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Category Archives: Visual Arts

Cindy Sherman

A new exhibit recently opened at MoMA—a retrospective of the work of Cindy Sherman, photographer and chameleon extraordinaire. Sherman’s work is about as different as can be from that of Vivian Meier and Elsa Dorfman, two other photographers I’ve admired on this blog. Meier took gritty street portraits, Dorfman takes posed but simple and direct studio ones. Both of them have taken self-portraits, but most of their work depicts others in frank and realistic modes. Sherman, on the other hand, has used herself as a model for decades and has explored the idea of identity with a variety of costumes, wigs, make-up, props, and atmospheres.

Though on the surface a self-portraitist, Sherman doesn’t really consider most of her work self-portraiture. Rather, in her photographs she tries to take on personae and explore stereotypes and images, especially those of women. They are, in other words, fictional self-portraits. Or just fictional portraits with herself as a stand-in for others, though no doubt there is usually an element of herself in them too. Recently, for instance, she has been playing with stereotypes of aging and the various ways in which wealth can distort a woman’s life, both obviously questions that must be close to her as she approaches 60 a very successful artist.

One of the things that interests me the most about Sherman’s work is that, while her work’s intention is to disrupt female stereotypes, many of her photographs remain so sexy. She has indeed done series of works that are disturbing and that examine the nastier side of the human body, but in these she did not use herself as a primary model. This NYT review of the new exhibit at MoMa points out that this work is also largely ignored in the retrospective.

Sherman is clearly capable of extensive use of prosthetics and appearance-altering make-up. But she focuses these efforts on her face. She dresses and poses her body in a variety of ways, but she shops for costumes that fit her naturally thin shape. She is supreme at creating bulbous chins and noses, opulent lips, and even prostheses that augment her breasts, often in disturbing ways. Yet Sherman has never (as far as I know) done much to alter the traditionally attractive profile of her body.

There seems to me a deep irony in the fact that much of the work of this woman whose goal and mission has been to upturn stereotypes of women can still be viewed somewhat pornographically. Yes, it is a pornography that points out the complicit nature of the viewer, and it may therefore be unsettling. But even now that she’s exploring “women of a certain age,” they can be strikingly strong and fit, as is Untitled #466, which MoMA uses as its representative work on its page about the show and which depicts an imposing woman in a flowing aqua gown. Or like Untitled #463, in which Sherman has superimposed four images of herself dressed up as party-going friends with manicured nails and bare-shouldered clubbing outfits (included in this slide show).

That’s one reason I was so interested in the discussion of the evolution toward paunchy of one recent character (starting about 4 minutes into this terrific 20-minute art21 video). I would love it if she would push this even further and do a “fat women” series. It would be fascinating to see how such work would be greeted.

What I have always valued about Sherman’s work is the same in-your-face quality that makes them honest even though they are contrived. Amid all the various rather dumb debates about fiction vs. nonfiction in the writing world, the world of visual art has been playing with the categories often more successfully. Sherman has stood for me as a hinge between the two genres. She is a person who uses fantasy to tell the truth, at least a certain truth, about the women she becomes. There’s an intellectual honesty that can sometimes disappear from written fiction, but a self-awareness and playfulness that sometimes is absent in memoir. And there’s always this fascinating remnant of herself in her pictures, a remnant she uses rather than denies.

Additional imgaes/videos:

Excerpt from documentary on Sherman’s work by Paul Tschinkel, about her early work (about 4 minutes).

Art21 excerpt about her “fashion” photography (about 3 minutes).

The full PBS Art21 interview (about 1 hour).

An amateur video of a visit to the current MoMA show by James Kalm (not a great video, but fun to “be there,” about 16 minutes).

New York Magazine review with a good, short slide show.

Google images of much of Sherman’s work, for a sampling.

What Comes After Valentine’s Day

Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, c. 1650, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Are you ready to make plans for New York now?” Bruce laughs a little hopelessly as he asks.

