The San Francisco Fall Season: Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

It was sweating hot on the first Tuesday of October. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, keep that phrase in mind. First Tuesday. Because it’s free at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). If you’re the type to get off on saving $18, go then. If you are, however, the type to hate the hordes, then avoid it.

I can understand both perspectives, so when I dropped in on SFMOMA see the blockbuster Cindy Sherman exhibition, I was glad to save the money, yet noticeably cranky because of the crowds. (Karma got me back the following day. At the de Young museum, an older gentleman actually gave me an ironic bow/apology combo, with a smirk on his face, when I asked him not to stand quite so up in my grill.)

SFMOMA is one of my very favorite museums in the US. Amazing place, with consistently interesting shows. I was excited to see Cindy Sherman’s show here, having missed it on earlier incarnations. (It’s now at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)

I’ve always been a fan of her early work, the “Untitled Film Stills.” It’s important, for the obvious reasons. (Feminism, Post-Modernism, Hollywoodism.) I’d never seen more than a handful at once, but they’re lovely. Together, those images pounce in a large 3 wall grid installation early on in the show. (It’s preceded by the earliest self-portraits, from 1975, which are electric and indicative of her continued style.)

Seeing the whole grid together, it’s clear that she’s genuinely acting. That’s what brings the vision through. She’s energetically invested in each photo, through varied landscapes. Ms. Sherman works the drama, and has the charisma of an of-that-moment-Suzanne Somers. (Yes, I just made that comparison.)
One photograph, taken at a train station in Flagstaff, gives off the Western vibe. In another, she has a crucifix in her cleavage. Classy.

The next room has color versions of the Film Stills, larger, mostly from the 80’s. Still strong. Upon closer examination, some of them, with more ornate, luxe costumes, are actually from 2007 and ’11. Despite the more expensive production values, the new ones are definitely not better than the old.

The “Centerfold” images are next, and still compelling. She’s working it, trying to squeeze the last of the “Film Still” style. From there, we walk along, and hit a big skidmark. (No future pun intended.)

The large scale color images adorning the walls of the subsequent room are offensive on every level. (Among those levels are quality and good taste.) The photos depict grotesqerie that makes Joel Peter-Witkin look slightly less alone in his crazy. A cut-off, limbless torso with a tampon in a vagina, and, also, a cock with a cock ring. There’s a photo of putrid rotting entrails, “Untitled #190″, that reminded me of the stomach contents of that fat guy who exploded in “The Meaning of Life.” (I couldn’t eat anover bite.)

So, so, so bad. What’s the point? I’m so rich and successful that I can get collectors to buy photos of rotting shit? Or was it, first, I gave them the surface version of femininity in America, so now I’ll follow with the extreme opposite: what it feels like to be objectified and relegated to second class status? Probably neither. But the pictures suck.

Then, the clowns. I had the privilege, or bad fortune to see these when they debuted at Metro Pictures. At the time, I thought they were horrifying, and the epitome of mailing it in. Once you’re famous enough, people will buy anything to get a piece of the investment action.

Here, they were creepier than in my memory. Again, bad. Bad, bad. Are they interesting for evoking revulsion? I suppose we’ll have to give her that.

At that point, I’d decided that Ms. Sherman was just one more major talent who got soft and rich and lost her edge. She’ll always have Flagstaff. And then, walking into the final rooms of the exhibition, I was surprised. (You know I like to be surprised.)

Those last few galleries were redemptive. Praise Jesus. And to what do we owe this renaissance? I’m going with The Great Recession as my hypothesis. “Untitled #463,” from 2007-8, is a large scale color photo that shows two versions of Ms. Sherman. Both are brown-haired, middle-aged, city party ladies after work. We see a red plastic cup filled with what? Probably not keg beer. She plays each broad to the hilt. Not exactly flattering.

Then, “Untitled, #466,” from 2008, shows a gray haired, grand dame in a beautiful blue silk caftan coat, floor length. She’s standing in an archway of a regal-type Spanish or California Mansion. It’s not a nasty image, but establishes the rich, powerful, older-lady-type vibe. A demographic which Ms. Sherman herself joined. It also references, no doubt, her collector base.

Grand dames buy a lot of expensive art. There are several pictures in the grouping, and they are subtly critical in their depiction of said dames. Her performances are nuanced, but powerful. No mailing it in here. The production design is as good as the acting. Great, great photos, I thought. She’s back.

Why then? Why at all, given how few artists ever pull out of the money-coma-induced nosedive. Well, though it was not so long ago, it’s easy to forget that the American and European economies fell off a cliff in 2007-008. People lost half their wealth within the span of less than a year. Fear was everywhere. Even, presumably, among the super-rich.

So I’d speculate that Ms Sherman felt the pinch, like the rest of us. Wherever her wealth is, she would have gotten hit, and then people would have stopped buying her pictures, for a little while. That kind of freaked-out energy feeds creativity. It’s primal.

Does it matter why she got it back? Or, for that matter, will we ever know? Of course not. It just makes for fun chatter. I loved all of the pictures in the last group, and was happy to see that “IT” could be re-captured, once lost. Inspiring.

In fact, it kicked off a long, round table, two hour conversation about who still has it, who lost it, blah, blah when I was in Tucson the following week to see Richard Misrach lecture at the Center for Creative Photography. Has he lost it? What is his new work like? Stay tuned.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 5 Comments On This Article.

  1. yeah, wondering the same thing about getting these photos…(!) she really excels at being a photographic “impressionist” I think.

  2. Funny, we must have walked through the Cindy Sherman show at SFMoMA in the exact opposite direction; I started with the gallery of “grande dames”… (I didn’t hate them, and I didn’t love them either — but I also didn’t experience them as you did, in that Cindy-Sherman-got-her-shit-back kind of way. An interesting take. And what you said about their timing makes a lot of sense.)

    Other than than, I totally agree with your assessment of the “shit show” section, as well as those horrifying clowns, which I had also seen in New York when they first debuted.