by Peter Zimmerman

The following essay is based on a reading of a 1981 feature by Andy Grundberg on the work of Cindy Sherman:

Cindy Sherman: A Playful and Political Post-Modernist
By Andy Grundberg
Published  November 22, 1981

Grundberg, in opening his article on Cindy Sherman, presents a broad look at the history of Modernist photography. He claims that the entrance of photography into the discourse of Fine Arts comes at exactly the same time that the medium, and really those working within in, began to turn away from the aims of Modernism. He writes, “Photographers took pains to stress their interest in the formal properties of their medium, investigating ”problems” of time, tone, space and framing in the Bauhaus spirit of Moholy-Nagy.”1 However, Grundberg suggests that the shift in contemporary photography of the late 1970s was a distancing from social document, and instead marked the birth of novel looks at both the temporal phenomena of the earth and manipulations of its body.

Robert Smithson was particularly intriguing in his usage of the photographic medium, in that by juxtaposing photography and the fleeting nature of many of his earthworks, he questioned where exactly a work of art resided. For example, with his work “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” Smithson traveled throughout the Yucatan, creating site-specific works with mirrors. After finishing the arrangement of the mirrors, he photographed them a few times and then destroyed the arrangements. He used these photographs, along with a piece of writing akin to a travelogue, as his way of exhibiting the art work. Therefore, is the artwork located within the temporal arrangement of the mirrors, or are the photographs the actual artwork? Can photography carry not only the technical capacity of the medium but also the aura of the site-specific work? What about the idea of “you have to be there to really get it?” If Smithson makes it impossible for anyone to visit these works by destroying them, is it even an art work, or just a document? And if the latter, can document carry the purported mystical and esoteric nature of the highest kind of art?

Grundberg’s reliance on Earthwork artists and their usage of photography points to a specific rejection of Modernist ideals of the aura. Christo and Jeanne-Claude create tension about the consumption of their art by constantly producing drafts, videos, or photographs of their works in progression, but because each work is on such a large scale and site-specific, can the artwork be completely appreciated through the dissemination of material via photography, drawing, writing, and film? Other artists such as Nancy Holt, Alice Aycock, James Turrell and Michael Heizer also open up the dialogue about the potential limits and abilities of photography and Walter Benjamin’s idea of the “aura.”

How, then, does Cindy Sherman fit into the dialogue postulated by the Earthwork artists of the 1960s and 1970s? According to Grundberg, Sherman does so by focusing on appearance, which can be loaded as either superficial or complex. For appearance to be superficial, it has to play upon pre-digested cultural codes– clichés– that require a lack of engagement for consumption. In order to complicate the superficiality of appearance, Modernists would claim that the exact staging of a photograph and then the technical processes used to produce the image would result in the creation of an “aura,” and hence a loaded persona produced by a human photographic referent. But doesn’t Cindy Sherman fill both of these roles? She can be read as superficial in works such as the Untitled Film Stills, because she plays upon the cultural nostalgia for foreign female stars from the 1950s. Or, she uses familiar image construction codes for works such as the Centerfolds or the A Play on Selves. However, one could also claim that Cindy Sherman fulfills the Modernist impulses within photography in order to create an esoteric meaning behind and through appearance. Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #92″ (1981)For example, in the Centerfolds she supposedly strips away the traditional eroticized Playboy look of the model and replaces it with herself, in character, in positions that evoke terror, sympathy, and perhaps even fear. They flip the image code around; however, as Laura Mulvey would argue, they still work within the code of the male gaze, and hence are still representative of the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of femininity. Therefore, Cindy Sherman would be both fully rejecting the eroticization of woman while at the same time under the impenetrable gaze of the male voyeur. In doing so, appearance is complicated and no full answer is reached as to the nature of the photographs, and this ambivalence and multiplicity of alternative readings produces an aura surrounding the photographs. As Grundberg claims, “Appearance is all, she seems to say, yet she also demonstrates how conventionalized and delimited appearances ultimately are.”

Grundberg seems to redefine Postmodernism through Cindy Sherman in his article, thereby leading to a more complex reading of its aims and motivations. He writes, “Such pictures could be called post-modern both in the sense that they reach back into the past and in the sense that they constitute a rebuke of modernism.” If Grundberg believes that Sherman’s works potentially exist as tied to the past while at the same time rejecting its code, how can they remain viable and readable? Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #91″ (1981)I believe Grundberg sees Sherman’s works as indicating the broad scope of postmodernism as both a movement and a rejection of a movement. As Abigail Solomon-Godeau claims, “Postmodern practice hinges on the assertion of contingency and the primacy of cultural codes. It follows that a significant proportion of postmodern art based on photographic usages is animated by a critical, or, if one prefers, deconstructive impulse. The intention of such work is less about provoking feeling than about provoking thought.” Solomon-Godeau suggest that postmodernist art is fragmentary in its completeness, in that its motivation is to instigate intellectual pursuit, rather than the Modernist ideal of bathing in the euphoria of the sublime. However, doesn’t Cindy Sherman’s works, in some respects, do exactly both of those things? For example, the Fairy Tales series for Vanity Fair from 1985 invoke the codes of theatre, the theatrical gaze, cultural narratives (fairy tales), and horrific tableaus to create images that are both sublime in their grotesque nature and also wholly artificial. Cindy Sherman “Untitled” (1985)As Cindy Sherman points out in discussing the series, “In horror stories or in fairy tales, the fascination with the morbid is also, at least for me, a way to prepare for the unthinkable… That’s why it’s very important for me to show the artificiality of it all, because the real horrors of the world are unmatchable, and they’re too profound.  It’s much easier to absorb – to be entertained by it, but also to let it affect you psychologically – if it’s done in a fake, humorous, artificial way.” It appears that Sherman’s rhetoric matches Solomon-Godeau’s conception of postmodernism; however, the fact that the photographs are visually overwhelming and loaded with content that inspires such a volatile and extreme emotional reaction could lend itself to a belief that the images retain a level of Modernist impulse.

It is important to recognize the time in which this article was published in 1981 for the New York Times. Andy Grundberg was in no way the only person mentioning the rejection of Modernist ideals and the opening up of alternative, fragmented views of art, politics, globalization, economics, and the playing field of the personal. Douglas Crimp’s two articles “Pictures” (1979) and “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism” (1980) presented a view of art’s trajectory as in a period of radical redefination, which was ostensibly led by the likes of Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman. At this point, a wide variety of art historians were vying to create a more cohesive and comprehensive conception of contemporary art, and in doing so urged for a specific types of postmodernism, which perhaps ironically clashed at certain edges (thereby reinforcing the fragmentary nature of the proposed movement). Grundberg’s essay is yet another inclusion in the art historic discourse of postmodernism; however, what is compelling about his reading of the Centerfolds pictures, and by extension that of Sherman’s oeuvre, is that he believes Sherman to combine both “Postmodern” and “Modern” aesthetics. Does this then add a third dimension to the debate? Does Sherman open up a liminal space between Modern and Postmodern, in that she edges at different points to a more sympathetic viewing of one aesthetic over the other? Is there a space for both, or must one force her art into one category or the other? Where exactly does oppositional logic break down– or does it whatsoever?

Further Reading:

PS1 Contemporary Art: Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution
Artforum: On The Road: Jeffrey Weiss on Land Art Today *login required*
SculptureCenter: Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers: Feminism and Land Art in the 1970s
New York Times: Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers (Review)
Time Magazine: What Women Have Done to Art


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