By the mid-1980s, Cindy Sherman had been steadily garnering critical and commercial acclaim as one of the leading artists of her generation. By portraying different characters that she arranged in haunting, yet beautiful, tableaus, she subtly dismantled prevailing notions of femininity and gender to create a wide range of powerful yet provocative work. Beginning with the Film Stills in 1977, and followed by the Centerfolds in 1981, and Fashion in 1983, each series seemed to build upon the success of the former, so that by the mid ‘80s, Sherman sought out newer and more challenging subject matter. In the present work, she looked to the sublime darkness concealed within childrens' fairy tales for inspiration.
Executed in 1985, Untitled #150 illustrates the intoxicating mix of grotesquerie and seduction that makes the Fairy Tales series such an important conceptual departure for the artist. It would influence much of her subsequent work, and has been cited and widely reproduced in the literature about the artist. Measuring nearly six feet in width, the closely-cropped, full color photograph ventures into a new territory, depicting a strange, monstrous creature that’s beaded in sweat and fondling its own tongue. Like a Gollum sitting high on a hilltop overlooking its prey, the creature is caught in its own perverse thoughts. Licking its murky fingers, it looms over the tiny inhabitants below. A strange beauty pervades the scene however, which is lit by a kind of yellowish-green half-light that makes the beads of sweat appear to glow and the softness of the creature’s skin—in actuality Sherman’s own nude body—strikingly tender despite its appearance.
I wanted something visually offensive, but seductive, beautiful and textural as well.”
Exhibited at Metro Pictures in 1985, the Fairy Tales were some of the artist’s first large-scale color photographs, and are now viewed as an important part of Sherman’s oeuvre that deepens our understanding of her work. It also marked the first time she began to use plastic body parts, which would become a crucial component to the many disguises and alter egos she would create over the course of her career. The bright red plastic tongue in Untitled #150 adds yet another odd component to the otherwise bizarre scene. “I wanted there to be hints of narrative everywhere in the image so that people can make up their own stories about them,” Sherman recently explained. “It shouldn’t seem so real that it looks like it was shot in a studio today. I want it to transcend time somehow” (C. Sherman, quoted in T. Adams, “Interview: Cindy Sherman, Why Am I in These Photos?,” The Guardian, July 3, 2016).
While the Centerfolds had been commissioned by Artforum magazine in 1983, the Fairy Tales were originally intended for Vanity Fair. To prepare for the series, Sherman poured over some of the darkest childrens’ literature, including the Brothers Grimm and Aesop’s Fables. She gravitated toward the dark humor embodied within the folk tales and its common themes of savagery, cannibalism and death. These dark undercurrents are made all the more terrifying considering they were originally intended for small children. The prosthetics she used further enhanced the strangeness of the imagery, adding to their striking nature.
Although the Fairy Tales were a departure from her earlier work, the series was favorably received. New York Times art critic Andy Grundberg wrote: “They are darker in spirit, more mythic and more monstrous than anything she has conceived before, and they convey—like a surprising number of fairy tales—a nightmarish view of the world. The life-size prints, which stand six feet tall, are large enough to menace the viewer, yet technically they are Miss Sherman’s most inviting work to date” (A. Grundberg, “Cindy Sherman’s Dark Fantasies Evoke a Primitive Past,” The New York Times, October 20, 1985, p. H31).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).