I hate big museums almost as much as I hate research libraries. The little ones, say the Morgan or the Frick in New York, are tolerable because they’re like all those Carnegie public libraries. You can navigate them easily, the staff is small and friendly, you can get in and out before it occurs to you that once upon a time a very wealthy man paid for the building and its contents.
The big museums, and the worst offender is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are stifling, suffocating monuments to very wealthy men and their women, wives included. Henry James, no fan of American capitalism, understood this political-aesthetic function of the great museum as early as 1906, in the immediate aftermath of its rebuilding.
“It is a palace of art, truly, that sits there on the edge of the Park, rearing itself with a radiance. . . . It spoke with a hundred voices of that huge process of historic waste that the place in general keeps putting before you; but showing it in a light that drew out the harshness or the sadness, the pang, whatever it had seemed elsewhere, of the reiterated sacrifice to pecuniary profit. For the question here was to be of the advantage to the spirit, not the pocket; to be of the aesthetic advantage involved in the wonderful clearance to come.”
The grotesque magnificence of the museum salved the wounds inflicted on Americans by what James elsewhere called “the grope of wealth”—that “reiterated sacrifice” to the anal-compulsive demands of capital accumulation? How?
“There was money in the air, ever so much money—that was, grossly expressed, the sense of the whole intimation. And the money was to be for all the most exquisite things—for all the most exquisite except creation, which was to be kept off the scene altogether; for art, selection, criticism, for knowledge, piety, taste. The intimation—which was somehow, after all, so pointed—would have been detestable if interests other, and smaller, than these had been in question.”
You see, these artifacts are gifts to you from the robber barons and the more discrete rich people who have been scouring the planet in search of some claim on a cultural tradition since the 1880s. Where they once graced the halls of great houses and noble palaces—where these artifacts were once mere ornaments and where the price of admission was social standing—now you, a nobody, can look at them for free in a public space, and perhaps even understand their provenance and importance in ways the well-born could not have.
Aren’t you grateful? That is, grossly expressed, the sense of the whole intimation: the money in the air lets you understand all this art as something bought, and thus brought to you, by your benefactors, the philanthropists who didn’t know what else to do with their great wealth. There’s nothing sneaky or subliminal about it: “Education, clearly, was going to seat herself in these marble halls,” as James put it.
MoMA is different. It was launched as an avant-garde alternative to the Metropolitan, so it never indulged the Palladian logic of incorporating all of Western art within its walls. Its recent renovation refuses the monumental style Rem Koolhas would have imposed had he won the architectural competition, and instead embraces the diversions and subdivisions of The Mall, chopping up levels and galleries with escalators, blank walls, unadorned space. You expect to see a Food Court on one of these levels. Aside from the staggering price of admission—at $25.00 per person, you would think a crowd can never gather—this museum announces very few pretensions.
But there is something monumental about the Cindy Sherman exhibit. It stretches your imagination in unlikely ways, by making you experience the history of western art—as if it’s a required course or you’re in that gaggle of tourists dutifully listening to the stentorian docent. It’s not pleasant, but it’s worth the trip. I’ve been three times now, and on my second trip I actually paid the membership fee, bought some books and some demitasse cups, hung around a while, just staring and wondering how this happened.
The first thing to remember about Sherman’s work is that almost every photograph is Untitled: you are not being coached into an attitude—a “subject position”—by the artist’s name for the artifact; you’re on your own. The second thing, and I guess this follows from the first, is that you’d better be prepared to supply some story boards: if you’re narratively challenged, these images can’t make any sense, and so like Sanford Schwartz you’ll leave the museum wondering what hit you.
“Sherman appears to think as much like a novelist as a visual artist,” Schwartz says in his dumbfounded review of the MoMA exhibit, demanding that the artist show us some “real emotion” rather than enlist the emotions of the observer in recounting the untold fable of this photograph, this thing right in front of you. She’s a “disembodied presence,” he complains, “emotionally detached, even a bit bland,” except when she parodies the old masters in the “History Portraits” and depicts the “vulnerabilities of advancing years.” (NYRB, June 7, 2012)
This is something like saying that you object to novels because you can’t index the emotional life of the author by reading the story she’s telling you—you want memoir, autobiography, authentic expression, but you’re stuck with these second-hand representations of somebody else, artificial individuals in mere fictions. In saying as much, Schwartz is hinting that Wassily Kandinsky got it right in 1912, in The Spiritual in Art: “We must therefore find a form which excludes a fairy-tale effect and which does not hinder pure color action. To this end, form, movement, color, natural and imaginary effects must be divorced from any narrative content.”
Actually, Schwartz is more than hinting at the citation and the intellectual genealogy. “It makes sense,” he announces, “that Sherman fashioned a series of fairy-tale scenes, because in a way her entire endeavor is like a story for children.”
Sherman herself would, I am sure, be mystified by these demands and strictures—it’s hard to take them seriously as criticisms of anything I saw—whether they’re issued by Schwartz or Kandinsky. She describes her early work in Buffalo as the “only work that was consistently autobiographical.” But these pictures (apart from the video “Doll’s Clothes”) look like random lines of people waiting to get off the page—to go somewhere else.
