Los Angeles

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #47, 1979, gelatin silver print, 8 × 10". From the series “Untitled Film Stills,” 1979–80.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #47, 1979, gelatin silver print, 8 × 10". From the series “Untitled Film Stills,” 1979–80.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #47, 1979, gelatin silver print, 8 × 10". From the series “Untitled Film Stills,” 1979–80.

It was in 1977 that Cindy Sherman began work on her breakout series of “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80, exhaustively restaging, before a still camera, the range of roles that defined women on the silver screen. Back then, publicity stills were routinely displayed in the lobbies of movie theaters. These were framed pictures, shot by professional photographers on production sets, that always diverged in their perspective, often subtly but sometimes dramatically, from the footage shown on-screen. It seems probable that these uncanny objects, suffused in celluloid fiction while also hinting at its construction, partly inspired Roland Barthes’s seminal deconstruction of cinema in “The Third Meaning,” which was first published in English that same year, and in turn would prove crucial to the early critical reception of Sherman’s work. Whatever the artist’s actual stake in poststructuralist theory—on the whole, she tends to disclaim it—her “Untitled Film Stills” could be endlessly unraveled by critics due to their precise conflation of representational content with its technical base. They could be seen as identical to what they depicted, while simultaneously providing a measure, fractional but critical, of distance. Some viewers, while passing through “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life,” a career-spanning survey of the artist’s oeuvre curated by Philipp Kaiser, might have been reminded of the cultural context in which the artist’s sensibility was forged, but it is safe to say that most would not have been. Without this background, her early work is apt to be experienced as a low-budget preview of the main act to follow—but now one has to wonder if this take would be entirely wrong.

Much like Sherman’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective, mounted just four years ago, this exhibition traced a roughly chronological trajectory starting with a few early works from her time in Buffalo that showcase the artist’s budding skill at impersonation in front of the camera. Alongside these student pieces was a selection of her “Untitled Film Stills,” which today seem strikingly modest in size and production value given their enormous impact. These, of course, marked Sherman’s auspicious debut at the epicenter of the Pictures group, opening the way for a rapid rise to blue-chip status with the increasingly spectacular series that followed—the rear-screen projections, ersatz fashion editorials, centerfold layouts, old-master-painting pastiches, and so on, all of which could be sampled on a processional tour of the museum’s ground floor. Added to this was the insistent narrative of Eli and Edythe Broad’s collecting: Apart from some targeted loans, most of the works are in the possession of their foundation. And then, of course, there was the influence of location: the city of Los Angeles, where, unlike in New York, representations have never been judged to be any less real than their referents.

At “Imitation of Life,” all of the exuberance of postmodern critique—both in relation to the moving image and to Sherman’s photographic excavations of it—underwent a slow fade. Whatever historical insight Kaiser brought to the proceedings was inevitably preempted by the voices of the mostly non-artist “creatives” featured on the Broad’s walkthrough app. Gaby Hoffman, the Transparent star (and Sherman’s once-step-child from her marriage to Michel Auder), credited the artist with expanding her concept of beauty. The designer Humberto Leon added that he could build whole clothing lines around every phase of Sherman’s production. With this praise in mind, the sense of anxiety, traumatization, and schizoid self-loss that once registered so poignantly in her pictures as a reflection on the subjective costs of mediation grew increasingly faint.

On the same app, the director John Waters suggested that the artist make a film in which she plays all the parts—a compelling idea in the sense that, today, it could be done and would certainly yield awesome results. The new Cindy Sherman proposed here was above all a purveyor of the “cinematic,” a term echoed throughout the show in consistently upbeat tones. Now that we are firmly in the era of postcinema, the cinematic must be understood as a prized quality, something to applaud without reservation whenever anyone manages to conjure it up. At the Broad, Sherman was positioned firmly inside an industry that she formerly approached from an acute, diffident angle. The critical discourse of appropriation was all but drowned out by the self-promotional buzz of the “content generator.” Moreover, the institution’s relentless appeals to social media and the culture of the selfie reinforced the perception that what Sherman did with her camera in the “Untitled Film Stills” is what we all do now. Her principal achievement, it would seem, is to have done it earlier.

Jan Tumlir