Bice Curiger

Laudatio for Cindy Sherman on the occasion of the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2012 on 10 May 2012 at the Kunsthaus Zürich

Ladies and gentlemen

Cindy Sherman is one of those artists who established a clear basis for her future development right at the start of her artistic career. Today, as we look back, we can appreciate not just the incredible richness of the territory she has explored over those four decades, but also the endurance, focus and artistic coherence she has brought to bear.

Some have compared Cindy Sherman to Andy Warhol, in terms of both popular appeal and enduring interest as a subject for intellectual analysis. Her art exemplifies so many of the aspects and elements that have shaped artistic discourse over recent decades.

Her work constitutes what is perhaps the most important contribution made by an artist to the construction of female identity. Inextricably bound up with that, however, is the power of photography and the mass-reproduced image to influence our thoughts and actions in general.

Just a few months ago, a 400-page study was published that dealt with Cindy Sherman’s early work – the photos that came before the now celebrated ‘Film Stills’ – and it shed light on some unbelievably exciting material. It includes the ‘Cindy Book,’ which contains photos of her covering the period from 1964, when she was 10 years old, to 1975, when she was 21. What is particularly striking is the laconic observation ‘That’s me,’ ‘That’s me’ under each picture – a curious litany of efforts to reassure herself. It is precisely the refrain that seems to accompany Cindy Sherman throughout her life as an artist, even when it is used to assert the opposite: ‘That’s NOT me!’

Another remarkable revelation is the ‘Air Shutter Release Fashions,’ from 1975 – seventeen black and white photographs that are in effect grotesque imitations of fashion pictures. They depict a naked woman, a black cable coiled around her in a variety of different ways to suggest the outline of a striped miniskirt or knee socks. Yet on closer examination we can see that it is actually the cable of the release used to trigger a camera’s shutter. It’s a tool that, to this day, plays a central role in Cindy Sherman’s method. For Cindy, it is fundamental that the photographs are taken in total seclusion and without anyone else present: she invariably takes the photographs herself, using an external release to trigger the shutter.

As Cindy turns photography upon herself, she causes the medium to act as a mirror to itself, reflecting back upon the artist the myriad conditionings that it has deposited within her as an artist and as a woman trying out many different roles. Even her earliest works, created at art college in the 1970s at a time when a small number of young women who had engaged with feminism and Conceptual Art were already teaching, are imbued with an impetuous, playful yet also awestruck reflection that is never dissipated in narcissistic self-contemplation and, at the same time, is far removed from a one-dimensional illustration of contemporary theoretical models.

Cindy Sherman is from the outset one of a generation of women who represent a fundamentally female revolution in art. The art of the 20th century of course has its major female figures; but it is an acknowledged fact that it was not until the early 1980s that women in greater numbers began to make their voices heard in the art world.

Perhaps I may mention at this point that I first encountered the work of Cindy Sherman at documenta 7, back in 1982. It was, we might say, a documenta that signalled a generational divide, with the heroes (male heroes) of Pop, Minimalist and Conceptual Art, plus Joseph Beuys and painters from Baselitz to Kiefer on the one hand, and a veritable invasion of young, seemingly untamed artists such as Dokupil and Dahn – and, of course, the women!

And just as painting was coming back with a vengeance, the women were avoiding it like the plague. Not just Cindy Sherman but also Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger were presenting their works to a wider audience in Europe for the first time.

I recall very clearly that Cindy Sherman was showing her ‘Centerfolds.’ The mere act of presenting large-format colour photographs was a bold step as the time, as they were considered somewhat ordinary – a format for amateurs or, perhaps, for glossy magazines. If photography was to be used at all, it should – as Conceptual Art had postulated – manifest itself as something rather incidental, an ancillary tool or a medium for documenting a thought process.

For us Swiss, however, it is important to mention the key contribution made in the 1970s by Urs Lüthi, who employed photography (mainly in black and white but also in colour) as a means of self-interrogation, comedic role play and the exploration of glamour and aura.

What Cindy Sherman has presented to us down the decades, however, is breathtaking. Back in 1985 Marianne Stockebrand wrote of Sherman’s photos: ‘To this day, she has assumed so many different roles and presented so many characters that observers have asked, full of appreciation and admiration, how long she can continue coming up with ideas.’ Yet the point is precisely that Cindy Sherman's art cannot be reduced to role plays in the stricter sense of the term.

