‘I Didn’t Want to Make What Looked Like Art’: Watch Cindy Sherman Transform Herself Into Female Fantasies, Stereotypes, and Nightmares

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the
Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Transformation," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

Standing in a room full of Cindy Sherman‘s photographs is disconcerting—there might be a portrait of a Hollywood glam starlet, a stately matriarch staring straight down the camera lens, and a woman with disheveled hair and bloodshot eyes next to one another. All of these women are figments of Sherman’s imagination brought to life in cinematic self-portraits.

Right now, the largest exhibition of Sherman’s work to date is on view at London’s National Portrait Gallery in an acclaimed mid-career retrospective (through September 15). Beyond the generally recognizable characters Sherman inhabits, there are also gross distortions of the human form—including a whole series of clowns and a group of Instagram-filtered images that look like they’ve been projected from a fun-house mirror. Back in 2009, as part of an episode for the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series, Sherman explained how she began documenting these transformative self-portraits.

“I wanted it [the pictures] to look like, you know, anybody would understand it,” she tells Art21. “I didn’t want to make what looked like art.” Instead, Sherman wanted to make photographs that alluded to films and other cultural history we don’t even realize we have absorbed—images that might remind a viewer of a scene from a popular movie, or an actress who starred in one. She’s also not precious about art history, which is just one of many sources of inspiration. She tells Art21, “It’s just another thing that can influence me, along with television and cheap magazines.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Cindy Sherman” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London through September 15, 2019. 

 This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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