Cindy Sherman was born in 1954, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She emerged onto the New York art scene in the early 1980s as part of a new generation of artists concerned with the codes of representation in a media-saturated era. Having graduated from State University College, Buffalo, New York, in 1976, she moved to New York the following year, at a time when the authority of the Modernist paradigm was coming under increasing scrutiny. Amid debates surrounding authorship and the role of originality, the condition of the photographic image, and the increasing commodification of art, Sherman’s work was quickly embraced in the early 1980s and framed within the contemporary feminist critique of patriarchy. Sherman’s reputation was established early on with her Untitled Film Stills, a series of black-and-white photographs from the late 1970s in which the artist depicted herself dressed in the guises of clichéd B-movie heroines. In photograph after photograph, Sherman was ever present, and yet never really there—her ready adaptation of a range of personae highlighting the masquerade of identity. Her appropriation of the space on both sides of the lens destabilized the traditional opposition between artist and model, object and subject—one that had been theorized by film critics in terms of spectatorship and its gendered codes of looking.
If the Untitled Film Stills elicited debate concerning the construction of woman-as-image, the photographs Sherman made throughout the mid-1980s served to perpetuate this discourse. Her Centerfolds (1981) and Fashion (1983–84) series elaborated the codes of what film theorist Laura Mulvey termed the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of female representation. Emulating the signifiers of the centerfold, the closely cropped photographs reveal a body that is available to the camera and bathed in a vivid light. Sherman’s choice of subject compounds the voyeuristic impression established in the works.
Feeling pigeonholed by the feminist discourse that surrounded her work, Sherman gradually dispensed with representations of the female, often removing herself from the picture and moving toward more fantastic and lurid imagery, as in her Fairy Tales and Disasters series from the mid- to late 1980s. The ever-increasing market for her photographs also prompted this turn, challenging her to attempt to create work that was “unsaleable” due to its visceral depictions of vomit, body parts, and grotesque fairy tales. Simultaneously, she instilled the works with a heightened sense of artifice created by garish colors and gaps that reveal the fiction behind the illusion.
Throughout her career, Sherman has appropriated numerous visual genres—including the film still, centerfold, fashion photograph, historical portrait, and soft-core sex image—while disrupting the operations that work to define and maintain their respective codes of representation. In addition to numerous group exhibitions, her work was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1982), Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1987), Basel Kunsthalle (1991), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (1995), Serpentine Gallery in London (2003), and Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin (2006), among others. Major traveling retrospectives of Sherman’s work have been organized by the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam (1996), Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1997), Museum of Modern Art in New York (1997), and Jeu de Paume in Paris (2007). Sherman lives in New York.