Picture This

New York

Left: Artist Cindy Sherman. Right: The crowd at Cindy Sherman's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

NO MATTER how many personalities she has turned loose on the world over the past thirty-five years, there is only one Cindy Sherman—and the Museum of Modern Art had her last Tuesday night, for the opening of her friendliest retrospective yet.

Standing outside the show’s entrance, before giant photomurals of hapless alter egos, a glammed-up Sherman was engulfed by hugs, kisses, and beaming smiles from a jostling multitude of friends, family, colleagues, collectors, lenders, dealers, and a supporting cast of cultural icons such as Martha Stewart, Lou Reed, Kim Cattrall, John Waters, Michael Stipe, and Debbie Harry.

“Private view?” said Gagosian Gallery curator Louise Neri. “This is a private zoo!”

Something of the same could be said of the 180 works in the tightly edited exhibition, where Sherman’s wannabe starlets, twisted clowns, demented fashion victims, status-obsessed society matrons, and fairy-tale fetishists were installed with more grandeur—and yet less pomposity—than any survey that MoMA has mounted in recent memory. “There’s only one thing here that’s better than this show—and that’s you!” Andy Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs told Sherman, who costumed herself for the opening in a Marni mash-up-print dress and swept-back golden coif. What could the agreeable Sherman say but, “Aw . . . thanks!”

Left: Director John Waters. Right: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár and Michael Stipe.

“Amazing” was the word I heard most from people in a crowd that, to Sherman’s and curators Eva Respini and Lucy Gallun’s credit, looked at the show as closely as they did one another. Though Laurie Anderson and Reed managed to move through it relatively unmolested, more than a few heads turned at the appearance of Stewart and her unlikely squire, DJ Spooky (aka Paul Miller), near the wicked “Sex Pictures” on view. “It’s an amazing show,” she said, though she also called it “powerful.”

It has all seventy “Untitled Film Stills,” which MoMA bought for a reported $1 million in 1995; the complete “Centerfolds”; and a resplendent array of “History” pictures, hung salon style on all four of their gallery’s mauve walls. “It’s wonderful,” said Maurizio Cattelan as he sped by. “Everything’s in the right place: the Pope at the start, facing the Madonna at the finish—it’s perfect.”

The final gallery, where Sherman’s magisterial “Hollywood/Hamptons” ladies hung on walls painted a billiard-table green, became a kind of hangout room for those who didn’t want to leave. “There are women here who could have been the models for these pictures,” said dealer David Nolan. “I wonder if they think so too.”

No one was feeling the isolation of Sherman’s characters, hopelessly trapped in their delusions, but many at MoMA were putting on the same brave face for the camera. “I want my picture taken with Robert Longo!” curator Jens Hoffmann pleaded when he spotted Sherman’s onetime boyfriend and mentor at the show’s exit.

Left: Artist Robert Longo and curator Jens Hoffmann. Right: Martha Stewart with DJ Spooky.

“It would be tough to be jealous,” the avuncular Longo said of Sherman’s enormous success. “What’s remarkable about this show is that you can see the whole career in the very first picture.” He was referring to a collected group of twenty-three hand-tinted mug shots from 1975 that show the young Sherman transformed by makeup from a pudgy nerd to a cigarette-waving, full-lipped glamour-puss. “It was all right there from the start,” he said. “Every series began with one of those pictures.”

Of course, not every series is in the show, nor is Sherman’s one feature film, Office Killer, a scripted 1997 artwork that mirrored the visual pathologies of the most grotesque portraits, seas of entrails and vomit, castrating battlegrounds, and mutilated dolls not on view. The retrospective does have Doll Clothes, Sherman’s handmade 1975 stop-motion animation of paper cutouts of herself that seemed to seduce many who watched it.

“The freakiest thing about this show is that everyone likes it!” said the observant Judy Hudson, as we escaped the deafening music and chatter in the lobby. This is a retrospective that aims to please. But in some ways, the best was yet to come.

