Supreme’s latest artist collaborator is the New York City-based legend Cindy Sherman, whose work has redefined image culture since the 1970s. Here, Cedar Pasori gives readers an introduction and deeper insight into the innovative genius behind the art and its captivating creator.
“I wish I could treat every day as Halloween, and get dressed up and go out into the world as some eccentric character,” said the artist Cindy Sherman in a 2012 interview. Sherman has made a career out of photographing herself in costume since the late ‘70s, assuming all roles in the studio including model, director, stylist and makeup artist. She shoots alone, and the characters she creates — representing stereotypes of women in mass media — are also pictured alone.
Sherman, 63, grew up in Long Island before going to college in Buffalo, New York. After a brief stint with painting, she took up photography, and began photographing herself getting ready for parties. Her move to New York City in 1977 led to her first major series, Untitled Film Stills, which included 69 cinematic, black-and-white photographs that presented women in a variety of societal roles, often appearing despondent, vacant and altogether tragic. Photos from the series were first shown in 1978 at Artists Space gallery in New York City, where Sherman had been working as a receptionist.
“I always played with makeup to transform myself, but everything, including the lighting, was self-taught,” said Sherman in 1998, referring to her early work and education. “I just learned things as I needed to use them. I absorbed my ideas for the women in these photos from every cultural source that I’ve ever had access to, including film, TV, advertisements, magazines, as well as any adult role models from my youth.”
Almost overnight, and at just 23 years old, Sherman’s penchant for finding costumes at flea markets, putting on makeup, and more importantly, the power of strong, serialized ideas, became her obsession as an artist. She wasn’t alone in her pursuit of finding new ways to communicate through still photography. A seminal 1977 exhibition at NYC’s Metro Pictures gallery, titled “Pictures,” brought together a group of artists connected in their belief that the image had become an appropriated, unoriginal product void of authenticity. Though Sherman was not included in this exhibition, her work, as a response to mass media in the ‘70s, positioned her as a vital voice in what became known as the Pictures Generation, which also included Barbara Kruger, Laurie Simmons and Robert Longo.
Though Sherman’s first public works were both relevant and effective, her early process was scrappy. “The second year I lived in the city, I felt bored with shooting in my apartment, so I made these lists of outdoor scenes to look for,” said Sherman of Untitled Film Stills in a 2008 interview. “I’d throw together a couple of outfits and wigs in a suitcase, and my boyfriend at the time, Robert Longo, drove me around the city in his van… I might start with a short, blond wig and minimal makeup, and the next one I would change it to a black wig with more severe makeup.”
Sherman began teaching herself to do color photography, which debuted during her first solo show at Metro Pictures in 1980. The works in the self-titled exhibition marked the beginning of her future process: working alone inside the studio and bringing props and scenery from the outside in. To create this new series, titled Rear Screen Projections, she photographed outdoor backgrounds and projected the images onto walls inside her studio, before inserting herself into each scene.
Sherman quickly identified the most important element in making these impactful statements about feminine portrayals in society: her facial expression. She continually makes a concerted effort not to represent herself, but to fully create a new character, and to let her countenance inspire the viewer’s own interpretation of what they are seeing. “When I see what I want, my intuition takes over — both in the ‘acting’ and in the editing,” said Sherman in 1985 of how she aims to remove herself from the work. “Seeing that other person that’s up there, that’s what I want. It’s like magic.” To remove context further, to this day Sherman generically names her works “Untitled” with a number.
Throughout the ‘80s, Sherman explored color photography further, including large-scale prints. She made series, such as Fairy Tales and Disasters (introducing prosthetics and mannequins), Pink Robes (outtake-style portraits of centerfold models), Sex (removing herself from the work in favor of medical dummies), History Portraits (imitating classic European portrait paintings), and Centerfolds/Horizontals, the latter of which assumed the prized magazine centerfold format and caused Sherman’s first significant controversy. In the images, she lies on the bed or on the floor, causing many to assume the images were about assault.
“I was thinking about vulnerability in a way that would make a male viewer feel uncomfortable — like seeing your daughter in a vulnerable state,” said Sherman in 2000 of the Centerfolds/Horizontals series. “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.”
From 1987 to 1989, Sherman introduced the Disaster series, an exploration of grotesque subject matter in settings where she is hardly or not at all present. Untitled #181 and Untitled #175, selected for Supreme’s new skate deck collaboration with the artist, show disturbing scenes of food messes, as if one found a Thanksgiving meal in a dumpster, or a sidewalk of exploded cupcakes and vomit.
“What I’m against is how your mind is fucked with about what you should be, instead of what you are,” said Sherman in 2000 of the ideas behind Disaster. “I see really interesting things in what other people call ugly. I find gross things funny.”
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s included big celebrations of her work — inclusion in Documenta 7, the Venice Biennale, and the Whitney Biennial (and a subsequent retrospective at the museum), a 1983 cover of ARTNews, a 1994 Post Card Series for Comme des Garçons, and the debut of her first film, 1997’s Office Killer. In 1995, she received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Award.” The more success came Sherman’s way, the more she purposely resigned herself from the art world and made darker, more provocative work, including 1992’s NSFW Sex Pictures, which combine mannequin body parts with sausages, hair, and other materials.
In the 2000s, Sherman began using advanced digital photography and retouching to create more explicit, detailed work, including her Clowns series and Society Portraits. In 2011, Sherman’s Untitled #96 print became the most expensive photograph in the world at the time, selling for $3.89 million at Christie’s. Further in the fashion realm, Sherman collaborated with Louis Vuitton to reimagine the monogram in 2014. In 2016, Raf Simons told the Financial Times that his AW16 show was inspired by the horror in Sherman’s work, and this year, Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER made tribute T-shirts to her in his SS18 show.
To prove how prolific and relevant she is to this day (besides the fact that, yes, she does use Instagram), last year, she did a street style photography series (starring herself, of course) for Harper’s Bazaar, admitting that she is amused by the modeling and voyeurism that goes into such images.
“We’re all products of what we want to project to the world,” said Sherman retrospectively to New York Magazine in 2008, summing up her work’s relatability and timeliness. “Even people who don’t spend any time, or think they don’t, on preparing themselves for the world out there — I think that ultimately they have for their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present a face to the world.”
Next up; meet the rising pro athlete who moonlights as a sneaker customizer.
- Main & Featured Image: Supreme
- Words: Cedar Pasori