The ‘Film Stills’ and ‘Centerfolds’ contain precisely differentiated stagings of moods, of intimacy in cinerama or Playboy format. While the ‘Centerfolds’ might constitute a subtle and, one might say, ‘soulful’ response to the soullessly suggestive poses of the Playboy model, they nevertheless present themselves as paintings – modern-day equivalents of the genre picture, as it were – parading a typology of behaviours manifesting emotional turmoil.

In a conversation with John Waters that is reproduced in the catalogue of the current MoMA exhibition, Waters asks Cindy Sherman if she has ever chosen not to use a picture because it shows her as being too ugly, whereupon Cindy answers that she prefers to discard the pictures in which she looks too much like herself. She adds: ‘I like experimenting with being as ugly as I can possibly be. But I guess that’s because I don’t think of it as me.’ At this point I’d like to recall the exhibition of Cindy’s works at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne in 1995 and the accompanying catalogue, which contained a perceptive essay by Elisabeth Bronfen entitled ‘The Other Self of the Imagination: Cindy Sherman’s Hysterical Performance.’

This retrospective also included more recent groups of works based on the reading of fairy tales, in which Cindy Sherman embarks on her exploration of the grotesque and burlesque.

These images in turn lead into the large-scale project: the images of disgust and sex that further advance her relentless transgression of boundaries. Mould, faeces, vomit – they address physicality without the protagonist being notable by her visible presence. And yet of course she is there – at least through her authorship as artist.

The same applies to the images in which prosthetic limbs and masks replace or conceal presence. They are medical prostheses used to teach aspiring doctors and carers. Sherman arranges the elements and applies make-up to them; and in this series, which is unofficially known as the ‘Disaster Series,’ or ‘Disasters of Sex’ after Goya’s ‘Desastres de la Guerra,’ she evokes terror, horror and revulsion but also a desire for the frisson of fear and aesthetic pleasure in perverse form. In these pictures, the artist distances herself quite explicitly from her own person in order once more to focus on the surface and the visible, and to address its complex cultural and mental connotations. It has always been said of Sherman’s works that they are an engagement with ‘stereotypical female roles.’ And then there is the mould – of course one immediately recognizes that it is mouldy food in the refrigerator of a slovenly housewife, that the vomit is the vomit of legions of bulimia sufferers, and the exposed posterior represents sexual abuse. When Cindy Sherman takes up these difficult topics – topics that are still taboo – their effect is unsettling because we also sense a pleasure in depicting them, in painting them with infinite, uncompromising directness, in presenting them in a way that is very much ‘in your face.’ Cindy Sherman’s art is highly visual, and never more so than when she turns her attention to the taboos of a highly visual culture. Today, of course, we talk about these topics; but in our specialized world we have neither the desire nor the need to know all the details, and are content to leave it to such specialists to engage with them and examine them close up.

Cindy Sherman’s art revolves around the mechanisms of conditioning but also of repression. It questions our collective conceptions of fear and wishful thinking. Subjectivity, her – Cindy Sherman’s – subjectivity serves as a pool of that which concerns all of us both individually and collectively.

The mirror is the medium of self-reflection par excellence. When you look in a mirror you create a distance from yourself; but it also serves a way of probing, of re-examining the self. Deriving from subjectivity a visually formulated proposal that is relevant for all of us collectively is a lengthy and time-consuming process. It is a process of valid objectivization.

That objectivization is taken up and pursued through the medium of language as critics engage with her work. The outstanding writers of our time – people such as Craig Owens, Arthur Danto, Rosalind Krauss, Norman Bryson and, as I mentioned earlier, Elisabeth Bronfen – have accompanied the development of Cindy Sherman’s work with brilliant and far-ranging essays of art and cultural criticism.

I referred at the start of my comments to the significance of the air shutter release to a specific working method that is carried on alone and in splendid isolation.

When Cindy Sherman sets to work, she does so without a fixed idea of how the result will turn out; it has been described as a ‘performance without a script,’ or compared to the approach of painters weighing and developing their decisions on form and content even as they are engaged in the act of painting. What is interesting is that for forty years, the focus has actually been on one thing alone: the person of the artist, the camera with its air shutter release and the props, accessories, make-up, masks and prosthetic limbs.

I’d like at this point to offer a small piece of advice. Here at the Kunsthaus, our library contains not just books but also videos. And for some years now they have included a film made by Cindy Sherman’s former husband Michel Auder, in which you can study the extraordinarily labour-intensive processes that gave rise to these images.

