Under the Gaze: The Art of Cindy Sherman

Hal Foster

Critic and art historian Hal Foster looks back to 1970s New York, where he first encountered a generation of young artists engaging seriously with the images and effects of mass consumer culture. Amongst them, Cindy Sherman, whose iconographic self-portraits would come to reflect a fascination with how women are depicted in the visual language of film and advertising.

Sherman’s art, influenced by feminism, explores what it means to be under the – sometimes dangerous – gaze of others, but also of oneself. For Sherman, identity is a construction and a performance. Foster argues that in creating these multiple identities in her pictures, Sherman reveals the eternal human impulse to transform the actual body into the desired image. In doing so, she presaged the selfie culture of our times.

1 comment on “Under the Gaze: The Art of Cindy Sherman

  1. What does Foster mean by saying “that was in a way a downtime for Artforum” ?
    And also what does he mean by saying “There wasn’t much of an art world at that moment” ?
    Artforum seems to go on well with its volumes in 1977 and 1978.
    I thought that, in 1970’s, art-world in NY was actually thriving!

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I went to New York in 1977-1978, right out of college, and began to write just because I was arrogant enough to think that I could, for Artforum. I mean, that was in a way a downtime for Artforum. There wasn’t much of an art world at that moment, but by 1980, or 1981, I was editor at Art in America with Craig Owens, and that’s really when I began to write a lot about the people I had come to know. And to look back to think about a central work that Cindy Sherman made was to think about how she would place these figures that she would concoct.

Early on people thought that the Untitled Film Stills really were drawn from films; they were not. They seem to allude to B-films but that like a crazy iconographic impulse to see if they can be tracked down. But she was drawn to particular kinds of films where women, young women in particular, were under threat, under the gaze. And that is where her work started. But just as an overview let me read a bit from Return of the Real, which came out in 1996.

“In the early work of 1975-1982, from the Film Stills through the Rear Projections to the Centrefolds and the Colour Tests, Sherman evokes the subject under the gaze, the subject as picture, which is also the principle sight of other feminist work and early appropriation art.

Her subjects see, of course, but they are much more often seen, captured by the gaze. Often in the Film Stills and the Centrefolds, this gaze seems to come from another subject – perhaps a man, usually a man – with whom the viewer may be implicated. Sometimes in the Rear Projections it seems to come from the spectacle of the world, as if the world had a gaze of its own and looked at her, looked at us. Often too, this gaze seems to come from within. Her Sherman shows her female subjects as self-surveyed, not in any intimacy with the self as in ‘I see myself seeing myself’, but in estrangement from the self. I am not who I imagine myself to be”.

People talk about the Pictures Generation but I think it was really a moment of convergence. It was too small to be a generation. A group of artists came from Buffalo, they went to school there and they were ambitious, they started a space – an exhibition space, a performance space – called Hallwalls, so they invited artists from New York up and eventually they moved to the city, in the mid-1970’s, more or less. But at the same time a group of artists trained in conceptual art at Cal Arts moved here from L.A, and then they all combined with artists who were already here, mostly women. Women informed by feminism.

They all fell in together downtown. It was a community, but it was also intense because already they’re concerned about who gets to be represented, who gets to be exhibited. ‘We’re young and ambitious in New York – get out of my way!’

The thing that brought them together was a desire to move on beyond the art that came before, whether it was performance or very dry conceptual work, that was certainly one imperative. The other imperative was to take on new media and mass culture, and engage with the ‘image world’, as we used to call it.

We were a generation that grew up on movies and T.V, that combined with the interest in Performance Art, I think the artists really wanted to see what they could make of forms that were in movement, how they might still them, how they might capture an image and reframe it, redeploy it.

So, in some ways, Pictures was about stealing pictures, but it was also about stilling, rendering motionless, performance. Whether that performance was actual performance art or movies or even television. And why steal, why still, why slow down? These artists wanted to understand the effects of these mass cultural images, we used to talk about the relation, the ratio, between critique and complicity all the time. And some of us felt that the only way to be truly critical was to get in the inside of these images, and the line between what people made or what they did, how they lived, it blurred. I mean, Cindy Sherman would dress up and go out. Eventually she saw that this was her practice, I mean, this was her art.

