Even though Cindy Sherman appears as the sole model in almost all the photographs in her new retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you'll never see her.
The artist disappears completely into her created characters and settings. Those evocative, memorable and sometimes haunting images have a familiarity, but they all are original creations by Sherman, who stages and photographs the scenes herself, working alone in her studio.
Sherman has created one of the most distinctive and influential bodies of work in contemporary art. She is widely considered the most preeminent and influential artist of postmodern photography in the world.
"Cindy Sherman," the traveling retrospective of her work, presents the photographer's fascinating development from the mid-1970s to the present.
The 155 images on display are the largest collection ever of Sherman's work on the West Coast, and this is the only West Coast showing of the retrospective, which premiered in February at MoMA in New York.
This also is the first major presentation ever of Sherman's work in San Francisco.
The show at SFMoMA closes Oct. 8, moving to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Nov. 10-Feb. 17), and then the Dallas Museum of Art (March 17-June 9).
The displayed work includes a complete set of the seminal "Untitled Film Stills" (1977-80). These are 70 black-and-white photographs of Sherman in common female movie roles influenced by 1950s and '60s film noir, big-budget Hollywood and European art house films. All 12 of her controversial Art Forum magazine-commissioned centerfolds (1981) are included.
There also are selections from her major series works: "Fairy Tale/Mythology" (1985), "History Portraits" (1988-90), "Sex Pictures" (1992), "Head Shots" (2000), "Clowns" (2002-04), "Fashion" (1983-84, 1993-94, 2007-08), and "Society Portraits" (2008).
Eva Respini, associate curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, curated the show with Sherman.
Sherman created a floor-to-ceiling photographic mural at the exhibit's entrance specifically for the exhibition and the space.
In the show's audio guide, Sherman says of the work, "I started doing some stuff lately where the background is abstracted; I didn't use any makeup. I started changing the faces digitally to just slightly alter the faces. So it's kind of like using Photoshop instead of makeup."
The most fascinating aspect of Sherman's photos lies in how much story they tell in a single image and how much they inspire in the viewer's imagination a story outside the frame.
Erin O'Toole, the assistant curator of photography at SFMoMA who worked with Sherman in overseeing the presentation of the exhibition, said Sherman's art insinuates itself in our subconscious.
"That's her real gift, to be able to pick up on these subtle clues, little details about costumes and makeup and self-presentation that telegraph these ideas to us unconsciously," O'Toole said.
"We pick up on them, and she obviously picks up on them very acutely."
There also is the formalism of the photographic elements Sherman works both with and against. One of the exhibit's earliest pieces, "Untitled #479" from 1975, shows the artist in 23 hand-colored gelatin prints. She faces the camera as if in a photo booth. In each picture, one element of the character's presentation is altered until, in the final frame, she is completely transformed.
"She started doing it so young and she's still essentially doing a lot of the same things she was doing when she was 20," O'Toole said.
"They're obviously much more sophisticated and complex than they were then, but she has carried this through her whole career."
All of Sherman's pieces are untitled, so the artist both allows and forces viewers to engage the images unencumbered with pre-judgment or artificial direction. Her early work in the seminal series "Film Stills" (1977-80) used this device expertly as the images seem to come from sources such as Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk or Michelangelo Antonioni.
"That's why it's so amazing and people are always trying to figure out what movie it is, because they seem so true that they must be a direct quote, but they aren't," O'Toole said.
The women might be Kim Novak or Monica Vitti, but they could also be Donna Reed or Doris Day.
Curator Respini, in the audio guide, observed, "While the photographs can be appreciated individually, their success really is in their multiplicity, an encyclopedia or a cataloging of female types."
Sherman's 12 centerfolds (1981), shown together, are carefully provocative views created for a specific and different effect than Sherman's earlier work.
"I wanted to fill this centerfold format, and the reclining figure allows you to do that," Sherman said.
"But I also wanted it to be something in the sort of feminist realm, you know, you open it and see a woman lying there, and you then look at it closer and suddenly realize, 'Oops, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to invade this private moment.' So I did want to make people feel uncomfortable."
The horizontal photos, an imposing 2-by-4-feet, seem to delve further into film-based images. They originally were commissioned by Artforum magazine but were never published because the editor at the time felt they would be misunderstood.
O'Toole said there was criticism that the photos depicted the subjects as victims.
"I think she's really sending up the idea of the centerfold and your expectation of a centerfold," O'Toole said. "They're clothed; they're not sexy. They feel very constricted in the space. So she's working with that unusual panoramic format, which is also really cinematic so you can also see them as a real progression from the film stills."
While all of Sherman's major periods are represented in the show, one of the most affecting series is the "Society Portraits" from 2008. The images of mature, privileged women of a certain class might at first seem satirical, but there's more pathos than sarcasm in the pictures.
O'Toole said this work resonates with viewers as much anything in the show.
"I've given so many tours now, from my family to art collectors, to docents. Everybody reacts to that work very strongly," O'Toole said.
"She really has clued in to something there in the zeitgeist. It's partly about class and partly about pressures on women as they age in our culture."
O'Toole said that women most closely represented by the photos find the images sincerely honest and not at all mean.
"Cindy's very sensitive about these things," O'Toole said.
"She identifies with the characters although they're not about her, they're not self portraits. She is reminding us that we all do things that are very strange in order to present ourselves to the world."
What: A comprehensive retrospective of work from influential photographer Cindy Sherman.
Where: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard)
When: Through Oct. 8. 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Monday-Tuesday; closed Wednesday; 10 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Winter hours: from the day after Labor Day (the first Tuesday in September) through the day before Memorial Day (the last Sunday in May) the museum opens at 11 a.m. daily (except Wednesdays).
Admission: SFMoMA members are free. Adults $18, seniors (62 and older) $13, students (with current ID) $11, active U.S. military personnel and their families are free, children 12 and under accompanied by an adult are free; half-price admission 6-8:45 p.m. Thursdays; free the first Tuesday of each month.