The many lives of Cindy Sherman

MARY ABBE | Updated 11/15/2012

A smashing Walker show surveys the photographer's 35-year career as social critic and comedian.

If Cindy Sherman had never picked up a camera, she could have been wildly successful as a sociologist, film star, makeup artist, script writer, plastic surgeon, fashionista, set designer, lighting technician, bag lady or clown. With a camera, she did it all. And she is still turning out mind-bending pictures, as seen in "Cindy Sherman," a 35-year survey of her protean career opening this weekend at Walker Art Center.

Organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the exhibit arrives from San Francisco and heads to Dallas and São Paulo, Brazil, after its Minneapolis run ends Feb. 17. As those venues suggest, this is a sizzling, not-to-be-missed international event. "Unquestionably, she's one of the most important living artists today, and that's not a statement you make often," said Siri Engberg, the Walker curator overseeing the Minneapolis presentation.

Art people seem to make that claim pretty much every time they chat over a latté. But in Sherman's case there are solid grounds for the boast. She has been a supernova since the mid-1970s when she garnered instant fame for her "Untitled Film Stills," a black-and-white photo series in which she presented herself as the centerpiece of publicity shots for imaginary genre films.

The "Stills" and her next series, "Centerfolds" -- cinematic images of vulnerable women in ambiguous situations -- enthralled critics, collectors and museum mavens worldwide. Subsequent series riffing on art history, sex, aging, fashion and other themes have been equally provocative and popular.

Last year her "Untitled #96," a 1981 picture of a dreamy teen clutching a crumpled personal ad, sold for $3.9 million, an auction record for a photo at the time. Astronomical though it was, the price seemed right to her.

"I felt, well, it's about time," she told Harper's Bazaar. "Not that I feel it's worth that much, but so much other photography by men has been hovering in that range. I have to say I'm competitive: 'Hey, what about me? I'm in that same realm of fame as those guys.'''

The curious thing about Sherman, 58, is that she appears in virtually all of her pictures and yet she's never there. Over the decades she has transformed herself into myriad female types, from the film-noir vixens, bored housewives and blond bombshells of the "Film Stills" series, to the maybe-rape victims of the "Centerfolds," to her most recent pictures of society women who use the tools of affluence -- cosmetic surgery, sunlamps, lotions, potions and personal trainers -- in hauntingly futile efforts to hold age at bay.

As her filmmaker friend John Waters puts it, she is a "female female impersonator."

Unlike other celebrity artists, Sherman rarely sits for interviews and prefers to steer clear of cameras other than her own. Typically described as sweet, friendly or nice, she works alone in a spacious New York studio that's crammed with wigs, fake teeth, costumes, props and photo equipment. She does her own makeup and often buys other accoutrements on eBay.

With a face that melds the chilly hauteur of Tilda Swinton with the comedic charm of Lucille Ball, Sherman has an uncanny ability to disappear into the characters she portrays. Growing up on Long Island, the youngest of five children, she immersed herself in movies and television and loved to dress up. Where other girls might have aspired to be Barbie in the '60s, she went for monsters and old ladies, as she explains to MoMA curator Eva Respini in the show's smart catalog.

By the time she got to New York's Buffalo State College, from which she graduated in 1976, she was deep into her own brand of personal theater, fiddling around with makeup at a time when outspoken feminists disdained such superficialities, flipping gender roles in mannish little portraits, and showing off her daffy comic talents in impromptu performances.