Untitled Film Still # 2 is one of my favourites. In this image, a young woman, just wrapped in a bathrobe, gazes at her reflection in a bathroom mirror. She seems to have a wig, she seems to look at her own image with this desire, this will, to make that image as pretty as possible. To project a beauty onto the image that might not be there. That’s where I see this gap between the actual body and the desired image – Freud would call it the ‘ego ideal’, this idea that we carry around this image that we’re all still young and cute. Like, I’m fifteen and I still have hair, can still shoot an awesome jump-shot. We never get over that ego ideal I think, and that’s just part of what it’s like to be human – the problem is I think, that’s where so much of culture industry, so much of advertising, so much of mass culture, that’s where it sets up shop. It plays on that desire and manipulates that desire.

And Cindy right away announces with this photograph that that’s the space of her performance, that’s the world of her picture that she wants to explore, the gap between the actual and the desired, the actual and the imagined. I’m not sure we would really know what a selfie is in the same way without Cindy, and this is apart from the enormous influence she’s had on younger artists. She’s allowed for a different understanding of what a self-portrait is. God knows how conscious it is, but I do think that people who take selfies by and large have a sense that it’s a play in part, they might be dismayed that it’s not a true self, but I think – you know, this might be to give her almost too much credit, but I think she has helped people understand identity is a construction, subjectivity is a performance. You can stretch it, you can change it; maybe less than people want to think. But I can’t think of another artist who’s really had that double effect, both on advanced art, in her own world, but in the social world at large.

 

With thanks to…

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

 

Full list of images shown

Untitled Film Still #48

Cindy Sherman, 1979

Gelatin silver print

8 x 10 inches

20.3 x 25.4 cm

(MP# CS—48)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled Film Still #55

Cindy Sherman, 1980

Gelatin silver print

8 x 10 inches

(MP# CS—55)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled Film Still #14

Cindy Sherman, 1978

Gelatin silver print

10 x 8 inches

(MP# CS—14)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled Film Still #58

Cindy Sherman, 1980

Gelatin silver print

8 x 10 inches

(MP# CS—58)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Return of the Real (front cover)

Hal Foster, 1996

Pub. MIT Press

 

Untitled Film Still #25

Cindy Sherman, 1978

Gelatin silver print

8 x 10 inches

20.3 x 25.4 cm

(MP# CS—25)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled Film Still #21

Cindy Sherman, 1978

Gelatin silver print

8 x 10 inches

20.3 x 25.4 cm

(MP# CS—21)

 

Invitation for Pictures

Artists Space, 1977

 

Opening reception for Pictures

Artists Space, September 23, 1977

Robert Longo (far right)

Artwork: Robert Longo

 

Opening reception for Pictures

Artists Space, September 23, 1977

Sherrie Levine (left); Irving Sandler (right)

 

Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Jack Goldstein, 1975

 

Untitled (Cowboy)

Richard Prince, 1989

 

Untitled (Your body is a battleground)

Barbara Kruger, 1989

 

Still from Sound Distance of a Good Man

Dir. Robert Longo, 1970

 

Untitled #377

Cindy Sherman, 1976/2000

Gelatin silver print

7 3/16 x 5 inches

(MP# CS—377)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled #373

Cindy Sherman, 1976/2000

Gelatin silver print

7 3/16 x 5 inches

(MP# CS—373)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled #369

Cindy Sherman, 1976/2000

Gelatin silver print

7 3/16 x 5 inches

(MP# CS—369)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

Untitled Film Still #2

Cindy Sherman, 1977

Gelatin silver print

10 x 8 inches

25.4 x 20.3 cm

(MP# CS—2)

Courtesy of Metro Pictures

 

To professional makeup artists everywhere: I can now proudly say I am one of you.

Instagram post

Cindy Sherman, October 4, 2017

@cindysherman

 

Ready for fashion week’

Instagram post

Cindy Sherman, February 6, 2018

@cindysherman

 

Cindy Sherman

Roxana Marrquin, 2008

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