Performance and photography are fused in Cindy Sherman’s now-signature “self-portraits.” Since the mid-1970s, she has photographed herself in theatrically staged environments, transforming her appearance with cosmetics, costumes, and wigs. After finishing the black-and-white Untitled Film Stills in 1980, Sherman turned to color, focusing her work as actor/director/photographer on issues of women and celebrity, fashion photography, and advertising. She and cohorts Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, and Robert Longo came to be known as the “Pictures Generation” on account of their critical appropriation of images from consumer and media culture.
While the subjects in the Untitled Film Stills are generic types, in Untitled Sherman mimics a specific actress: Marilyn Monroe. Sherman’s recreation of the American idol relies on many small details—from the blond hair and red lipstick to the hairline and parted lips. Seated on the floor against a backdrop (the rolled bottom of which is visible), the female figure is dressed in rustic clothing: a tan button-down shirt, blue pants, and leather booties. Though no corresponding photograph of Monroe has been identified, the reference is so persuasive that Sherman’s identity becomes subsumed by Monroe’s, an effect that distinguishes the image from the wholly invented, “simulacral” (art historian Rosalind Krauss’s term) stills of the Untitled Film Stills. Sherman thereby expands and complicates the possibilities that portraiture offers in her exploration of the mutability of identity. As the artist describes her own experience: “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.”
The addition of Untitled to the ICA/Boston’s collection of prints from Sherman’s early Untitled Film Stills shows where the artist would next go in her work. It also enhances the ICA’s holdings of work by contemporary photographers, such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Rineke Dijkstra, and Nan Goldin, whose works likewise interrogate the staged portrait.