Cindy Sherman Storms L.A.'s Broad: Iconic Artist Explains Her Hollywood State of Mind

Spencer Lowell
Cindy Sherman

In a rare interview, the icon explains her movie-minded process as her show, the Broad’s first single-artist retrospective, comes to Los Angeles.

Cindy Sherman returns to Los Angeles in grand fashion in June with a retrospective of her 40-year career, Imitation of Life, at the Broad through Oct. 2. Hollywood collectors Katy Perry, Patricia Arquette, Demi Moore, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest (Sherman’s ex-boyfriend Steve Martin also is a patron of her work), and blue-chip L.A. artists John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha feted the new show — which marks Sherman’s first major appearance in L.A. in 20 years — on June  9 at Otium. Hosting them were Edythe and Eli Broad, whose 2,000-piece collection includes 127 works by Sherman, the world’s largest private cache of her work — making her ideal for the museum’s first single-artist show since its September opening.

Over four decades, Sherman, 62, who is repped by New York’s Metro Pictures gallery, has imitated pretty much every type of woman (and some men), hustling in and out of wigs and corsets, dresses and pants, clown makeup and masks, assuming a multitude of enigmatic looks in works inextricably bound with movie- and image-making. The artist herself, petite and pale (recently on crutches after a tumble from an insubordinate platform shoe) is almost unrecognizable without makeup, wigs and prosthetics. The show title even references Hollywood, specifically the 1959 Douglas Sirk classic, starring Lana Turner, about a light-skinned black girl who attempts to pass for white.

“Instead of being ironic, I was being more authentic and sincere and wanting to make pretty pictures, which I've never wanted to make before," says Sherman, an artist sometimes known for fascinatingly grotesque portraits, of more recent pieces being shown at the Broad, adding that her relationship with Hollywood has evolved: “I’m much more comfortable now meeting celebrities than I used to be. Maybe because I have a few friends who are celebrities, so I get the whole shtick of it, artifice of it, and it is kind of fascinating to me,” she tells THR during a rare interview.

Curator Philipp Kaiser, who was instrumental in getting Sofia Coppola to sit down with Sherman for a Q&A as part of the show’s catalog, says the work goes well beyond exploring artifice: “It talks about representation, identity. It’s a case study about the self appropriating different selves.” Curtis, who with her husband Guest bought a Cindy Sherman in 1985, says: “This is her first color work — we chose it because the image of the platinum blonde with the clenched fist and her head down reminded us of old Hollywood: the beauty and the repression and the resulting anger of women.” Curtis considers Sherman “on par with Meryl  Streep, Laurie Metcalf or Sarah Paulson in her ability to inhabit other people. I think she is a great actress. Her images are movies in a single frame, and she is the auteur, handling all technical and emotional aspects of the film."

With their meticulous lighting and outlandish makeup and costumes, Sherman’s photos look like a film crew might have produced them. In her case it’s a crew of one, with Sherman playing director, star, makeup artist, costume designer and editor. (You would think she’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to pull it off, but a normal workday doesn’t start until two o’clock, after the gym and whatever errands or business needs to be tended.) The process begins with trying on costumes acquired at flea markets and thrift stores. In the case of her Clown Series, she purchased square dancing dresses off of e-Bay. After four hours of makeup, wigs and costumes, she begins to shoot between the hours of six and nine with a mirror placed alongside her camera so she can experiment until she finds just the look she wants. “Sometimes I just keep on trying and trying and trying and I reach a point where it’s like I’ve got to give up. I’m hungry and tired. I want to have dinner and go to bed. And I’ll start over the next day,” she explains. While working on her most recent series she spent two months in her studio, leaving only to see her psychiatrist and to go to the gym.

Sherman, the child of an engineer father and teacher mother, grew up with her four older siblings in Huntington, Long Island, watching The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The master of suspense permeates her early work Untitled Film Stills, a black-and-white series she produced from 1977 to 1980. The photos were of fictional characters in the style of ’50 and ’60s B-movies as depicted by Sherman, usually costumed as a woman in peril, a vamp or any number of pervasive media stereotypes.

“We were not photography collectors at the time, but we were blown away,” says Eli Broad of the series. “We saw something there that went well beyond photography. The stills had social relevancy. We bought 20 works on that first visit and have added from every body of work ever since. Today, we have the largest collection of Cindy Sherman’s work in the world. But those first film stills remain my favorites.” In 1995, MoMA purchased the entire series for a reported $1 million. Years later, in 2011, a piece from Sherman’s 1981 Centerfold series sold for a record $3.9 million.

Artist Robert Longo, who says he has known Sherman since 1975, remembers her early work well: “I own a lot of Cindy’s work, but the one I particularly like is a photo of Cindy and her childhood friend when they were little kids, maybe 10 years old. They were standing on a suburban street dressed up like old women. It’s touching to realize that her dressing up goes all the way back to then,” he says, adding one more recollection: “With her early Untitled Film Stills, I assisted Cindy. I drove our VW van around Manhattan until she told me where to stop. Then, she would change in the back of the van, and emerge as a character. I would shoot the photo, with Cindy being both the director and the actress.”

Sherman, who is single, produces every series in her New York studio with just her camera, mirror and costumes (and no assistant) and says each collection begins one way and develops into something else. “Ideally, I’m looking for a character that’s completely new and unrecognizable as me,” she explains. “It’s more of a discovery. As I’m shooting, I suddenly will see an image that makes me think that’s the direction I want to go in.” She says Film Stills — which through vintage publicity imagery explores women and aging — is an example of this process. Eight of those works have traveled to the Broad, making a convenient bookend to her career, with a return to her first love, the movies, in her sights.

“I do feel like it’s the next step ’cause I am kind of truly sick of using myself in my work,” she says. Her 1997 feature directorial debut, Office Killer, starring Jeanne Tripplehorn, Carol Kane and Molly Ringwald, was a critical and commercial flop, but Sherman remains undeterred. No word on what she might be planning, but she cites such films as Mustang and 99 Homes among her recent favorites. "Regardless," says director-artist Miranda July, who helped narrate the museum’s tour app, along with John Waters and Gaby Hoffmann: “She always represents a kind of impossible creative ideal.”