amazing result for technology. And a compliment to the incredible capabilities of the human brain.’ So it is with computer art. It’s a compliment to the human brain – and a complement to oil paints and saxophone brass.