View of “Cindy Sherman,” 2012. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

View of “Cindy Sherman,” 2012. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

Cindy Sherman

View of “Cindy Sherman,” 2012. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

IN THE ANGLO-AMERICAN museum world, this past winter might well have been called the season of the portrait. That theme announced itself in London, at the National Gallery’s incomparable Leonardo exhibition, in which the gathering of portrait subjects scattered from Paris to Krakow upstaged even the epochal pairing of the Louvre’s Virgin of the Rocks with its London replica. A month later in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini,” an assembly of fifteenth-century images that brought to an extraordinary semblance of life its cast of northern Italian courtiers and prodigies of financial manipulation from the dawn of our modern banking system. Then, in winter’s waning weeks, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a contemporary rival to the masters in its opulent retrospective for Cindy Sherman.

To align Sherman’s work with antecedents in the realms of gaudy dynasties and gilded frames would seem counter to the received wisdom that the artist has, since the mid-1970s, sought to “examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography,” as an introductory wall label informs the visitor. There is little to dispute in this well-meant instruction; after some three decades in circulation, however, the formula lacks a certain excitement. Not so the exhibition, which makes the sweep of the artist’s career boldly compelling by treating Sherman’s work more as a body of resplendent objects than as a catalogue of images. A portrait, before its denatured insertion into the modern museum, first serves as heirloom or trophy. MoMA’s retrospective pays homage to this double nature of the genre, changing the argument away from what can be said about facsimiles on the printed page and toward what can be absorbed in ambulatory passage through a looming, uncanny ancestral gallery—family resemblances being a given where Sherman is concerned.

Striking choices of wall color punctuate the visitor’s processional movement through the labyrinthine enfilade of MoMA’s sixth-floor exhibition space in a way that surpasses in cognitive effect the alternating pale and somber rooms of the Met’s “Renaissance Portrait.” Each vibrant but complex color choice in the Sherman installation plays an active part in distinguishing and enriching the category of work placed against it. The same can be said for the use of frames, which carry a defining importance that can only be seen in the physical exhibition: The catalogue images, no matter how fine the resolution, necessarily leave out the crucial data of physical presentation, thus inevitably encouraging the familiar mediacentric bias elevating the reproducible image over the finite physical object.

The museum’s complete set of eighty-three “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80, with its youthful, shape-shifting protagonist, plays out against a subtle but telling transition to muted pale blue from the standard white of the introductory room, which offers a smattering of pieces from different periods. The concluding space, monumentally scaled, and saturated with a rich blue-green, holds the larger number of the recent, imposing portraits of aging society women in their costly array. This same stately hang reaches back over implied centuries to the central room, painted a deep red—the heart of the exhibition—in which Sherman’s tributes to the old masters, her “history portraits,” climb the walls in an approximation of the densely packed, palatial displays of the pre-museum age.

Between the film stills and the historical pastiches lies a dramatic interior room devoted to the so-called “Centerfolds,” 1981, the horizontally oriented color prints Sherman produced for this publication in 1981. Lined up against a dark blue tending to gray, each photograph in a crisp black frame, the series leaves behind the dated “controversy” over its subjects’ imagined abject victimhood. While some of the images present parodies of the fearfully submissive poses that once titillated consumers of B movies and pulp paperbacks, the pictures taken as a whole manifest a modern anatomy of melancholy. The dress may be contemporary to its time, but the rubric is one of an archaic allegory. With such a prototype in mind (witting or unwitting), it should not have been surprising that Sherman would stage her own competition with the old masters by the end of that decade—a series that the exhibition marks off with both a deep crimson sonority and a calculated assortment of framing stock, each art-historical pastiche contained by a variant of traditional molding, some enhanced with gold or silver pigment. But none displays, as might be expected, any further ornament. That distinctive feature is reserved for the large-scale portrayals of ostentatious society matrons in our own time.

This precise grammar of the frame, doubtless the artist’s undertaking but underscored by the museum’s choices, can be used to differentiate works that might otherwise be easily lumped together. In the smaller alcove adjacent to the grand green room, two similarly sized works—Untitled #475, 2008, and Untitled #463, 2007–2008—hang together, both featuring multiple personages. In the first, Sherman splits herself into two women, one seated and one standing, who together face the camera in stilted poses and stiff hairdos, an empty banquet-size hall with Persian rug stretching behind them. In the other, Sherman appears as no fewer than four figures, all with long dark hair belying the signs of age in their faces and hands, red plastic beer cups in hand—though three of them seem suspiciously identical. The implication in both works is that we are looking at sisters, and both of these fictional ensemble portraits were completed in the same year. But unlike the picture of the presumed twins (#475), Sherman’s sororal coven of keg partiers is contained in a plain white, crisply modernist frame. The same is true of the single figure in Untitled #458, 2007–2008, hands on hips, whose heavily masklike makeup and expensive frock and jacket might otherwise seem aligned with cognate works framed in ornamented mahogany.

