Fearing backlash for the images’ provocative implied sexuality, Artforum ultimately declined to publish Sherman’s arresting work, particularly in light of the controversy ignited by Lynda Benglis’ infamous 1974 advertisement of the nude artist suggestively posed gripping a dildo. Nevertheless, the photographs were exhibited at Metro Pictures in New York to wide praise in the fall of 1981. Writing for theVillage Voice at the time, Roberta Smith commented, “This new work, her third series and second in color, may be her best work yet… The psychological weight of the work is so direct that at times it seems to free the viewer to see very clearly the formal manipulations which are at its source. Sherman makes you understand the components of photography with a particular bluntness which is one of her trademarks. The roles of color, light, cropping, space, eye contact (or lack of it) is continually stated and restated and we read them just as we do details of clothing, hairdo, posture and flooring. Despite all this the effect is not simply didactic; everything is both laid out and convincingly, ingenuously synthesized.” (Roberta Smith, “Review: Cindy Sherman,” Village Voice, New York, November, 1981) Toying with the spectator’s imposing gaze, which seeks pleasure in the centerfold image through objectifying its female subject, Sherman instead offers a highly staged and posed photograph of extreme vulnerability. As is exemplary of Sherman’s oeuvre, she exposes the camera’s ability to manipulate images, and unravels the viewer’s passive acceptance of these constructions as truths.
The horizontal orientation creates a dramatic pictorial space, in which we as the viewer peer down onto Sherman’s ingénue, defenseless in her supine passivity. The saturated palette of colors and theatrical lighting intensifies the emotional impact of the picture, marking a significant artistic development for Sherman, as this series was one of her first forays into color photography following the black and white Untitled Film Stills of 1977. Upon the Centerfolds' public exhibition, the present work provoked the most impassioned critical examination, a debate that catalyzed Sherman’s rise to eminence. Untitled #93 is perhaps the most explicitly suggestive of the series—Sherman acquires the guise of a pulp-fiction nymph, pulling the black sheets to her chest and staring off vacantly beyond the space of the centerfold. The Museum of Modern Art’s Eva Respini, curator of the recent travelling Cindy Sherman retrospective, explains in the catalogue for the exhibition, “Untitled #93 was a particular lightning rod for debate, as some interpreted the puffy faced girl clutching at her bedsheets as a victim of sexual assault… Sherman imagined another scenario entirely: ‘To me, the whole inspiration for the picture was somebody who‘d been up all night drinking and partying and had just gone to sleep five minutes before the sun rose and woke her up. So it bothered me at first when people criticized the picture, seeing the side that I hadn’t intended… I was definitely trying to provoke in those pictures. But it was more about provoking men into reassessing their assumptions when they look at pictures of women. I was thinking about vulnerability in a way that would make a male viewer uncomfortable—like seeing your daughter in a vulnerable state'." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Cindy Sherman, 2012, pp. 31-32)
The grand scale of the photograph augments its expressive resonance—each holding the wall at an impressive 24 by 48 inches, Sherman’s Centerfolds pioneered the advent of large-format fine art photography, assertively propelling the medium into museum circles and the canons of art history. One of the first artists to employ large scale photography as a means of producing conceptually driven artwork, this cutting-edge series bridges the elaborately constructed tableaux of Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky with Sherman’s Pictures Generation peers, the postmodernists Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Jack Goldstein.
Untitled #93 is among the most important and foundational works of Sherman’s career. Included in most of the artist’s pivotal career-shaping exhibitions, such as the current retrospective that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012 and travelled to SFMOMA, the Walker Art Center and the Dallas Museum of Art, the present work is indisputably one of Sherman’s photographs that has received the widest attention and fostered significant critical discourse. Other examples of this edition are held in the collections of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Olso, while editions from the Centerfolds series are held in esteemed collections around the world, such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they are treasured for their incalculable impact to the history of modern photography. The Centerfolds were singularly responsible for catapulting Sherman from the emerging success she found with the 1977 Untitled Film Stills to the meteoric stardom that we associate with the artist today. Sherman’s early supporter Janelle Reiring of Metro Pictures gallery unequivocally declared, "It was her second show with us—with the Centerfolds series from 1981—that seemed to change everything." (Janelle Reiring quoted in S.P. Hanson, "Art Dossier: Cindy Sherman," Art+Auction, February 2012)
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