First encounters with Cindy Sherman

by Douglas Crimp

Tue, Nov 07, 2017

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The Wex welcomes Douglas Crimp on Thursday, November 16 for the 2017 Lambert Lecture to discuss nine contemporary artists who've used femininity as a construct in their individual practices. The legendary author, historian, and curator was editor of the influential contemporary art journal October and has written several books, including 2012's “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol and the 2016 memoir Before Pictures, which chronicles his life in New York in the late 1960s and '70s. 

One of Crimp's earliest and most influential achievements is Pictures, the 1977 exhibition at New York City's Artists Space that introduced the term "the Pictures Generation," encompassing young artists exploring how images shape perceptions of the world and the self such as Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine. While Cindy Sherman is now placed firmly in this camp and is included in Crimp's 1979 rewrite of the essay that accompanied the show, she wasn't included in the initial show, so we asked Crimp to share his earliest recollections of Sherman and her work. He offered a candid tale of a young curator finding his footing and of a young artist who, like many of us, brought an element of performance into her daily life.

I was asked by my friend Helene Winer, who was then director of Artists Space, to be curator of the first Artists Space show with an outside curator, and with a catalogue, a show that would travel. This is what became the Pictures show. I was very dependent on Helene for leads to the generation of artists I eventually showed because I didn’t consider myself a curator. I didn’t look at art in studios. I kind of followed what was going on in Artists Space becaue Helene was the director and she was a friend.

She sent me to various studios, and one of the things that we did was to drive to Buffalo when Cindy and Robert Longo were still living there. The show was in September of ’77 and I think this would’ve been been in the winter of ’77, like December or January. We went because Linda Cathcart the curator, who was then at the Albright-Knox, did a show called In Western New York, and it was a kind of local juried exhibition but when Linda did it, she did it herself as a curated exhibition rather than a juried one. And both Cindy and Robert were in that show. There was a piece by Cindy, called something like Line-Up for Linda and Robert. There’s actually an image of it in my book [Before Pictures]. It was an early piece of cutout images of herself in a line, and as you go down the line the costumes and the makeup change, so she mutates slightly from one character to another throughout. And I did not, stupidly, recognize how interesting what she was doing was, so Robert was in the show and Cindy wasn’t. But then that summer, they moved to New York. They were then a couple and they moved to my neighborhood, which is lower Manhattan, the Financial District. So we became neighbors. And Cindy, right around that time, after the Pictures show opened, began the first of the untitled film stills. She also started working at Artists Space as sort of a secretary, working at the front desk, and she dolled herself up often, as was her wont, to sit at the front desk, so she was doing something like almost kind of performance work at that time, putting on a new persona each day. But she began making the film stills in late ’77, so I got to know her through that milieu. We became friendly, and I saw the film stills, and I thought they were really amazing.

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #07, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 in.The Broad Art Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

When I did the Pictures show, I really didn’t know what I was doing (laughs). This was all new material to me, and I was also beginning in my graduate work to grapple with French theory. There was a lot going on for me intellectually that I was trying to figure out, that was new, and this art was among that. Helene had a better sense of it than I did, but Helene also felt I was someone who was good at writing about stuff, making sense of things. In a way her approach to this work was very intuitive. I was entranced by it, but I didn’t know why, and that’s how I write criticism – I figure out why. So at the time, I hadn’t quite put it together with what I eventually did in the rewritten Pictures essay, which was published in October in the spring issue of 1979, a year-and-a-half later. By the time I wrote the second essay, I had developed a better sense of what I wanted to say about this work, and I changed the cast of characters. I omitted Philip Smith, who was doing realistic drawings at the time, and I became more interested in lens-based work. By then, Robert Longo was beginning to do performance work, and I saw more of Cindy’s work. I saw much of this work as being about performance and I had not seen that way before, so Cindy then became the prime example of how performance work had lent itself to pictures. 

Images: Douglas Crimp photo by Alice O'Malley; Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #07, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 in. The Broad Art Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York