Icons of the 1980s

Matthew Israel
Feb 6, 2014 6:04PM

Cindy Sherman gained recognition in the late 1970s as part a group of artists referred to as The Pictures Generation. So-called because of their common appropriation of pictures from mass media—i.e. television, film, and advertising—these artists produced work in a wide range of styles, including photography, film, video, and performance that both sampled and utilized the techniques of mass media. The 1977 exhibition “Pictures” at Artists Space in New York, curated by Douglas Crimp, as well as Crimp’s associated essay, were seminal in defining the movement.

Sherman’s best-known work from the late 1970s is her series of Untitled Film Stills. This series—which she finished in 1980—is arguably one of the best-known works of the 1980s and has influenced countless artists both in the art and film worlds, among them Yasumasa Morimura, Alex Prager, Nikki S. Lee, Kalup Linzy, Laurel Nakadate, and Ryan Trecartin, who has been called the “21st century inheritor of [Sherman’s] legacy.” In short, anyone performing or creating fictitious scenes or doing self-portraits or using disguises in front of the camera is indebted to Sherman. Others have said that its hard to find a woman who went to art school to study photography not being influenced by her work.

So that being said, what are the film stills?

In short, they present, through the image of Sherman herself—dressing up and creating the appropriate context—the various forms/stereotypes/clichés in which women have been historically presented in film. Some have seen them as akin to a training manual for how to be a woman, according to film.

Sherman started the series as an experiment in 1977 when she was only 23. The images are called “untitled stills” to refer to movies stills but also publicity images. And they’re numbered in the order they were made. Sherman worked on the series until she said she ran out of clichés in 1980. In total, she created 75. 

Among the stereotypes seen in Sherman’s works are images of the runaway teenager, the career girl, the star, the actress, the anxious lover, the fallen woman, the lonely girl and the rich girl. Her works often suggest the climax of a story or dread that something bad is going to happen. Many of Sherman’s women thus seem reactive, filled with fear, anxiety, and not self-possessed.

Critics have seen Sherman’s works as empowering to women through their ability to simply make stereotypes known and to take them back from Hollywood (by literally inhabiting them). It has also been argued that Sherman, part of a generation of artists influenced by the writings of French philosophers and cultural critics such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva, reflected these theorists’ interest in calling attention to the manufacture and learned aspect of identity (through gender, race and sexuality constructions).

While Sherman’s film stills remain her most well-known work, in the more than two decades after their completion, Sherman has continued to explore so many possibilities for self-portraiture. At times, she has acted out women more recognizable from daily life; she was one of the first photographers to shoot large-scale; she has made photographs absent of herself and including only pools of trash and what looks like vomit; and during the late 1980s, she began making works based on Old Master paintings, in which she commonly used bad makeup and strange prosthetics to make the sitter look quite disgusting, poking fun at the tradition of portraiture.

Read the next post in this series on Damien Hirst and the rise of the Young British Artists.

Matthew Israel