Untitled #96 is the iconic masterpiece from Cindy Sherman's celebrated Centerfolds series. The artist's third series and the second to ever employ color, the associated pictures are widely acknowledged to be Sherman's most accomplished, with editions housed in the Museum of Modern Art New York; currently on view in the artist's major retrospective, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam and the present work from the Akron Art Museum. Created on a scale of two by four feet, they are credited with launching large-format photography as a high-art form. The Akron Art Museum was instrumental in this monumental shift as an early sponsor of Sherman's art. One of the first public institutions to collect Sherman's work, the museum acquired Untitled #96, the most-sought after image from the series, alongside her other seminal Untitled #93 (Black Sheets) directly from Metro Pictures, New York in 1981. It marked the beginning of a longstanding commitment and fruitful relationship with the artist; one which would see the Akron Art Museum organize her first major exhibition in 1984 that later travelled to the Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art. A unique and celebrated cultural institution in the mid-West of the United States, the Akron Art Museum has been consistently forward thinking, collecting key works by artists such as Chuck Close, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg, as well as those by major twentieth century female artists including Yayoi Kusama, Marina Abramovic, Lynda Benglis and Diane Arbus. In selling Untitled #96, Sherman's acclaimed masterpiece, the museum will channel all proceeds into strategic future acquisitions to support the core of its important contemporary art collection.
In Untitled #96, Sherman has cast herself in a bright, colorful guise, adopting the persona of a young teenage girl. She appears dressed in an orange gingham skirt and simple V-neck pullover whilst lying supine on a Formica laminate floor clutching a torn classifieds page. It is an image that is at once seductive and anxiety-inducing, the young woman shrouded in ambiguity as she stares off-camera into the distance with a disinterested gaze. The image glows with a radiant, artificial light that appears almost theatrical or cinematographic, heightening the drama of the composition. Much of the surrounding environment has been cropped out so that the protagonist appears almost claustrophobic in her domestic scene, pressing up against the four corners of the composition. The camera's eye stands at an oblique angle to the picture plane, hovering some way above the reclining figure. As Lisa Phillips once described, "these oblique views, like some of Degas' dancers, create a kind of gravitational pull, where the figure seems to be sliding down and out of the tilted picture plane adding to a sense of instability and to the intimacy implied by the image seeming poised to enter the 'real' space of the viewer" (L. Phillips, Cindy Sherman Centerfolds, exh. cat., Skarstedt Fine Art, New York 2002, p. 7).
In Untitled #96, Sherman has replaced the conventional vertical photo portrait with a broad, horizontal format, recalling the bold centerfolds of men's erotic magazines. In doing so she forces the viewer to reflect on this photographic cliché. The series was originally commissioned by Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Artforum, but was ultimately never published in the magazine. Sischy feared that the pictures would be misunderstood just as Lynda Benglis had been in her infamous nude advertisement in the November 1974 issue. Notwithstanding, Sherman's Centerfold series did court controversy, becoming a source of intense debate and dividing critics over its implied social commentary. In Untitled #96 it was argued that the aerial vantage point over the adolescent girl highlighted the victimization of women in society. Contemporary critic Laura Mulvey understood the photograph as a comment on the 'phallic male gaze' and the 'fetishization' of women. As she explained, '[the centerfolds] announce themselves as photographs and, as in a pinup, the model's eroticism, and her pose, are directed towards the camera, and ultimately towards the spectator" (L. Mulvey quoted in Cindy Sherman, exh.cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 2012, p. 31). Certainly there is a suggestion of the nave school girl with her burgeoning sexuality expressed in the apparently nonchalant upturned skirt, the bee-stung red lips, heavily blushed cheekbones and glossy, pillar box red nail varnish.
Much has been said of the motivations behind each of Sherman's characters, viewers attempting to extrapolate the narratives beyond the artist's original intentions. In Untitled #96, perhaps the most 'story-telling' of the pictures, Sherman elaborated the scenario quite simply: "I was thinking of a young girl who may have been cleaning the kitchen for her mother and who ripped something out of the newspaper, something asking 'Are you lonely?' or 'Do you want to be friends?' or 'Do you want to go on a vacation?' She's cleaning the floor, she rips this out and she's thinking about it" (C. Sherman quoted in P. Schjeldahl, Cindy Sherman, exh. cat., Akron Art Museum, 1987, p. 11). This simple explanation is reinforced by the picture's composition in which no one element is prioritized over another, the face of the girl treated with the same dispassionate emphasis as the checkered linoleum floor.
Throughout her career, Sherman has continued to play with photography and its claims to truth and neutrality. In Untitled #96, the subject appears to be caught in an intimate and spontaneous moment, yet the composition was actually highly staged by the artist. For each pose, Sherman carefully dresses the set, produces costumes and designs lighting without assistance, becoming both subject and object. As Eva Respini has noted, "her role as both subject (and object) and producer of images of women puts her in the unique position of enacting the traditionally male viewpoint of photographer whilst also undermining it" (E. Respini, 'Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up?', Cindy Sherman, exh. cat, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2012, p. 29). In doing so, she dispels the fallacy of the photograph's objectivity, revealing how every image is necessarily constructed and in turn constructs societal codes.
First emerging in the mid-1970s, Sherman represents a foundational figure within an important group of artists including Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, David Salle and Jack Goldstein, popularly referred to as the Pictures Generation. Although Sherman was not included in Douglas Crimp's original 1977 'Pictures' exhibition, she was later considered integral to this group of American contemporaries. Together, they were responding to a country disillusioned by the Nixon Watergate scandal, the ongoing War in Vietnam, racial and social instability. Unlike the confident 1940s baby boomers, these young artists felt disenchanted by their environment, sensing that the "utopian promise of the counterculture had devolved into a commercialized pastiche of rebellious stances prepackaged for consumption" (D. Ekland, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 16). Waves of Minimalism and Conceptual Art had already largely transformed the cultural landscape, first through a renunciation of expressionism and then through the 'dematerialization' of the object to coin Lucy Lippard and John Chandler's renowned term. What remained however was an unchallenged mass of media and marketing images, proliferated in step with the rapidly expanding consumer class. Influenced by emerging postmodern currents in cultural philosophy by Michel Foucault and Guy Debord amongst others, Sherman and her peers began to deconstruct these seductive images, interrogating them for their role in the construction of identity and their abstruse claims to originality and authenticity. It is an approach that engages Roland Barthes's famous manifesto, "the birth of the reader is at the cost of the death of the author" (R. Barthes quoted in D. Ekland, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 17).
As a female artist, Sherman was also deeply implicated in feminist discourse. Unlike the earlier generation however, she felt no need to circumscribe her work as exclusively feminist. As Douglas Eklund has asserted, Sherman and "these younger women artists were part of feminism's second wave; for them, gender and sexuality were part of a larger nexus between representation and power, and images were highly coded rhetorical devices that shape, rather than merely reflect, men and women and maintain power relations in all spheres of life" (D. Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 144). It is within this context that Sherman's Centerfolds and in particular Untitled #96 should be understood.