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The many faces of Cindy Sherman; Known the world over for her probing self-portraits of her imaginary selves, Sherman's genius is on full display in a MoMA retrospective, with a nod to her formative years in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox

Through the front window of a menswear shop on Madison Avenue early on a Saturday evening in March, passers-by could easily glimpse an advertisement projected onto the store's walls.

It said: "Brand Yourself."

The New York characters walking past that shop window on any given day represent the latest models in their own particular product lines. There are college-age women in wispy silk dresses and platform heels, hipsters in hoodies unzipped just so, the occasional society woman hiding her age under too much makeup and fur. There are rich people, working people, tourists and transients.

These are photographer Cindy Sherman's people, and this cast of characters is her stock-in-trade. Sherman has spent her career trying on the costumes and identities of the people she sees on the street, at parties, and in films, magazines, plays and paintings. In doing so, she has become one of the most successful and influential visual artists in the world.

The prolific, unsparing and monumentally talented portrait artist launched her career in Buffalo nearly 40 years ago. From 1973 to 1976, Sherman attended Buffalo State College and played a central role in the early days of what is now Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center (which her friend and fellow artist Charles Clough launched along with Sherman's then-boyfriend, Robert Longo).

Her work -- drawn as much from pop culture as art history -- is about the way we perform ourselves, the masks we wear, the roles we play and what, if anything, those disguises say about who we really are.

Highlights of Sherman's career are now on view in a ravishing retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art. The works are a record of the guises Sherman, now 58, has adopted and the characters she has played since she first posed as her own subject for a student art project in the early 1970s.

The exhibition includes plenty of nods to her formative time in Buffalo, where she developed many of the ideas that propelled her to international fame. It coincides with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's exhibition "Wish You Were Here," revisiting Buffalo's sprawling avant-garde cultural scene of the 1970s. The Albright-Knox show contains "A Play of Selves," an ambitious photographic project that was Sherman's first solo installation at Hallwalls' original location on Essex Street in 1976.

A look at both exhibitions reveals that Sherman's time in Buffalo was no mere caprice or tentative warm-up. The four years she spent in Western New York were vital to the formation of her artistic voice and a visual language completely her own.

In the introduction to her complete "Untitled Film Stills," Sherman wrote about the collaborative spirit of Hallwalls in the mid-'70s.

"It was a communal place, a lot of artists lived there. The three of us lived upstairs from the gallery, and when people came to check out the art they'd often come up. Visiting artists would stay there, too," Sherman wrote. "A group of artists would converge there to watch 'Saturday Night Live' or 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I'd be in my studio making up a character and then go out in character to join the party. I'd have put all this energy into the makeup and I'd think, 'Why waste it?' "

Sherman wasted very little. The costumes she experimented with in her studio and wore out to parties became central to her work. They popped up in her 1975 stop-motion film "Doll Clothes," a project for a Buffalo State film class in which Sherman plays the part of a paper doll who selects a dress and puts it on, only to be promptly disrobed by a giant pair of human hands and placed neatly back into her plastic sleeve. The film, which serves as a kind of coda to the MoMA exhibition, shows how early Sherman settled on identity as a subject for her life's work.

Heather Pesanti, who curated "Wish You Were Here" at the Albright-Knox, said "A Play of Selves," now on view at the Albright-Knox and considered an important early work by Sherman, plays a central role in the exhibition.

"It's herself as archetypal characters like madness, desire, sadness. I got tipped off to it by a patron [who] had seen this piece in New York," Pesanti said. "Her original installation was cut out, glued on the wall as a running piece. It had never been done or seen like that [since '76]. I contacted the artist and she thought it was a great idea, so she reprinted them."

Sherman, in the preface to a printed edition of "A Play of Selves" published in 2007, writes that the installation is "embarrassing to look back" upon, "especially at this work that was so personal, so raw. It's corny, sincere, and obvious, yet makes so much sense in how my work has developed."

At an event in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999, Hallwalls director Edmund Cardoni recalled, Sherman spoke of her time in Buffalo with great reverence.

"Whenever anyone asks me where I went to art school," she said, "I always say at Hallwalls."

Putting herself together

On the surface, Sherman's work seems to comment on the malleability of identity, the way we create ourselves every day when we get out of bed, style our hair and choose which costume to wear.

But the deeper you peer into Sherman's scenes and into her practiced expressions, the easier it is to see the despair at the heart of much of her work.

