To be clear, there are approximately 120 reasons to see “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life,” the massive retrospective of the prolific self-portrait photographer's work that opens at the Broad on Saturday. From the two floor-to-ceiling murals she created especially for the show — both reproductions of images from her “Rear Screen Projections” series from the 1980s — to the collection of 8-by-10-inch black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills,” in which you can see Sherman becoming herself as an artist by becoming other people, every image is worth considering, each one like an entire movie in a single still shot.
Encompassing almost all of the museum's first-floor galleries — Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room is still in its little nook — the show is organized chronologically (for the most part), so you can walk through twice as I did, once from beginning to end and again from end to beginning, and see the work with a new understanding of how her style and methodology have evolved over time. In her most recent series, Sherman shoots herself styled as aging starlets of the silent film era. These images feel more melancholy than some of her earlier work — she's said in interviews that she's actively trying to come to terms with aging — but the attention to detail, from the composition to the hair, makeup and costuming she does herself, is still breathtaking.
Sherman's work speaks for itself — screams, really — but here are five reasons the Broad show is essential.
1. Sherman is an antidote to the selfie generation. With just a few exceptions, Sherman appears — sometimes several times — in all of her photographs. But she's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In a 1999 interview, Sherman explained that photographing herself sprang from utilitarianism, not narcissism: “I use myself the way I would use a mannequin. [My photos are] not autobiographical. They’re not fantasies of mine. I like to work completely alone, so instead of using models I use myself.” She added, “I’m under so many layers of makeup that I’m trying to obliterate myself in the images. I’m not revealing anything.” Instead, she's meticulously developing and becoming a character, affecting its posture and mannerisms, all for a single shot. After my first trip through the exhibit, I had the thought that if Sherman had been milling around among the art critics and media types, she might've gone unrecognized, surrounded as we were by 122 iterations of her face.
2. The commentary. Visitors who download the Broad's app — and are smart enough to carry earbuds on their person, i.e., not me — can listen to a self-guided tour as they walk through the exhibit. Various celebrities and cultural luminaries — Gabby Hoffman, John Waters, Miranda July — discuss their experiences of Sherman and her work in short, digestible segments that coincide with the series of work represented in the show, from her “Untitled Film Stills” (Hoffman) to “History Portraits” (photographer Sharon Lockhart) to recent work (Jamie Lee Curtis). There's plenty of insight therein. For instance, Hoffman, who grew up visiting Sherman's studio, says, “I don't think Cindy was playing out a scene and clicking throughout it, or having somebody else click throughout it — I think she was just capturing that one moment.” Sherman fans who won't make it to L.A. before October could still give the segments a listen.
3. The film. In 1997 Sherman directed The Office Killer, a comedy-horror film starring Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn, about a dowdy, repressed clerical worker (Kane) who starts killing her co-workers and stashing their bodies in her basement. Tucked behind a curtain in the room with Sherman's “Clowns” series of images, there's a small screening room with a couple benches where the film plays on a continuous loop. The film's no masterpiece — it's landed at 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — but it's campy, gross and fun, and for visitors of the exhibit, it's gratifying to see what the utterly cinematic photographer has done in the realm of film. Sherman recently said she wants to explore moving images again; another weird, gory horror movie wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
4. The tea set. In the gallery that contains Sherman's “Historical Portraits,” next to Untitled 193 (see above), there's the following explanatory text: “In 1988, Sherman was invited by Artes Magnus, producer of artist-designed tableware, to develop a special-edition dinnerware and tea set with the French porcelain house Limoges. The original molds for the 18th-century porcelain designs of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, are held by Limoges. For her sets, Sherman modeled herself as the infamous mistress, and went on to create a series of photographs that she presented in Paris to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution.” What they failed to mention is that one of the tea sets is in an unmarked display case in the gift shop; there wasn't a visible price tag, but online the 21-piece tea service — in your choice of green, yellow, blue or pink — is going for $8,500. Or, you know, you could get the Cindy Sherman tote bag.
5. This might be the most thorough exhibit of Sherman's work there's ever been or will ever be. Addressing the press before a preview of the exhibit on Wednesday, Eli Broad talked about the first time he and wife Edythe saw Sherman's photographs, at Metro Pictures in 1982 — and bought 20 of them on the spot. He says they “saw something there that went far beyond photography.” Since then, the Broads have continually purchased works from all of Sherman's series and have become her most prolific collectors. But “Imitation of Life” goes beyond the Broad collection; curator Phillip Kaiser also drew contributions from other museums, as well as Metro Pictures. The result is a painstakingly extensive survey of the work of one of our most provocative living artists. It feels rare and wonderful.
Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, the Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave., downtown; through Oct. 2. thebroad.org.