Advances in technology have in some ways made things slightly easier and opened up new possibilities, such as the development towards the colour Polaroid image and, from it, to the digital camera. Being both photographer and photographed requires a vast array of control mechanisms and, in some cases, very laborious changes of role, with the artist having to slip in and out of a setting or a costume on a number of occasions.

If, in recent times, Cindy Sherman has appeared in ever increasing size in her images – as here, for example, on the poster for her retrospective at MoMA in New York, and here on the wallpaper at the entrance to the exhibition – her art is nevertheless based on limitless precision and attention to detail. It is the microstructure that makes the difference: the minute details. Indeed, to borrow a phrase beloved of Aby Warburg, an art historian with an exceptional eye for the bigger picture of culture and cultures, and for the mental constitution of human beings in various eras, it is not the Devil that is in the detail but God Himself.

This brings me to the Baroque. For Cindy Sherman has devoted a very important group of works to historical portraits, in which she immerses herself in history, seeking out originals from the past as if mining from a quarry of representation, and thus linking in with her play of deconstruction and simulation. As with clowns, whose make-up sweeps away all the characteristic traits of a person located firmly within our everyday reality and then builds upon that a stylized image with recognizable facial features, so here past and present overlay each other in a complex interaction. (Here is a picture that was shown together with a number of other works in the exhibition ‘Signs and Wonders’ at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1995.)

While we are on the subject of the Baroque, I would of course like to mention our upcoming exhibition here at the Kunsthaus Zürich. ‘Riotous Baroque,’ which opens on 31 May, also includes some works by Cindy Sherman.
Examples of a relatively recent group of works, the ‘Society Ladies,’ are shown right next to depictions of vanity, but also – and especially – portraits by the painter Hyacinthe Rigaud. Rigaud was the painter of the Sun King Louis XIV. He represents an era characterized by a strong desire for self-projection and grandiose ostentation, a tendency towards excess in celebrating the visible and a focus on the superficial. Here we see Hyacinthe Rigaud’s picture of Louis XIV – We know that every detail has a very particular significance. The regal appurtenances, the colours and clothes, the king’s pose, the positioning of the legs and of course the shoes, with their red heels, buckle and red strap that were presented at the coronation by France’s Grand Chamberlain and were replete with additional connotations. This obsession with details and the overlaying of meanings, and with the cult of the superficial, fits well with Cindy Sherman’s ‘Society Portraits’ in ‘Riotous Baroque’; and it is easy to see how powerfully, even today, our conceptions of ‘wanting to look good’ and self-representation are imbued with the attitudes of the nobility.

It is a great pleasure to study the details of these pictures, these ageing society ladies, and to discover the defencelessness, the exposedness, the revelation of a touching desire to please; it seems as if their entire energy is invested in preserving the surface. Yet although these portraits employ elements of debunking and ridicule, ultimately they nevertheless have something humane about them. They are not cynical.

Most recently, Cindy Sherman has begun using computers and the Photoshop program to make changes to the image and, with it, her face – altering the distance between the eyes, making the mouth or the nose smaller, and so on.

And she now also presents her images as wallpapers or integrated into them. We have the impression that the women here have risen up out of the world of imagination, even if their costume, despite its accentuated singularity, is entirely mundane and somewhat philistine. The black and white of the oversized wallpaper pattern somehow emphasizes a link to the world of books and fiction. The women have about them something of the bluestocking, between playful and helpless, and seem entirely absorbed in their own private fantasy worlds. With these scenarios of the petty-bourgeois capacity for dreaming, and her ‘Society Portraits,’ Cindy Sherman has once again succeeded in opening up another new universe. It appears that the mature artist, armed with a finely honed psychosocial perceptiveness, is increasingly drawing on her experience of life as a woman as a new source of creativity for her self-reflections.

The fact that this is accompanied by a deliberate move towards the digital morphing of her own person, which is then set amid landscapes that have themselves been digitally edited, points, to a further stage in a process of dissolution. A dissolution that was evident back at the very start of her career, when she defined her role as an artist in contrast to the fixed, heroic male figures, and as someone who questioned her own identity in all its facets. Now, so to speak, we walk with her towards the future, into a world that is being radically transformed by digitization. We look forward with eager anticipation to the next works from this important artist of our time!