I feel the panic rise in my throat like a hairball, even though we are lying in bed. He thinks that a trip is in order for me to meet with my new editor at Oxford and with my agent, who has been unwilling to give me the time of day. He thinks my new relationship with Oxford will make her take notice. And last year we missed making our usual annual pilgrimage to see our dear friends there because I’d had a brain hemorrhage.

Bruce loves the city, loves clearing away all travel challenges with his efficient handling, loves touring galleries, sitting in cafes, and walking the bustling streets, hour upon hour. He loves the atmosphere of culture and excitement that we just don’t have in the city where we live, which is a suburb through and through. He loves to fall into step with our friend Craig, their long legs matching in pace and rhythm as they talk about Kant or Hegel while John and I try to keep up behind them. He loves revisiting his favorite painting in the Met, Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, and holding my hand while we stand in front of the soulful eyes of a man long since dead whose pain and dignity we can still feel. He and I both love that a slave could hold himself so proudly, undaunted by the injustices of his world.

Last time we flew to New York, however, my feet swelled so badly I had to get a new pair of shoes. Now I have been diagnosed with arthritis in my right foot. Now I have mysterious and as yet undiagnosed damage in the left basal ganglia of my brain. Six months of doctor’s appointments and tests later, and I still feel uncertain in the world. I want to stay close to home.

So I cry and tell Bruce that I can’t do it. Not yet, while I don’t know what the future holds. I tell him angrily because I am afraid. I tell him that I know he wants to travel—he wants to take me to Berlin this summer and to Kenya someday soon—and that he may have gotten a bad deal when he married me just two and a half years ago. It has not been a very romantic time since we got married, especially the past year and a half since the brain hemorrhage—and now all this.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I may just have to travel by myself.”

I know this is his attempt at letting me off the hook, but it makes me cry harder. It makes me angrier.

“Oh, great,” I say. “It’s not like I don’t want to go. Don’t you understand? I can’t physically do it. I can’t pound the concrete with you and Craig. I can’t stand for hours on the hard museum floor. I will be in agony if I try to do that. But being left behind doesn’t sound like that nice of an alternative.”

We lie silent for a few minutes as disability wafts over us in the air from the slowly turning ceiling fan.

It is a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but the day after I have a lumbar puncture scheduled for an analysis of my cerebrospinal fluid. We have no plans to celebrate the love holiday. We both know that it is a marketing ploy, and we agree with efforts to knock back the Romantic-Industrial Complex. We have also each spent enough Valentines Days alone over the years to have experienced the whole thing as yet another competitive way for some people to feel superior to others—“I’m loved and you’re not. So I’m a better person. Hah.” We are aware of all of that, but we also are just tired and distracted by my health and other depredations of things we hold dear (like our lives’ work in higher education). These things put a damper on the mood.

Bruce is no Newt, but I am also well aware that the divorce rate is higher among couples where one member becomes chronically ill or disabled, and I am well aware that men leave disabled women more often than the other way around. I have also been rejected many times in my life, and I wonder whether Bruce wouldn’t be happier with a spryer partner.

“You may not like this idea,” he says, and I steel myself. “But what about seeing the museum in a wheelchair?”

It is not what I feared, but exactly what I’d been thinking about myself—ways to make things at least somewhat possible. Accommodations, I’d told myself, that’s the key.

“I like it just fine,” I say, and I hear Bruce sigh a little with relief. “I mean, it’s not thrilling, but I have no problem with having a chair to sit in while I look at paintings.”

“We can just take cabs everywhere,” he adds.

“I like it,” I say. “You know, that seems a lot better to me than your leaving me, either on all your travels or completely.”

“That never occurred to me,” he says. Even though this is only one of the reasons I love him, it is a big deal. Maybe one day it will never occur to me either.

