Portrait of Misogyny

In 1993, Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, an aspiring artist and avid surfer, launched a New York cable-access program on the Manhattan art world. Called Gallery Beat and described by its creator as "hopelessly and endlessly public access," the show follows Hasegawa-Overacker as he visits galleries, gets tossed out of museums, and interviews bewildered artists. Often joined by cohorts Walter Robinson (former editor for Art in America, now the editor for Artnet's Web magazine), Cathy Lebowitz (an editor for Art in America), and Spencer Tunick (a photographer), Hasegawa-Overacker ultimately created 160 half-hour episodes.

Much of the footage in Hasegawa-Overacker's new documentary (out now in limited theatrical release), Guest of Cindy Sherman is drawn from the gonzo art-appreciation program, which in its heyday granted Hasegawa-Overacker access to such name-brand artists as Cecily Brown, Marilyn Minter, Fred Tomaselli -- and Cindy Sherman. For his film, like his cable-access program, Hasegawa-Overacker wanted to examine the reckless bubble and crash world of art-market fame. A world in which Sherman has enjoyed a meteoric rise, while Hasegawa-Overacker has been relegated to the sidelines.

That is, anyway, the documentary Hasegawa-Overacker says he set out to make with co-director Tom Donahue. In fact, Guest of Cindy Sherman is a creepy, cringe-inducing rehash of a relationship's failure, told through intimate home-movie footage and the annotations of friends. Importantly -- albeit inadvertently -- it is also a film that illustrates the misogyny still pervasive in the art world today, a misogyny that Hasegawa-Overacker both records and exudes.

Insofar as shoving a camera in an artist's face at a public gallery opening and not getting the finger can be called "access," Hasegawa-Overacker had it, at least for a time. The guerrilla and at times puerile nature of Gallery Beat emerges from snippets of interviews from or about the show but so does this telling fact: Neither Hasegawa-Overacker nor anyone else really seems to think of it as journalism.

When New York Times art critic Roberta Smith offers a cool observation about Hasegawa-Overacker's interviewing style during Guest of Cindy Sherman, she is clearly making an effort to be evenhanded. It is jarring to hear her apply the phrase "interviewing style" to his project. Not merely because Gallery Beat represents a crude sort of citizen journalism -- after all, this is a feature of the program, a low-fi antidote to the cash-flushed and self-serious art world. It's Wayne's World meets Whitney Biennial by design. Yet Hasegawa-Overacker doesn't come across so much as a hapless hanger-on as a skilled social climber, trading on his goofy, easygoing presentation in hopes of gaining the mutual admiration of his subjects. He doesn't dig into the art -- he and his crew ask the stars what they had for breakfast.

Hasegawa-Overacker makes no great disguise of his interest in Sherman's fame when he meets her at the artist's gallery opening at Metro Pictures in 1998. By then, the Museum of Modern Art had already acquired the complete run of her Untitled Film Stills series, a project begun in 1977 in which Sherman shoots herself in black-and-white photos that purport to be stills from films never made. In 1995, the same year as that landmark acquisition -- which former Whitney Museum director David Ross describes in Guest of Cindy Sherman as "the one that got away" -- the artist was recognized with a MacArthur Award.

Guest of Cindy Sherman was begun by the time Sherman and Hasegawa-Overacker's video friendship flowered into a romantic relationship. Sherman signed contracts early on agreeing to terms for her video appearances in Hasegawa-Overacker's films. (She has since disavowed the project; according to Donahue, Sherman insisted via lawyers on 40 changes to the film before its release. She has apologized publicly to friends who consented to be filmed by Hasegawa-Overacker thinking they were doing Sherman a favor. "We had people sign air-tight releases," says Donahue of other appearances in the movie.)

