PRINT January 2007



A PLAY IN FOUR ACTS (plus finale) with a cast of sixteen, A Play of Selves was first staged . . . well, never. At least not exactly. Cindy Sherman completed the piece in 1976, when she was an undergraduate studying art at Buffalo State College in upstate New York and living above Hallwalls, the alternative space she had founded in 1974 with Robert Longo, Charlie Clough, and others. Having abandoned painting for photography, a medium that allowed her to enact a variety of private performances entirely for and by way of the camera, Sherman created seventy-two black-and-white tableaux that collectively articulate an austere but comic pantomime.

A Play of Selves tells the story of one woman’s Sybilian encounter with herself in the face of an epic, doomed (and sometimes humorously overdetermined) love affair. In what is perhaps Sherman’s only work that can accurately be described as “autobiographical,” the young artist parses her psyche into discrete facets—“Desire,” “Agony,” and the “Broken Woman,” among others—even as she simultaneously takes up every supporting role, including those of faceless love interest and geeky male narrator. Making the work was almost as laborious as producing a piece of live theater: Sherman drew a storyboard and wrote a script, took numerous photographs of herself in the guise of the various dramatis personae, and then meticulously cut and pasted the figures into scenes. After an initial showing at Hallwalls in 1976, A Play of Selves languished in storage until last November, when its scenes were nudged back into linear arrangement in the upstairs space at Metro Pictures in New York. With the benefit of hindsight, the work allows us—and Sherman herself—to consider the implications of what might be called a productively shattered ego. Lights, curtain . . .

Johanna Burton


IT’S NICE TO SEE A Play of Selves again and feel that the piece is appreciated, but it’s also embarrassing in a way, because some of it is really kind of corny. Thirty years ago, I was a young artist doing this really sincere work that was also really personal. It’s just so completely different from what I’ve done since—not that my work hasn’t been sincere, but it has never really been all that autobiographical or biographical again. On the other hand, A Play of Selves is also a thread into what I’m doing now, not only because I was already using myself in the images at that point, but also just in terms of the pure theatricality of it.

I think my work is more ironic now. Although I see some ironic tones in A Play of Selves, it seems more naive and sweet, which is why I guess it still sort of embarrasses me. It just seems like somebody putting everything out there for an audience to see. I was dealing with some personal issues with a boyfriend at the time—of course, everybody knows I was going out with Robert Longo, so that’s really not so much of a secret. I came up with this idea to splinter myself into all these characters, which represented parts of myself and in some cases embodied emotions. There were also characters necessary to the plot, like the “Male Lover,” and the main character’s two friends, one a woman and the other a man. I was playing all the roles, and the costumes were pretty limited. The “Ideal Man” and the “Ideal Woman,” for instance, wear the same mask, which is a cast of my own face. The only difference is that the “Ideal Man” has fake eyebrows and a mustache pasted on—he looks really sleazy, actually. Once I figured out those characters, I went scene by scene, making little drawings and writing the actions at the same time. I storyboarded this way in order to figure out scale and poses, so that the characters could, by virtue of size, look like they were receding into the background or coming forward, and I could establish schematic foreground, middle ground, background, that sort of thing. After I’d storyboarded it all, I figured out every scene that a character would be in so I could shoot that character’s actions all at once too.

It’s not important to me that people read the script. I think it would be more interesting, in a way, not to. I’d be curious what kind of sense people get from the work when they don’t read the script. Then it’s more about translating images: What are these crazy women in black doing, banding together and squabbling over this other poor pathetic character?

The whole thing is pretty clichéd. You know, like “Madness” having dark eyes and wild hair and “Vanity” being a vampire and “Desire” with her bustier—they’re all such stereotypical characters. The whole idea of these little cutouts also started to seem very girlie-girlie and like “women’s art”—making paper dolls. But just working with stereotypes the way I was probably made me think about the issue of stereotypes in other forms—for instance, in films.

When I began the “Untitled Film Stills” a year later, I wasn’t dispensing with my interest in narrative. I simply wanted to figure out a way to imply a narrative within a single picture. I also liked the idea that everybody could have their own narrative, depending on how they experienced life and looked at images. And the framing of the “Film Stills” implied that there was someone just beyond the picture frame. Obviously I was taking on both male and female roles in A Play of Selves, and I did do one or two rolls of the “Film Stills” where I tried to be a guy. I look like I’m in drag, but that’s not really why I stopped doing them. I realize now that the female characters I took on were really ambivalent about themselves and the world around them and the roles that they’re playing, not just in this movie or that movie but in life. And men don’t really have—at least not in movies—the same ambivalence about things, and it was that ambivalence I was interested in.

Before this year, I had only shown A Play of Selves once, in 1976, when I just taped the figures right to the wall: no background, no frames. Since then it’s been in a box in my studio. Seeing how I planned it out, visualizing the scenes the way a filmmaker would, has made me think that I really should make another film, though maybe not at the level of ambitiousness of my first, Office Killer (1997)—with a whole crew and everything.

I was inspired by David Lynch’s recent movie, Inland Empire (2006); I saw it at the New York Film Festival and happened to hear him speak afterward. He was talking about how he basically just shot one scene that he had thought of off the top of his head and then pieced the rest of the movie together over the course of several months without ever having a complete script. It made me think how much I would love to just experiment with a film the way that A Play of Selves started out as an experiment, without worrying about what the result is or what people will think or whether it even ever has to be shown.