Vivian Maier and Art for Art’s Sake

Vivian Maier self portrait from John Maloof's

Bruce is in the kitchen sharpening our old, dull knives on the electric knife sharpener he got me for Christmas. It was nice that we both got and gave several presents that we will clearly share and share alike. We had a lovely day yesterday—a quiet morning together, an afternoon buffet and more gift opening with family and step-family, and an evening with our friends D and T at their new home, eating a little chicken curry and sharing the results of last week’s baking. We watched a digital fire on the TV screen since it is much too hot in Florida these days to even think of building a real one.

In the afternoon, while we were at Rick and Susie’s, I brought up what was probably my favorite gift this year—a book of photographs by Vivian Maier that Bruce had secretly ordered for me last April. Rick was still experimenting with a new remote device for their TV, and Bruce pulled up a slideshow of Maier’s work while we sat chatting, to test out the slideshow function on the remote and to show everyone what we were talking about. Soon everyone was mesmerized by the images on the screen. There are several portfolios on and on I find her photos truly stunning.

Maier provides a good bridge for me between the fleeting Christmas holiday and the looming New Year’s one. Though the spreading recognition of her work probably won’t make any of the mass media’s “Top Events of 2011” lists, I consider my learning of her work one of my favorite discoveries of the year.

In fact, it was early in 2011 that I first heard of Vivian Maier and shared on Facebook this news report from WTTW in Chicago. Attention to her work has continued to grow this year, including a more recent report on CBS News (sorry about the unavoidable ad). More details of her life have emerged.

It’s interesting to me that, on the CBS video, gallery owner Howard Greenberg says repeatedly that Vivian Maier was “certainly no amateur.” In fact, what inspired me most about her story last year was that she was entirely an amateur. She took photographs not for any monetary, professional, or reputational gain. She took photographs because this was how she saw the world, because she was an artist and she clearly loved the art.

Amateur status has come to mean to most people an inferior result, but what Vivian Maier gave to me this time last year was a way to see my way forward through a return to working at my art because I love the activity, not because of some elusive potential professional gain. That is the more precise definition of the term “amateur,” and it suits Vivian Maier perfectly. She was an amateur who was also a master, and what she spent her time and effort on was her work, not on self-promotion or networking or salesmanship.

There’s a bit of a tragic element in that, as she died shortly before her work began receiving its due, and we all tend to assume that she would have enjoyed the recognition. But for all artists, it is difficult to sort out the love of the work and the daily practice of the work from the attention-seeking. Where is the right balance? We don’t know whether Maier ever walked into a gallery and showed her prints to a dealer, but it seems highly doubtful. Instead, she emphasized the “10,000 hours” of practice that are necessary for anyone to become a master at something and that Malcolm Gladwell noted in Outliers.

So I have found a new twist on the phrase “art for art’s sake.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was used to indicate the opposite of social realism or other art with a moral or instructional purpose and was often used to criticize work like photography that contained an element of social commentary. Today, I have taken to using it to indicate instead the opposite of art with a commercial or professional purpose. Politics was once taken to pollute art, but now it may be the rank commercialism of all forms of it that corrupts it as much as politics does.

Vivian Maier took a lot of photos of poor people. She shows them in positions of vulnerability, their shoes worn, their faces dirty, their bodies thin and damaged. Yet, we see that same sense of vulnerability in the more well-off ladies with their fox fur stoles and businessmen with their white shirts. As an artist, she is a great equalizer, and I do think that her humanitarianism these days takes on political implications. Yet her pictures are never didactic. They simply open us to the world that was. And she never worried about offending or pleasing a patron or buyer. I think that shows in her work. Her devotion to her art, rather than to a career, will inspire me for a long time to come.

Elsa Dorfman

Ten Minutes Left to My 67th Birthday, April 26, 2004 by Elsa Dorfman. With permission of the artist.

I’ve been on a kick about truth-telling lately, and we usually think of truth-telling as involving situations where the truth is ugly and difficult, as in the witnessing of atrocity or political injustice. However, there are those whose truth-telling is of a more joyful and humorous kind, and portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman is one of these.

