New York

“Eye to Eye”

Sean Kelly Gallery

“I didn’t care much about the print quality,” Cindy Sherman wrote recently of her famous first series, the “Untitled Film Stills” of 1977–80. “The photographs were supposed to look like they cost fifty cents. . . . One reason I was interested in photography was to get away from the preciousness of the art object.” No photographer seems farther from this initial ethos of Sherman’s than the late Robert Mapplethorpe, whose images are impeccably, expensively printed, classically structured, and as comfortable in glossy magazines as in art galleries. And even Sherman’s later work, which has developed a gloss of its own, sticks to a play of personas and an utterly enigmatic sense of self that still seem distant from Mapplethorpe’s declarative portraiture, showy eroticism, and chromatic and thematic polarities of profound black and brilliant white. But whether because opposites attract or because, in the right light, they don’t look so opposite after all, this exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs chosen by Sherman was a fascinating interaction, like a show not by either artist but between them.

A curator might envy Sherman’s installation skills: Her placements and juxtapositions were unforced and sure. On the back wall of the first of the gallery’s three spaces Sherman hung a single photograph, the Mapplethorpe self-portrait of 1988 made up only of his eyes, which immediately held the visitor’s gaze—a purposeful opening gambit that insisted on Mapplethorpe’s individuality while also treating it roughly, stripping it down to his faculty of sight. The composition of the image, with one eye in shadow and the other in light, also gently announced the black/white confrontation in Mapplethorpe’s vision. The next room offered a Mapplethorpe seen as Sherman might: a highly theatrical photographer fascinated by the appearances that we build, through costume and physical stance, to shelter us from the world or to project us into it. The fourteen portraits in this room were all of people extravagantly dressed and posed, here in lamé catsuit, there in houndstooth and loden cape, here blending into an English-style garden, there pumped up like a feminized Schwarzenegger. The elegant boldness of shape and surface in Mapplethorpe’s work became an issue of Sherman-like psychological intricacy—but whether this was an insight or a carefully framed distortion was up to the visitor to decide.

In the third, main room I found myself thinking less about a Mapplethorpe seen through Sherman’s eyes than about Sherman’s own formal sense, which her work somewhat hides in plain sight, given that her signature style has no signature: Unlike Mapplethorpe’s, it generally declares itself not as original or unique to her but as a deliberate pastiche of a succession of image types and genres. Yet her groups and combinations here showed her attention falling, for example, on the visual rub between a segment of prickled cactus pad and a near-abstract rectangle of muscled skin; on echoing shapes in a penis and a jack-in-the-pulpit flower, in winding plant stems and curled-up toes and feet; in rhymes across the room between sculptured heads in black bronze and white marble. On the back wall, which was painted an imperial red, a group of black-and-white works, arranged in a loose diamond, was cut through by three photographs of flowers—a diagonal slash of color. Meanwhile a sprinkling of images, such as one from 1976 of Marianne Faithfull sitting precariously on a stairway balustrade, might not look out of place in Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills”—you might think, “Is that really Cindy?” but I do that all the time anyway. Predictably but satisfyingly, “Eye to Eye” wound up revealing as much about its curator as about its subject.

David Frankel