If Cindy Sherman had never picked up a camera, she could have been wildly successful as a sociologist, film star, makeup artist, script writer, plastic surgeon, fashionista, set designer, lighting technician, bag lady or clown.

With a camera, she did it all. And she is still turning out mind-bending pictures, as seen in "Cindy Sherman," a 35-year survey of her protean career opening Saturday at Walker Art Center. Organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the exhibit arrives from San Francisco and heads to Dallas and São Paulo, Brazil, after its Minneapolis run ends Feb. 17. As those venues suggest, this is a sizzling, not-to-be-missed international event.

"Unquestionably she's one of the most important living artists today, and that's not a statement you make often," said Siri Engberg, the Walker curator overseeing the Minneapolis presentation.

Actually, art people seem to make that claim pretty much every time they chat over a latté. But in Sherman's case there are solid grounds for the boast.

She has been a supernova since the mid-'70s when she garnered instant fame for her "Untitled Film Stills," a black-and-white photo series in which she presented herself as the centerpiece of publicity shots for imaginary genre films. The "Stills" and her next series, "Centerfolds" -- cinematic images of vulnerable women in ambiguous situations -- enthralled critics, collectors and museum mavens worldwide. Subsequent series riffing on art history, sex, aging, fashion and other themes have been equally provocative and popular.

Last year her "Untitled 96," a 1981 picture of a dreamy teen clutching a crumpled personal ad, sold for $3.9 million, an auction record for a photo at the time. Astronomical though it was, the price seemed right to her.

"I felt, well, it's about time," she told Harper's Bazaar. "Not that I feel it's worth that much, but so much other photography by men has been hovering in that range. I have to say I'm competitive: 'Hey, what about me? I'm in that same realm of fame as those guys.'''

Hidden in plain sight

The curious thing about Sherman, 58, is that she appears in virtually all of her pictures and yet she's never there.

Over the decades she has transformed herself into myriad female types, from the film-noir vixens, bored housewives and blond bombshells of the "Film Stills" series, to the maybe-rape victims of the "Centerfolds," to her most recent pictures of society women who use the tools of affluence -- cosmetic surgery, sunlamps, lotions, potions and personal trainers -- in hauntingly futile efforts to hold age at bay.

As her filmmaker friend John Waters puts it, she is a "female female impersonator."

Unlike other celebrity artists, Sherman rarely sits for interviews and prefers to steer clear of cameras other than her own. Typically described as sweet, friendly or nice, she works alone in a New York studio crammed with wigs, fake teeth, costumes, props and photo equipment. She does her own makeup and often buys other accoutrements on eBay.

With a face that melds the chilly hauteur of Tilda Swinton with the comedic charm of Lucille Ball, she has an uncanny ability to disappear into the characters she portrays. Growing up on Long Island, the youngest of five children, she immersed herself in movies and television and loved to dress up. Where other girls might have aspired to be Barbie she went for monsters and old ladies, as she explains to MOMA curator Eva Respini in the show's smart catalog.

By the time she got to New York's Buffalo State College, from which she graduated in 1976, she was deep into her own brand of personal theater, fiddling around with makeup at a time when outspoken feminists disdained such superficialities, flipping gender roles in mannish little portraits, and showing off her daffy comic talents in impromptu performances.

Later, while working as a gallery assistant in New York, she would occasionally show up dressed as the perfect secretary complete with bouffant hairdo and perky glasses. Instead of getting peeved by the career limits of the glass-ceiling era, Sherman unmasked them in her sly performances and knowing images.

Changes over time

In nine Walker galleries, Sherman's career unfolds in more than 160 photos arranged in loosely chronological order.

All 70 of the famous "Film Stills" appear in the first room along with an immense 2010 mural that is her most recent work. The mural's background is a Central Park landscape she photographed and manipulated to resemble a black-and-white drawing on an antique French fabric. Atop it she's applied larger-than-life images of herself wearing an oddly sexualized nude jump suit, her facial features subtly distorted by computer manipulation.

It's difficult to imagine now, but the "Centerfolds" in the next gallery were so controversial in the early 1980s that Artforum, the avant garde magazine that commissioned them, declined to publish them, apparently because they implied the women had been victimized. Shot from above, they show dazed and disheveled women in positions and shadowy lighting typical of men's erotica. Though fully clothed, the women -- all portrayed by Sherman -- are psychologically naked in their vulnerability.

Subsequent galleries show the fun Sherman has had with art history and advertising, featuring her hilarious parodies of busty madonnas, glassy-eyed saints, bored courtesans and even the occasional bulbous-nosed burgher or paunchy statesman. Men are rare in her theatrical repertoire, but not unknown.

Astonishingly, some of the world's most exclusive and expensive fashion houses have at times hired her to shoot their wares. The results are gleefully bizarre, with Sherman as a drab hag wearing Chanel feathers in an Icelandic bog, or sporting Balenciaga with sagging breasts and lurid face paint.

Ever the chameleon, Sherman has occasionally grown disgusted with censorship and art world politics, as she did in the 1990s when she turned out a series of deliberately disgusting images composed from medical dolls and body parts arranged into un-erotic pornography. And then there are the clowns, a room full of Shermans leering and mugging in all their gaudy pathos. Her "society portraits" round out the show -- big, bold and grandly framed images of women clinging too desperately to fast fading youth.

Having worn a mask throughout her career, Sherman is the invisible presence here, scrutinizing the wrinkles, mimicking the gestures, clicking the shutter and then slipping out the door.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431