Given the myriad characters populating artist Cindy Sherman’s universe, you arrive at her studio expecting to discover a teeming stage set. But step inside her duplex penthouse in Manhattan’s TriBeCa and you find Sherman alone in a tidy, hushed oasis. For more than three decades, she has focused on a single model—herself—transforming a shy, private woman into all manner of female archetypes, from radiant Renaissance Madonna and pulpy pinup to sultry screen siren and desperate clown. Here, amid the mannequins, wigs, body parts, and props that fill her photographs—and her closets—Sherman plays director, makeup artist, stylist, costumer, and unassuming star.
“I can’t focus without order, because once I start working, it’s a total mess in here,” Sherman told me as she gave me a tour. Her studio, a long, windowed room with a fake stone fireplace, connects to her bedroom via a narrow passageway and takes up half the lower level. “I throw costumes and wigs on the floor because I want to see everything. I’ll try things on and go through each box until something clicks.”
Sherman pulled out a sliding door, part of the built-in closet, to show me the bins piled on floor-to-ceiling shelves behind it. A feat of organization, everything on view was labeled: reptiles, fingers, facial hair, doll parts. She pointed out a row of vintage heads used in beauty schools and a tiny mannequin intended for practicing CPR on children—discovered, like nearly all of her materials, at “weird yard sales” and in thrift shops and novelty stores. Nearby stood racks of robes she’d brought back from Morocco and “Upper East Side ladies cast-off stuff,” as she called the clothes she used in her 2008 series of portraits of society doyennes.
Now the subject of a MoMA retrospective opening February 26, Sherman has amassed so many wigs, she said, that she has had to not only categorize them by color but also “separate them into men’s wigs, clown wigs, and then wigs that have a lot of potential.” She motioned to the windowsill, where three brown wigs (“ordinary hairstyles you’d see on somebody in midtown, maybe a tourist or a secretary”) appeared to be gazing out, waiting to be put to use. “I could throw them in a box,” she acknowledged, “but then they’d get rumpled and lose their shape—and these are ready to go.”
Sherman’s own bright blonde hair was damp, and her face was free of makeup. Devoid of strong features, it’s an ideal canvas for her large-scale color portraits, though on that day, one of her blue eyes was stained red, the result of a burst blood vessel, making the other look strikingly blue. Years of practice have made Sherman adept at doing her hair and makeup, and she finds her way into a role only as she transforms herself and puts on the costume, studying each effect in the mirror set up next to her camera. Moving from 35mm film to digital technology has allowed Sherman to see results immediately, without having to break character. “The fact that she’s so self-contained gets to the very heart of her work,” says Eva Respini, the curator of the MoMA show. “Taking on a persona, getting into character, and performing for the camera is a very private act for her. She can only let loose when she’s on her own.”