On her talent for getting people to relax in front of the camera, Dorfman says in an interview, “maybe because I do so many self-portraits i exude confidence cause i don’t ask anyone to do something i havent done to myself. that is stand in front of the camera and accept my extra weight. imperfect haircut. mismatched wardrobe which i happen to approve, as in gudren clothes” (The F Blog).

As Lisa Surati notes on, “Elsa’s portraits do not illuminate or glamorize her clients; rather, Elsa presents her clients in an extraordinary way, as themselves.”

I remember how striking this was to me when I was a young woman negotiating the meaning of my own imperfect body. I was working as an editorial assistant for the Woman’s Art Journal in the early 1980s when we published an article about women’s nude self-portraits, including one of Dorfman’s that I recently found on artnet. (Please do open this link so you’ll understand!) Of all the wonderful work that the magazine featured over the years that I was associated with it, Dorfman’s is the work that I remember best.

The reason is twofold: one is that these portraits were the most honest depiction of ordinary female physicality I had ever seen. Another was that they were presented with simplicity and an understated sense of good-humored self-acceptance that I longed to inhabit then and still do. There’s no self-pity there, and no shame for not being a beauty queen.

Re-encountering Dorfman’s photography in general, and her self-portraits (both nude and not) in particular, has me thinking anew about the value of written memoir as well. My creative nonfiction students often talk about the “bravery” of their classmates who write about certain tough topics in their lives. I often raise with them the issue of how “bravery” isn’t enough, how the shaping of the trauma into a story that reaches beyond the self is necessary for any work that aspires to art.

And yet, I think about the utmost appearance of simplicity in Dorfman’s self-portraits. In The F Blog interview, she notes, “i can’t tell you how hard i work to make it seem effortless.” Yet she embraces the imperfect and the straightforward in her subjects, including herself. This is artistry in the service of the genuine, art that asserts that little truths are perhaps as important as so-called big ones. Perhaps, indeed, memoir has an affinity with this kind of documentary photography that doesn’t use dissolving filters. The person who puts experience down on paper, whether in writing or in photographic image, works hard, but there is a respect for the experience itself.

This is a kind of truth-telling that understands compassion is based on frankness and honesty, not fantasy and pretense. I like it. I’m glad that both Elsa Dorfman and the Woman’s Art Journal are still going strong.

Americans Who Tell the Truth

Shetterly's portrait of Janice Murikitani, community activist and poet

“Americans Who Tell the Truth” is a portrait project by the painter Robert Shetterly. He’s moved from more famous truth-tellers to more recent and less well known ones, but all the portraits share a moving intensity and clarity. The website is fascinating to peruse, with reproductions of the portraits, quotes from each subject, and biographies that summarize their background and reasons for their inclusion in the exhibit.

Shetterly notes, “A democracy, whose leaders and media do not try to tell the people the truth, is a democracy in name only. If the consent of voters is gained through fear and lies, America is neither good nor great. Nor is it America.” His website adds, “Whether or not you agree with a particular subject’s point of view, each is an attempt to create dialogue that will help us figure out which truths we value most as citizens in a democracy.”

Louise Nevelson on a Messed-Up Day

A small section of Dawn's Wedding Feast from

This has been a colossally strange day. Worst, Jupiter’s cancer is probably back, much sooner than we’d hoped, but we won’t even know today because the real diagnostics have to wait til a biopsy on Wednesday. Keeping fingers crossed that it will be rogue scar tissue, though it’s likely a swelling new tumor.

I couldn’t even drive Jupiter to the appointment as planned because I myself suddenly was having dizzy spells and staggering around after getting up on a step-ladder to get into a box in the closet early today. It was a mess indeed, as my car was in the shop and I had driven Bruce to campus and left him without a car. He couldn’t get home, and I couldn’t go get him, and we had this appointment for the cat, and I was trying to negotiate with the guy who has been redoing our rotten gutters.

In the meantime, my blood sugar went down to 45 mg/dl, which contributed to my panic and confusion. Was I having a stroke for real this time? What did it mean that even my right hand didn’t seem to type right? Might I pass out? Should I call 911? My right side seemed uncoordinated and loose.

