Regally Blonde: Cindy Sherman's Sad Wigs and Artistic Genius

The famed American photographer is a one-woman school. Yet look in her eyes and you see that she herself is aware of the problem with her art.

Tal Niv
Tal Niv
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'Untitled Film Still #21' by Cindy Sherman (undated).
'Untitled Film Still #21' by Cindy Sherman (undated).Credit: Via Bloomberg
Tal Niv
Tal Niv

1. The soft shoes. Fur-lined bootees. Clothes similar to the ones she wore in her last completed film, “The Misfits,” from 1961. And that gaze. The gaze she has. Its so-precise representation. The way in which Cindy Sherman, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, personifies that particular strain of vulnerability. It’s amusing, actually, to look again at Sherman’s work now and see that, yes, it’s true. She’s the real thing. A one-woman school.

I know that she has no children. That for five years she was in a relationship, a liaison, with David Byrne (from Talking Heads). That she’s high-reaching. Very rich. That the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought her “Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980” for a reported $1 million, years ago.

This Sherman is the woman who created, presented and impersonated the most typical feminine types – temptress, depressed woman, waiting woman, broken woman – in American-Western culture. At a certain time, white and rich and repressed. This photograph was shot in 1982, after she’d completed the movie stills and before she launched into a bizarre and difficult-to-look-at series of gaping, androgynous anatomical mannequins, spliced together in totally traumatic positions – like the deviant surrealist Hans Bellmer, who assembled from himself half of an upside-down woman.

This photo is actually one of the easier ones to understand, accept, marvel over. For it nudges the bourgeois threshold. It’s readily understood. It’s not threatening. Nor is it exactly a simulacrum – that is, imitating an imagined, nonexistent source – as the art critic Rosalind E. Krauss wrote of Sherman. An imagined source is a scene from a film that wasn’t shot, starring a woman who looks like all of Hitchcock’s women figures, which themselves look as though they’re made of wax. So this photograph is not a complete simulacrum.

Untitled (Marylin), 1982, by Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of Igal Ahouvi Art Collection

We’re looking at Marilyn, wearing lipstick, color less than the platinum of the hair. Marilyn Monroe existed, but the photograph itself, including the high angle, including the darkness, is not a reconstruction of a specific image. Not that I could find. Sherman shoots herself by herself, but some of her movie stills – a woman in the style of Kim Novak, head turned back in apprehension against the background of a blue-gray sky – were taken by her father.

That’s an interesting fact – that her father took the picture of her, one of his five children. What I see: The Marilyn hairline is an exact, deep bay. Maybe it’s not a wig. And the edge of the blanket or the carpet, top right. And the fur bootees. The opposite of high heels. But still-flammable material.

2. Next to the front door, on the eve of the holiday, I see The New York Times magazine, T. And on the back page, “Cindy Sherman’s 29 Blond Wigs.” The paper’s website has a 24-second stop-motion video showing all her wigs, 156 in number. Some dark, some clownish. She’s 60 years old now. A natural blond herself. Blue-eyed. Thin-lipped. A genius of a woman. One of the great women artists of the 20th century. I look at the series of fair-haired hanks of hair, at the hairdos. In blond. Then I remember seeing “Sherman” in the Igal Ahouvi art collection a few months ago, and I ask his representative for the “Sherman” he has.

Collecting is a matter, in part, of ownership and power – and now I have a “Sherman.” On loan. Here. In my place. I look at it anew – at this work, at the expression, at her face. And understand more than ever: Sherman is young here; her chest skin is smooth, her face, too. You can see in the eyes that she herself knows what the problem is. The endlessness of the repetition of more and more and more women. The fact that she’s perverted. Not hysterical. Not entirely spaced out. Not entirely submissive.

3. On the way to a concert the next day. Couples, heavy blonds, holding hands, teeth bared. I’m thinking about Sherman’s sad wigs, with no face under them, and about Kim Novak and her small ears, and about his hand in line that I want to hold, and about the very blond Meryl Streep in “Plenty” – which I saw in a movie theater in Denver in 1986 – saying “Here I go” at the end, after again meeting her lover from the war period and inhaling smoke and sliding into her hallucination.

At night, afterward, I see that Krauss’ book about Sherman is available from Amazon. I put it on my wish list.



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