Portrait of a House
Artist Cindy Sherman casts her eye on a historic Greek Revival in Sag Harbor
photographs by Tria Giovan
Cindy Sherman is world-renowned as a master of the “about-face,” famed for photographing herself as everything from faded pinup stars to not-so-gracefully-aging socialites. So it’s almost shocking when she answers the door of her Sag Harbor home with no makeup and a macaw on her shoulder. Fresh from a blockbuster show at MoMA that closed just a few weeks ago, she is enjoying some downtime at her East End weekend retreat. With the same eye for detail that she brings to her photographs, Sherman has transformed a historic 1840s Greek Revival into a luxurious getaway with four bedrooms, a 60-foot saltwater pool, a pool house and sauna, and formal gardens with a special rose room.
Even her fine-feathered friend, Mister Frieda (a “she” until an important discovery was made after Sherman had had the brilliantly plumed bird for nine years), has his own avian apartment outside. Sherman says he is the one constant in her life and at age 21 can live for another 40 years, perhaps the ultimate example of the phrase “He had me at ‘Hello.’”
In 2000, the end of a relationship propelled Sherman to buy a house in the Hamptons. She left her nine-acre spread in upstate New York—her nearest friend was a half hour away—and focused her search on the East End, specifically Sag Harbor, with its village ambiance and historic architecture. After viewing only five or six properties, Sherman settled on the classic home—owned then by the composer Marvin Hamlisch—which felt like a sanctuary to her. “I’m impetuous when it comes to things like that,” she says.
As her photographic works have gone through different phases, so has her taste in home decor. “I grew up in ranch-style houses with mostly run-of-the-mill stuff bought at Sears,” Sherman notes of her childhood in Huntington, Long Island, where she rejected Barbie’s camper in favor of decorating shoeboxes with handmade furniture and special outfits for her collection of trolls. “I like to change my style every couple of years. I used to have this gothic sensibility running through my loft in the city, then made everything white and got rid of all the dark funky stuff. I think that’s where I came upon the idea of combining a more modern, contemporary look with an older architectural style.”
Sherman spared no expense in the $2 million, top-to-bottom renovation, even investing in special windows to eliminate street noise. Most Sag Harbor Village basements comprise dirt, seaweed stuffing, and a few locust posts, but Sherman’s tricked-out command central is now worthy of NASA.
“I thought bright and contemporary furnishings would be a nice contrast to the architectural details of the house”
For the redesigned, open interior, Sherman mandated bright, cheerful colors. “I wasn’t thinking of a lot of antiques or doing any period sort of thing,” she says. “I thought bright and contemporary furnishings would be a nice contrast to the architectural details of the house.” And like lots of Sag Harbor denizens, Sherman has a penchant for yard sales and junk stores. “I don’t get into anything too precious here, particularly with people coming from the beach with sandy feet and wet bathing suits. I didn’t want to go too crazy worrying about furniture.”
The art on the walls has a decided folk-art feel, much of it the work of art-world friends. She is also passionate about hand-looped rugs that she personally commissioned from the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, which runs a program for mentally and physically disabled people. What is not in evidence anywhere is her own internationally acclaimed artwork. “I know it so well I don’t need to look at it—I’d rather see other people’s work,” explains Sherman, whose photographs often sell for millions of dollars. Her Untitled #96 sold at Christie’s in 2011 for $3,890,500, the second-highest auction price for a photograph (surpassed only by Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II, which sold later that year for $4,338,500).
Sherman started experimenting with transforming herself in photos and videos in the mid-1970s. After dressing up as various personas at home, she began to show up to work at Artists Space in Manhattan in character.
Sherman’s boyfriend at the time, artist Robert Longo, whom she met in college in Buffalo, suggested, “You know, you really should do something with this.”
“I don’t get into anything too precious here, with people coming from the beach with sandy feet and wet bathing suits”
Following the critical acclaim of her “Centerfolds” series at the Venice Biennale in 1982, she countered with her “disgusting pictures,” featuring still lifes of decay—not exactly suited for hanging above a sofa, which, funnily enough, Sherman has yet to find for her own living room. Her Sag Harbor home is mostly an oasis from her work, although she used the attic as a studio one summer before converting it into a guest room. What became known as her “Headshots” series was originally called “Hollywood/Hamptons Ladies,” whom Sherman describes as “summertime people—overly tanned or aesthetically enhanced, as well as some hippie types and beachy surf chicks.” Sherman is never making fun of these characters: “I empathize with them,” she says. “I just adore them.”
For someone who’s never short of surprises, perhaps the biggest surprise in Sherman’s house is her “very expensive toilet,” she says with a laugh. Her $3,000 Toto toilet responds to voice commands, among other things. “I love that toilet. It even has a little room all to itself. That’s the key.”