Neither the catalogue nor the wall labels make it easy for the uninitiated viewer to comprehend that the white-framed works were part of a commercial commission, a fashion spread of Balenciaga designs shot for Paris Vogue. In the traditional hierarchy of European art, both #463 and #458 conform to the intermediate rank of genre painting, that is, the portrayal of anonymous types rather than known individuals. These works share their white frames with Sherman’s pictures of clowns, and thus align themselves more with mordant comedy than with the marking of social distinction (the original meaning of clown being “rustic, boor, peasant”). The ensemble of four figures counts indeed as a modern-dress equivalent of the standard seventeenth-century Dutch scene of
tavern drinkers: Sherman’s picture may seem jolly, but it is more than a little menacing in its undercurrents, the drunkenly slack mouth of the sister on the far right evoking the louts of Adriaen Brouwer forward to Goya’s sorcery-addled plebs.

The portraits in the higher genre, by contrast, take as their brief the projection of power and success through orchestrated accessories as much as through the unnatural cult of ageless beauty so conspicuous in our era. With age comes authority, and these individuated women of means embrace its heraldic emblems—jewelry, coiffure, cosmetics, couture, and real estate—as fair compensation for losing the unbidden gifts of callow youth (though the strain shows in their reddened eyes). The well-turned, slippered foot that emerges from beneath the brocaded satin caftan in Untitled #466, 2008, carries a pedigree that trails back to the delicate turn of ankle that Hyacinthe Rigaud choreographed for Louis XIV. That Sherman has, with sheen of support stockings and cheapness of spangly footwear, introduced a clash of class signifiers only emphasizes the genealogy of the device by emphatic reversal and factitious resemblance.

These portraits thus resume in contemporary dress Sherman’s overt rehearsals of old-master poses and symbols from two decades before. But these are simulations of a portrait genre that no longer exists—or at least cannot be seen in public confines able to confer the sort of prestige bestowed by display at MoMA or the Met. Sherman provides our not-ready-for-prime-time plutocrats with a celebratory genre bearing an aesthetic authority they cannot buy for their own self-representation. True, the wealthy and self-important still commission family portraits, as private clubs and corporate boards honor their chieftains with imperious likenesses on canvas. There is a cadre of well-compensated practitioners of this craft, but their trade has become, in the century since John Singer Sargent, an almost disreputable embarrassment. Only a vanity museum would ever see fit to expose these journeyman confections to the glare of public scrutiny. Warhol’s late portraits hover just on the edge of legitimate aesthetic attention; the contemporary German Thomases Ruff and Struth have staked a claim for what a credible portraiture of the present day might look like. But their niche is hardly normative, despite Struth’s having been cast as a latter-day Van Dyck in the service of the ruler of Great Britain and her consort on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Sherman’s vanity series features historical monuments of its own. For the softer-focus backdrop behind the caftan-clad matriarch in her immaculate silver bun (#466), she calls on a gothic-style, tiled-roof cloister, which effectively stands in for the revivalist palaces of Montecito or Palm Beach. But the setting is instead an actual medieval edifice imported by a bygone benefactor to stand within the Metropolitan’s Cloisters museum. The glare of the severe-looking woman in Untitled #465, 2008, glancing over her bare shoulder in evening pearls, heavy pancake unsuccessfully masking her incised complexion, seems bolstered by the scale and emptiness of an ornate staircase on the grounds of a grand estate. But this particular garden feature should be among the most familiar monuments of public New York: the steps of Frederick Law Olmsted’s and Calvert Vaux’s Bethesda Terrace, the architectural heart of Central Park, location for a hundred film scenes, playground of multitudes. No feature of a Sherman image is there by accident or as a matter of convenience. These grand backdrops are legacy monuments of the older plutocracy, left as a democratic inheritance, belittling the imagination and attainments of the present-day .01 percent. As her own works have come to count among the prized trophies of that demographic, Sherman seeds into these images a grandeur belonging to a past that no private individual can now claim or master.

“Cindy Sherman,” organized by Eva Respini, is on view through June 11; travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 14–Oct. 7; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Nov. 10, 2012–Feb. 17, 2013; Dallas Museum of Art, Mar. 17–June 9, 2013.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.