It has been there from the very beginning -- you see it in "Doll Clothes" -- and it certainly comes across in her "Untitled Film Stills," which remains her most popular and beloved series to date.

Many of those 70 film stills, arrayed across four walls in the MoMA show, are familiar to those who have followed Sherman's career. The series caught the attention of the art world when it was first exhibited in the early 1980s, and now stands as one of the most important bodies of work in late-20th century art.

There is something overwhelming about seeing the photographs all in one place, each meticulously composed, expertly acted and shot in a way that evokes instant familiarity with an entirely fictional scene.

Sherman creates artworks so fluent in the language of the forms they critique that we would swear we have seen the original. When you see Sherman's work for the very first time, you somehow feel like you remember it. Each photo can prompt its own loaded episode of deja vu, and each is rife with possibilities for dreaming about the sordid stories it suggests.

Even if you discount or ignore what Sherman's work says about our self-creation, you can easily get lost in the endless narrative possibilities of the photos themselves.

Each of the "Untitled Film Stills" is a fill-in-the-blank fiction, with just enough clues to stoke the imagination, but not too many to suck the fun out of the affair.

The 13th still, for example, depicts a blond woman in a white shirt pulling a book from a high shelf in a library while casting a wary glance behind. Maybe her presence in the library is a ruse. Maybe she's being pursued. Maybe she's worried her overbearing husband will see her grabbing a book from the library's art section. Maybe all of the above.

Since that first bravura exhibition of the series in the early '80s revealed her already epic ambition and talent, Sherman's skills as a manipulator of cultural memory have only grown. Her series of photographs inspired by old master paintings, of West Coast social climbers -- and, especially, of quietly desperate Upper East Side society women struggling to maintain their drooping facades -- all strike a chord audible to art world insiders and newcomers alike. They say: "You know this woman, but do you really know her?"

Something disturbing

Sherman's portraits seduce before they disturb, and her attention to beauty and to the tiny aesthetic details of each scene is what sets her apart. That seduction -- even in the most grotesque of Sherman's work -- is why her photographs have penetrated more deeply into the popular consciousness than those of almost any other living artist.

Sherman's success in employing traditional beauty toward subversive ends is one of her great gifts to contemporary culture. ("I wanted something visually offensive but seductive, beautiful, and textural as well, to suck you in and then repulse you," Sherman once said.) There's nothing new about the idea, of course, but Sherman's work is a reminder of the age-old effectiveness of wrapping ugly notions in pretty packages.

The ripples of those contributions are visible everywhere: Consider the slyly transgressive work of Madonna in the early '90s, the films of (to pick a couple from the hundreds of close artistic relatives of Sherman) Alan Ball and Pedro Almodovar.

These might seem like strained connections, but the breadth of Sherman's career and its influence on today's visual culture -- on television, in fashion magazines and in movie theaters -- is tough to overestimate.

Her 1988-90 series of photographs based on European old master paintings extends her commentary on the costumes we wear and the roles we play a few centuries into the past. In so doing, in her deceptively beautiful way, she suggests that her characters' prison of identity is part of an inescapable historical continuum.

"These were not really done in any kind of reverential way toward art history," Sherman explained on the PBS program "Art:21." "If anything, I was showing how, not how little I care about it, but how it's just another thing that can influence me, along with television and along with cheap magazines. It's not any more relevant to my time than any of that other stuff."

Sherman's haunting and enormous photographs of society women are the same way. These rich, middle-aged women in regal settings, many of them Botoxed and bejeweled beyond recognition, have stories, too, and from their expressions you know they have very little chance of being happy ones.

But if there is a flicker of optimism in Sherman's work, it is that the costumes clearly do not fit the people in the photographs, and her disguises are often rendered obvious by the inclusion of comic prostheses and exaggerated makeup. That implies that a person -- naked, unadorned -- is still buried under there somewhere and, what's more, she doesn't deserve the weight of her disguise.

At a time when so much art on gallery walls is about other art, Sherman's work acts as a balm against the art world's insularity. Sherman herself has expressed an aversion to these concerns, if not an outright disdain for them, as well as a polite refusal to subscribe to the intellectual flights of fancy launched out of her work.

Her quietly punk-rock attitude -- against categories, against the social status quo, and up to a point against the art world itself -- is part of the reason her work remains so vital, so freshly disturbing and so relevant to the way we live.