According to Schwartz and many others, the equally iconic Diane Arbus made the center of her images “push out at us,” refusing to distract us from the pathos of the scene in view except when we admired the courage of the photographer willing to depict it. But like her early subjects, and unlike Arbus, Sherman was already headed for the margins—she wanted to be distracted, and she was determined to take us with her. “When I moved to New York City,” she explains, “I didn’t want to cut any more photos, so I had to come up with another way to insinuate a story.” (A Play of Selves, 2007, author’s introduction)
There are 8 rooms in the exhibit which move you, mostly laterally, in a kind of chronological direction. Late grotesques and portraits are superimposed on the early “film stills,” however, as if to prepare you for the surprises to come—and vice versa, the very early (1975) “Doll’s Clothes” video, which announces Sherman’s acceptance of the death of painting, dances impishly on the short wall of a room crowded with residual “History Portraits” and society matrons from decades after.
So like a lot of the figures framed here, you keep looking over your shoulder, wondering what just happened, because time rules your being while you’re in this space. But it’s nowhere near linear time: you have to make up the difference, invent the back story, supply some kind of narrative.
The opening scene announces this exhausting demand on you, the mere spectator. You begin before modern art arrived, in a profuse wilderness. The oversized background is a river coming toward you but it’s crowded by a black and white forest, and in the foreground, if that’s what you call it, are four gigantic figures dressed in medieval costume, all youthful, even childish. One of them is the ancestor of the clown and its demotic equivalent, the doll you can dress any way you like—he’s the fool holding his long striped pins, ready to juggle, or to make the quick change. You know already that you’re walking backward through a labyrinth with no temporal limits.
Then you get to the “film stills,” where Sherman found a new way to “insinuate a story” into images that are staged but not yet frozen into pictures. How does she do this, and meanwhile remind us that she’s recapitulating the History of Art, as the portrait, the nude, and the still life? That’s what I kept asking myself. Here’s a provisional answer. She makes you tell the story because you can see, pretty plainly, that everything here is in motion. What is happening here? What just happened here? What is about to happen here? A fugitive woman—it’s definitely not Cindy Sherman—is crossing a highway with a shopping cart; a frightened woman grips steam pipes in a bright cellar, waiting for this incongruous light to reveal the intruder; a drunken woman draped in the gauzy curtain of a motel room’s sliding glass door is bending toward you, begging you to come back.
The art is sequential without the sequence. You’re looking at a comic book but the facing page has been ripped out, you’re looking at a movie cut to pieces by an angry producer or a stupid editor. These pictures require narrative art from you, the viewer, as if you could heal a temporal wound of memory opened right in front of you, just before you got there. Again, you have to tell the story, because what’s next will never arrive without your intervention.
Hereafter everything slows down. There is motion throughout, but by the time you get to the Grand Exit, where the society matrons stare through you to the walls that hold the “History Portraits,” the 1970s’ sentence of death on painting has been reversed and every frame holds a Renaissance portrait rendered as a still life. The kinetic, vulnerable desire of the female in artistic focus, which is the expression on every previous face, no matter how much clownish makeup it bears, has finally disappeared, gone dead. But with it so, too, has any trace of admiration or affection for the conventions of western art in the modern period. All that remains is resentment. Or is it sadness?
This gradual petrification is what makes Untitled # 465 from 2009, which faces you as you arrive in the last room—that’s the Grand Exit crammed with society matrons—so arresting. My first time through with an old friend, I said, “Christ, I’ve seen her before!” He said, “Yeah, we all have, on the Upper East Side.” We were both right.
After the spare, ugly room that contains the fashion photos of the 1980s, there comes a beautiful, scary room of later, bigger “film stills” in color, where Sherman supplies a wider frame and more detail, so that the stories you were telling two rooms ago now seem less urgent to the completion of your thoughts, or hers. This room is divided, though, by an interior wall—and on the other side of this wall are some smirking clowns and a society matron, all out of sequence. Untitled # 469 from 2008 holds the center of the outer wall.
It’s the same woman you see just before you leave, in Untitled #465. In this “earlier” picture, #469, adjacent to what the curator calls the “abject gallery”—the color film stills—she’s staring at us as if posed at twilight on a plantation road framed by Spanish oaks, dark hair swept back from a sharp face softened by crumbling makeup on her chin and a playful tilt in her upper lip. “She knows you’ll betray her,” I said to my friend, “and she’s strong enough to forget you. Lot of confidence there.”
That same woman says goodbye as you leave this exhibit, she’s # 465. This time she looks at us over her shoulder, still all dressed up, even wearing the same pearls, but with no place to go except up those steps we see behind her in Central Park. There is nothing but resentment set in her red lips, and her eyes have narrowed to the blind angle of suspicion. She’s leaving us behind, but we know this departure is not her choice. What can we say, what can we do to retrieve her? Have our choices sent her away? We’re still intervening, but it’s too late.
For me, the narrative art Cindy Sherman has demanded of us, and herself, is nowhere so poignantly expressed as in this mirror image of #465 and #469, one woman whose lives might well have run in reverse. The ruined image we’re left with as we stagger toward the escalator could be the beginning rather than the end of her personal history—in this space, time can run backward. But then those gigantic medieval figures we flee en route to the “film studies” could be the end of Art History.