Body Language: The Presence and Absence of Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine, 1975-1987

Cindy Sherman, Perhaps one of the most overlooked series in Cindy Sherman’s oeuvre is a photographic travelogue throughout her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Titled “A Cindy Book (c.1964-1975),” the collection brings together pictures from vacations, school activities (prom, sporting events, class photos, etc.), holidays, candid shots, past boyfriends, times with friends, and family moments. It’s an authorized view into the world of the artist before she established herself within the historical framework of art history. However, while the collection at first appears innocent and nostalgic, it quickly becomes more puzzling. Underneath every single photograph is a hand-written claim, “That’s me,” which is then read as pointing directly to the referent Cindy Sherman. And, if we had not already understood the assertion, each time a photograph includes more than one subject, the one claiming to be Cindy Sherman has been circled—another visual cue to locate Sherman amongst her various situations, arrangements, and human counterparts.

What is it about the caption underneath the photographs that instills uneasiness about the series? The two words “That’s me” are fairly simple, and act in a seemingly transparent linguistic convention. It appears as if they seek to guide the view into separating the important from the semi-important; that is, to distinguish our main interest (Cindy Sherman) from her social context. But then why does the caption “That’s me,” include a comma after every single assertion? Could not an arrow pointing upwards, or a period, or perhaps even a lack of punctuation work more effectively for communicating the supposed intention of stating “That’s me?” It is at this point that the earlier works of Sherman’s become hyper-relevant, because it is becoming increasingly apparent that the inclusion of the comma within the caption points to an investigation of identity—a play on selves.

Bus Riders

Cindy Sherman’s early series focus on the ways in which the artist can manipulate her body to convey an otherness to her own existence; rather, that she can make attempts at assuming, through physical alteration, an identity outside of her own. Therefore, one must ask, “Where is Cindy in these photographs?” She is both there and not there. The intersection of the physical identity and the personality is exploited in series like “Bus Riders” or “Murder Mystery,” where locating a perceived genuine recognition of Cindy Sherman edges closer to the impossible. With these in mind, the captions in “A Cindy Book” become even more coy and ironic: how do we know if these photographs house the authentic Cindy Sherman as a young individual? The comma following “That’s me” becomes increasingly relevant to this discussion, because it allows for a new level of suspicion, while establishing a narrative structure (a comma continues, rather than ends a thought) that reflects Sherman’s interest in the elasticity of identity. In “Bus Riders,” the series is provided a visual base in its repeated backdrop, so the focus becomes the subject, whereas with “A Cindy Book,” one assumes the truthfulness of the situation and the subject, because of its established structure—the family album. But knowing what we know now about Sherman’s artistic progression, could not one claim that it is possible that none of the photographs are actually of Cindy Sherman? Would it matter? Because of Sherman’s role in the postmodern photographic movement, the authenticity of the self in these pictures becomes incredibly important, but perhaps Sherman is simply stating that it does not matter if it’s actually her, because what is meaningful is the cliché, the narrative, or the ways in which the viewer analyzes the content. Maybe the image itself is not important, as long as the viewer reaches the same understanding.

 Sherrie Levine, unlike Cindy Sherman, does not thrust the image of herself into her photographic artwork; rather, she investigates the role of authorship and the shape of originality through her appropriation of the works of esteemed 20th Century male artists. Whereas Cindy Sherman uses her body in the creation of a type of portrait that makes us question where the true Cindy Sherman lies, Levine bypasses the physical predicament and instead assumes the role of the assembler—the artist as a potentially culturally removed being. While her series focus on canonical works of high importance in the history of Western Art, we rest on the assumption of Levine as artist, in an acceptance of her role, which in turn should lead to a removal of hesitation. However, Levine works in the paradigm of appropriation, in that she re-photographs, re-drafts, or re-presents works of other artists and claims them as her own. In doing so, she forces viewers to reestablish their convictions on artistic intent, authorship, originality, and creativity.

The rise of modernism, according to Levine, brought with it the wave of interest in artistic originality. In an interview with Jeanne Siegel, Levine, in response to a question regarding historical processes of copying, states, “I think it was a different relationship to history at that time. It was more like an Oriental belief in tradition. You strove to be mature in your tradition. Originality was not an issue. I think that’s where modernism was a real break.”1 Vital to an investigation into Levine’s work is an understanding of her reaction to the logic of modernism. Whereas in the Modernist age works were revered for their supposed unique brilliance and importance, Levine’s photographs are decidedly postmodern, because they posit the idea that the photograph itself does not matter, but rather the way in which the photograph works—to where it points and to what it references—is the most important aspect. She effectually empties the established meaning out of her medium in attempts to reconstitute a way of seeing that is against modernism.

The aim of this project is to analyze the ways in which Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman take a feminist approach in opposition to the established patriarchy of Modern art. With Cindy Sherman, her treatment of the female body reacts to what feminist theoreticians, sociologists, and art historians like Laura Mulvey have dubbed “The Male Gaze.” In series like “Centerfolds/Horizontals,” [1981] Cindy Sherman places herself within the structure of the centerfold—a socially accepted position for the Playboy blonde bombshell. It is impossible to look at her early series without raising questions about gender politics, power differentials, body exploitation, and above all Cindy Sherman’s view on all of it. Using Foucault, Lacan, and Bourdieu (to name a few), we hope to establish a theoretical framework regarding agency, gaze, capital, and power, through a decisively gendered lens. This framework will inform our reading of Sherman and Levine’s shades of feminism.

There are two sides to this project. First, Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine, by the very nature of their work, are situated within an incredibly complex web of art history, steeped heavily in theory, psychological nuance, art historical schism, canon, and gender roles. Because of this, it is vital to trace, at least to the extent that a solid foundation is formed, the role of their art as a part of a progression. Early video art and cinema become absolutely important to understanding Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” for their theoretical value. Diane Arbus is an undeniable influence on the role of women as artists in the 1960s and 1970s, as her photographs spark a widespread interest in the role of women as photographer. And lastly, Marxist rhetoric and the social history of art are critically relevant to a discussion of agency and freedom of movement, for its relationship to gender is quite incontrovertible. Therefore, our project will provide a context, both theoretical and technical, for the act of situating Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine inside, outside, and around the sphere of women artists.

Our second approach focuses specifically on the early series of art from both artists’ careers. This approach is a much more in-depth analysis of the technical nature of the art works, which will then be used to provide the base for interpretation. It is through this tactic that we will employ our knowledge of postmodern theory and feminist rhetoric as our method. Therefore, the project consists of two distinctly separate approaches, in terms of detail; however, both are vital for a nuanced understanding of these artists. Their work is in the postmodern structure, which is a decisive reaction to Modernism—not the extension or furthering of modernist ethos. Because of this, historical context becomes an irrefutable necessity for analyzing Levine and Sherman. Even so, we’ll have to balance that with a closely focused stylistic, semiotic, and iconographical method.


2 Comments so far

  1. Elizabeth on September 26, 2008 2:10 pm

    This is way cool —a veritable theory of everything. I cannot wait to see it unfold. There are lots of things I do not know like the difference between modernism and post-modernism.

    Is this the actual first page or will you have to re-write all of this when you submit your thesis?

  2. Inadyroinna on October 1, 2008 12:27 pm

    Nice site!


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