In December 1995, The Museum of Modern Art acquired all sixty-nine black-and-white photographs in Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills series. This insured that this landmark body of work was preserved in its entirety in a single public collection. The series has been exhibited as a whole only once before.
Sherman began making these pictures in 1977, when she was twenty-three. The first six were an experiment: fan-magazine glimpses into the life (or roles) of an imaginary blonde actress, played by Sherman herself. The photographs look like movie stills—or perhaps like publicity pix—purporting to catch the blond bombshell in unguarded moments at home. The protagonist is shown preening in the kitchen (#3) and lounging in the bedroom (#6). On to something, Sherman tried other characters in other roles: the chic starlet at her seaside hideaway (#7), the luscious librarian (#13, at left), the domesticated sex kitten (#14), the hot-blooded woman of the people (#35), the ice-cold sophisticate (#50), and others. She eventually completed the series in 1980. She stopped, she has explained, when she ran out of clichés.
Other artists had drawn upon popular culture, but Sherman's strategy was new. For her the pop-culture image was not a subject (as it had been for Walker Evans) or raw material (as it had been for Andy Warhol) but a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made. Her film stills look and function just like the real ones—those 8-by-10-inch glossies designed to lure us into a drama we find all the more compelling because we know it is not real.
In the Untitled Film Stills there are no Cleopatras, no ladies on trains, no women of a certain age. There are, of course, no men. The sixty-nine solitary heroines map a particular constellation of fictional femininity that took hold in postwar America—the period of Sherman's youth, and the ground-zero of our contemporary mythology. In finding a form for her own sensibility, Sherman touched a sensitive nerve in the culture at large.
Although most of the characters are invented, we sense right away that we already know them. That twinge of instant recognition is what makes the series tick, and it arises from Cindy Sherman's uncanny poise. There is no wink at the viewer, no open irony, no camp. As Warhol said, "She's good enough to be a real actress."
This exhibition is sponsored by Madonna.