The Museum of Modern Art is host to two significant exhibitions, both of which explore Photography’s relationship to reality. Cindy Sherman’s 6th floor mid-career retrospective and Eugene Atget’s “Documents pour artistes”, hidden away in the Photography 3rd floor galleries, represent diametrically opposed positions.
First some notes on the Sherman retrospective, which is the big draw. The first room held a couple of revealing images. Revealing to me at least, because I had never considered Sherman in the context of Warhol, and his influence on her early work seems so obvious in retrospect. I appreciated gaining that insight. I also appreciated the playfulness of Sherman’s early work itself. A good example is an animated stop-action film: paper cutouts of Sherman trying on outfits, much like a children’s game. Unfortunately, I don't have images of the earliest pieces from the show - a good reason to go and see for yourself.
The organization of the exhibition as whole is somewhat confusing: alternating between chronological and thematic. Pictures from the same projects get dispersed among many of the themed sections, making the themes seem somewhat arbitrary or forced. One gallery, containing a series of images primarily referring to Renaissance and Dutch Master era painting was decked out like a room from the Met, with painted walls and benches in the center of the room. This seemed really silly to me. There is a difference in the way one looks at an “Old Master” painting and it’s pastiche. And the curators know the difference. I wondered if this was done tongue-in-cheek, or worse, was it an example of pandering? In either case, I don’t think institutions should take the role of jokers or panderers. Let’s leave that to the artists.
What about Sherman’s work itself? No one can contest that she is an important and influential artist. Her Untitled Film Stills are a significant piece of feminist art. Feminists have taken the work to argue that in a male-dominated society, women cannot have authentic public selves; instead, women, in Sartre’s sense, live-for-others. Women are forced to become actresses, taking on only roles permitted by men. In her work, Sherman is the actress, and by deconstructing the roles, she undermines them. Not everyone agreed with the feminist interpretation then, and some may think it is no longer applicable now, but that was the argument at the time the work was produced and it did influence a lot of artists.
I had mixed feelings about the show. I find the work from her middle period the most interesting: the clowns, the viscera, and body parts. However, I don’t think this work was ever resolved. The clowns don’t grate the way Nauman’s do and generally, the feeling of revulsion from the work just isn’t as strong as it could be. But I admire Sherman for taking the risk. For one, it was so different from what she had previously done, and second, if done well, it wouldn’t be easy to like. I get the sense of an artist trying to go deeper, to go beyond what she already knows, and beyond her comfort zone. This is what artists should do, at least from time to time.
Unfortunately, I don’t think she went far enough. And where she ends up – the most recent work in the exhibition -- falls back on ideas that are by now familiar and safe. So the trajectory isn’t quite right. There is another aspect of the later work that bothers me: it seems filled with narcissism. I don’t mean to suggest that Sherman is a narcissist for photographing herself. Rather, I have the feeling that the work indulges our ever-growing societal narcissism. We, collectively, are too much in love with ourselves.
Unlike Sherman, Eugene Atget is nowhere to be found within his photographs. Atget is the type of photographer it can take quite a long time to get, but it is worth it when you get it. The title of the exhibition, “Documents pour artistes”, comes from the signage on Atget’s shop. He was a photographer whose business was to produce images to be used as a reference by painters working in the studio. He was creating source material for other artists to use, rather than making images to be valued as aesthetic objects themselves. It is in good part because of his desire to describe that the work has the power it does.
When I think about Sherman and Atget together, I think about the significance of a photograph’s ability to record every detail, and how enticing it can be to simply look at the surface of things. I also think about the presence or the absence of the photographer as a deliberate and personal choice each artist makes – and the wonderful conundrum that results: When being there is not being there. And when seemingly not present, is there, nevertheless.