As his relationship with Sherman grew, Hasegawa-Overacker lost everything else -- his interest in making art, making TV, making rent. Sherman proved to be more than a flash in the pan. Today, she ranks as probably the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century. In the film, this professional rift escalates until a frustrated Hasegawa-Overacker suffers his greatest indignity, when, at a dinner celebrating a Robert Mapplethorpe show Sherman curated, he sits down to a placard reading "guest of Cindy Sherman." The anecdote is first the fodder of a comedy routine and then the culmination of his film.

In assembling Guest of Cindy Sherman, Hasegawa-Overacker compiled footage that captures some troubling gender dynamics. After Hasegawa-Overacker meets British artist Tracy Emin at a hotel art fair toward the beginning of her notorious career, co-host Robinson knocks, "She wanted you to jump on her." On Artnet in the present day, Robinson champions Charlie Finch, a critic whose work has prompted complaints that his interest in young female artists is lewd -- an accusation that was investigated by The New York Observer. Finch appears in the film to describe Hasegawa-Overacker as a "Chaplinesque" figure. If there is an old boys' network in the obscure realm of arts journalism, Hasegawa-Overacker is at its heart.

Dovetailed into Hasegawa-Overacker's documentary mash-up of Gallery Beat clips and Sherman home movies are interviews that illustrate the macho nature of the 1980s art bubble and the 1990s art crash it begot. Photographer Laurie Simmons describes how she enlarged her photos to compete with the massive scale of painting championed in the 1980s by macho Picasso types like Robert Longo, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel -- all of whom floated on the incredible bubble of the era (and appear in the film). Hasegawa-Overacker characterizes the resulting art world as a backlash against the alpha males, with artists like Sherman emerging in their stead. He even insinuates that Sherman is at the heart of the bubble that, to be sure, just burst (along with everything else).

It has the makings of a compelling narrative. A nice guy can't compete with Julian Schnabel and the other loud painters. (A hot flash of antagonism between Schnabel and Hasegawa-Overacker drives home the point.) But when the alpha males are out of the picture, it is women like Sherman who take the reigns. The market swung once wildly in the direction of the macho, Hasegawa-Overacker argues, so the swing toward the feminine represented by Sherman's enduring success must be some sort of overcorrection.

But that is simply not the case. The market never built a bubble around the work of women. Art market analyst Richard Polsky names only seven women in a 2007 rundown of the 50 most heavily traded artists. (Eight if you count Christo to mean Christo and Jeanne-Claude.) Sherman is one of those women, and her market experience, to be sure, has been extraordinary: She was the first photographer to be grouped with painters by an auction house for a contemporary sale. Works by Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Yayoi Kasuma set auction records last year, but none fetched prices within the same order of magnitude as male counterparts like Jeff Koonz, Takashi Murakami, and Gerhard Richter.

When the Broad Contemporary Art Museum opened last year at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, the demographic breakdown of the first exhibition was 97 percent white and 87 percent male. The Broad collection as a whole, which is considered to be a significant bellwether of contemporary art, is not much different; 96 percent of its artists are white and 86 percent are male. In 2007, the feminist-activist group The Guerrilla Girls ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post examining the gender ratio of exhibits on display in four public modern and contemporary art museums in the nation's capital. The Smithsonian American Art Museum fared the best -- with 88 percent of the artists on display being male.

To be sure, Broad is an enthusiastic collector of Sherman. So is just about every contemporary art museum in the world and many, many private collectors. So also, in a sense, was Hasegawa-Overacker. And that is why he made the film in the first place -- he understood both what an extraordinary star she was and what extraordinary footage he had obtained of her. But the feature of that relationship that deserves close examination is not her flirtatious private nature. Nor is the reason for her success the failure of other men. Rather, the elliptical point worth drawing from Guest of Cindy Sherman is the minority role women play to this day in the art world. When a critical figure like Sherman emerges, she is subject to voyeuristic inspection and soft discrimination. She might not be, were she one among a more reasonable number of women art stars. Although, who can say -- as exceptional as Sherman is, Hasegawa-Overacker proves himself to be unprecedented, in his own peculiar way.