Finally, after Bruce borrowed a car and came home to check on me and take the cat in, and after my blood sugar normalized, I realized that I was feeling in some ways very good. I didn’t want to drive to the vet’s but I could go, too, and on the way I realized that my body was somehow just adjusting to some kind of nerve or ligament or muscle release that had occurred in my shoulder when I stretched so awkwardly in the closet. After about four years (four long years!), some tightness in my frozen shoulder had finally let go a bit, and suddenly my nerves were learning to control my movements again. My dizziness abated, and I suddenly felt my arm more than I have in a long time.

Earlier in the day I was planning to post my usual sad, maybe sentimental song as I usually do on Mondays. But by now, I feel instead the call of the intensely cool, the emotional in deep reserve, the less obvious feeling, and so I’m posting a picture of a Louise Nevelson sculpture, whose work Dawn’s Wedding Feast I first saw at the Whitney in 1980 and which was recently recreated at the Jewish Museum.

Louise Nevelson is another one of those artists for whose work you just have to be there in person. The small pieces make up much larger rooms, and the work’s power is stark, its emotion apparent only in accumulation, the subtleties of its colors and shades are much more moving when you stand among the pieces as large as you yet made up of pieces as small and unique as every moment of your individual, irreplaceable, inexplicable daily life.

I just feel like that today: there’s no way to convey it. I was here. It was an odd, odd day in a thousand little details. That’s all. You know what I mean.

Mark Rothko

The first time I ever cried in front of a piece of art was when I visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1980. Last February, during the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in D.C., I was locked into a tight schedule, but made it a point to visit the Phillips Collection again. It’s one of my favorite places on earth.

In 1980 I was a twenty-year-old art student, and I was in Washington on an internship with the Washington Women’s Art Center (no longer extant), which was just off Dupont Circle near the Phillips Collection. Since my college campus sat in the hinterlands of Minnesota, I vowed to see all I could during that summer. You might say I was museum- and gallery-crazy, not to mention deliriously thrilled to be in the city.

I had little interest in Abstract Expressionism. The figure and landscape—tangible things—though not necessarily in the Realist style, spoke to me more than abstraction. I liked Matisse better than Kandinsky. I loved Constantin Brancusi but not David Smith. Most of all, I loved the gentle obsessive boxes of Joseph Cornell and the harsh obsessive ones of Lucas Samaras. I loved the textile- and craft-based art of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago.

Therefore the Mark Rothko paintings at the Phillips were not high on my list. Nonetheless, in the process of devouring everything available, I went there one weekday afternoon. The galleries echoed, nearly empty, and I went through the door into the Rothko Room. I had it to myself, and I sat down on the little bench and stared at the paintings.

Mark Rothko. Green and Maroon. 1953. Phillips Collection.

Much to my surprise, I found myself weeping. The paintings were just so much more beautiful than could be captured in reproductions in books, the only way I’d ever seen them and where their lights and darks had been muddied in the photographic and printing process. The real paintings pulsed on the wall, the subtle contrasts in hue and value coming alive in front of me. They seemed truly alive, like living, breathing creatures. I sat on the bench for a long time, until others began to poke their heads in and interrupt my reverie. I got up and left, changed, shocked in part by my ability to mis-judge.

At the time, I didn’t know that this was a common occurrence. “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures,” Rothko once noted, “shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” I certainly did.

Rothko, in fact, has also noted that he is “not an abstractionist,” that he’s “not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else,” but “only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” I’m glad that he puts tragedy and ecstasy side by side.

Perhaps because of the emphasis on contrast in the visual arts—a painting without the play of literal light and dark is impossible to conceive—it’s easier to see the necessity of balance there. But the same is true in writing and in music. Point and counterpoint, compression and expansion, scene and summary—all of these principles must exist in balance. Even emotionally, a work must have its balance. A work may be dark overall or light overall, but if that quality is uniform and uninterrupted, we won’t even notice the actual strength of the emotions.