06/06/2011 05:47 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

The Unique Value of Cindy Sherman

On May 11, a photograph by Cindy Sherman sold at a New York auction for $3.89 million -- the highest price ever paid for a photograph in a public sale. This event has not received as much attention as one might have expected. Perhaps that absence of publicity is appropriate, for Sherman herself is a rare phenomenon in today's art world, a great artist who avoids the spotlight. Yet it is worth noting that this market outcome should not be surprising, by briefly taking stock of Sherman's unique position in the modern history of advanced art.

In a chapter of Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, I considered who were the greatest women artists of the past century. I ranked the dozen leading candidates by tabulating the number of illustrations of their work contained in all available textbooks of art history published in English from 1995 on. In these 29 textbooks, Cindy Sherman's work was illustrated more often than that of any other woman, followed, in order, by Georgia O'Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Frida Kahlo.

In the last chapter of the same book, I assessed the current state of advanced art using the same methodology. Thus I ranked the leading artists of the late 20th century by tabulating the total illustrations of their works, executed in 1975 or later, in all available art history textbooks published since 2000. Remarkably, these 21 books contained more illustrations of the work of Cindy Sherman than of any other artist; she was followed, in order, by Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In an earlier study, I ranked the greatest photographers of the 20th century, again using the same methodology. In 16 textbooks of the history of photography, I found that Cindy Sherman ranked third in total illustrations, behind Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans, and ahead of Man Ray, Eugène Atget, and Dorothea Lange.

These studies effectively poll the opinions of experts on the question of the most important practitioners of the relevant arts, by measuring the amount of attention they devote to specific artists in their narratives of the history of their chosen subject. The results reveal the collective judgments of art scholars that Cindy Sherman is not only one of the most important photographers in the history of that art, but also the most important visual artist of the past three decades in any genre. It is not difficult to see why she has achieved this position. Genuine importance in art is a function of influence. In a 2000 New Yorker profile of Sherman, the critic Calvin Tomkins explained that:

She has reclaimed the oldest trick in the book, storytelling, and given it new life in visual art. An amazing number of younger artists have followed her lead; the galleries are full of what has come to be called setup photography, in which complex and often highly enigmatic scenarios are plotted, constructed, and photographed, and much of the newer painting and sculpture on view these days has a strong narrative content.

Nor is it an accident that the photograph auctioned for $3.89 million was taken in 1981, when Sherman was just 27 years old. Sherman is an archetypal example of a young conceptual innovator, whose concern is not with the visual or formal properties of her work but with ideas -- creating characters and telling stories. For her a camera is not a vehicle for pursuing aesthetic goals, but a convenient means of making personal statements by recording the make-believe she has loved since she was a child. The work she made during 1977-82, when she was in her mid-20s, is that most frequently reproduced in the art history textbooks, and is also the period of her career that was most prominently featured in her 1997 retrospective exhibition. Sherman is a central figure in today's highly conceptual art world, in which young artists make radical innovations by disregarding traditional boundaries of genre and ignoring constraints of trademark styles. The auction market, like the rest of the art world, clearly recognizes this.