That was at the dinner that Sherman’s longtime dealers, Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring, threw for her at Per Se, one of the most expensive restaurants in New York. The same establishment, a swanky enclave hidden within the tasteless Time Warner Center mall, was the scene of what felt like the Last Supper after Sherman’s Society Ladies debuted in 2008, when the recession started pinching pockets everywhere else.

The dining room, sans tables as before, was filled with friends who included a contingent of Pictures generation figures such as Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, Nancy Dwyer, and Sarah Charlesworth. Lenders Philippe Ségalot, Jennifer Stockman, and other collectors swirled around the artist, who had made a pit stop at her temporary digs in the St. Regis Hotel to change clothes. Now she was wearing a black frock with a silver hem, flat silver slippers, and a glittering bracelet from Balenciaga. Actress Molly Ringwald, a leading player in Office Killer, took a seat by the fireplace with designer Todd Thomas and Harry. “I was the only one still alive at the end!” Ringwald said of her role in the film. John Waters departed early, to pack for his off-camera appearance as “the voice of God” at the Independent Spirit Awards in Hollywood.

Sarah Sze didn’t breathe a word about the imminent announcement of her appointment as the artist chosen for the American pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, but Eric Bogosian, Eric Fischl, and April Gornik (also lenders to the show), along with collector Frank Moore, Lisa Yuskavage, Gregory Crewdson, and designer Narciso Rodriguez eagerly helped themselves to canapés of petit four–like pates, truffle-scented fresh popcorn, and a copious supply of champagne.

Left: Chef Thomas Keller. Right: Collectors Neda Young and Frances Young with artist Louise Lawler.

Most of the dinner, however, was served by Chef Thomas Keller (a Neil Young look-alike) from counters laden with seafood and bite-size delicacies in the kitchen. “You have to go out there and dance,” Winer said, urging everyone into a lounge opposite the dessert table in the rear. “Cindy wants to dance!”

Did she ever. Forget that the DJs played far too much white-bread music through one of the worst sound systems available. Having weathered the same conversations with hundreds of people all day long, Sherman cut loose, arms in the air and hair flying. She didn’t stop for well over an hour, nor did MoMA trustee Ann Tenenbaum or the collector couples Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg and Eileen and Michael Cohen. Soon MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, former MoMA photography curator Peter Galassi, artist Ryan McNamara, Stipe, and even Chuck Close were on the floor, while Paulina Olowska performed a number of choreographed but inebriated pratfalls that had a few people wondering if she wouldn’t be safer at home.

“They kicked me out,” she said in disbelief, once on the street. “No one understands me. No one talks about feminism in art anymore.” She was leaving for the Polish countryside the next day and would be returning in May for another performance—at MoMA. “That will be scary,” she said. All the same, it’s nice to see the museum following Sherman’s lead and putting on a challenging female face.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Cindy Sherman. Right: Artist Paulina Olowska.

Left: Dealer Helene Winer and Cindy Sherman. Right: Gagosian's Louise Neri with Okwui Enwezor, director of Haus der Kunst, Munich.

Left: Artists Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons. Right: Artist Chuck Close.

Left: Artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik. Right: Artists Elizabeth Peyton and Klara Lidén.

Left: Artist Gregory Crewdson and writer Deborah Solomon. Right: Artist Glenn Ligon with New Museum director Lisa Phillips and Studio Museum director Thelma Golden.

Left: Artists Sarah Charlesworth and Nancy Dwyer. Right: Artist Marilyn Minter.

Left: Writer Lynne Tillman with artist Eric Bogosian. Right: Dealers Barbara Gladstone and Max Falkenstein.

Left: Artists Alexander Ross and Susan Jennings with dealer David Nolan. Right: Lisa Yuskavage with designer Narciso Rodriguez.

Left: Photographers Vinoodh Matadin and Inez van Lamsweerde. Right: MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci with dealer Cristian Alexa and artist K8 Hardy.