In the House of Francesca Woodman

For a proper appreciation and assessment of an artist's long-lasting value in art, it's best to begin with a coherent body of work, one that demonstrates a confidence of style or technique or idea, or, preferably, some combination of all of these traits. The meaning of the work can shift over time, of course, as new viewers see the art through the lens of their generational perspectives. Many artists take decades to achieve such a confidence or coherence, but exceptional and gifted souls can take quick flight.


House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Gelatin silver print, 14.6 x 14.6 cm
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman
© 2012 George and Betty Woodman

Take the example of Francesca Woodman, whose beautiful photographic works from the mid- to late 1970s currently line the Annex Level 4 galleries of the Guggenheim Museum. She chose herself as her main subject, "a sculptural prop" in the words of curator Jennifer Blessing, dissolving and merging with wallpapers and fireplaces and other sensuous architectural interiors, most often in a state of decay. The daughter of artists, Woodman produced a work that is mysterious and informed, respectful of aesthetic traditions and yet defiant of conventional boundaries. She died in 1981 at the age of 22, a suicide, a tragic fact that's hard to keep at bay but often necessary while looking at these pictures.

Woodman grew up in Boulder, Colorado, with frequent family trips to Italy, and she started making photographs at the age of thirteen. When she began her formal college training at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she was already an artist beyond her years. She was a Goth before there was Goth, and a Surrealist unmoored from time. We can now more fully appreciate that the performative nature of these images broke new ground. These influences blended with a spirited exploration of self-portraiture. While other women photographers of the 1970s also turned the cameras on themselves, her pictorial representations and sensibility separates her from someone like Cindy Sherman. While Sherman, four years older than Woodman, made herself the star in a shifting cast of stereotypes, Woodman blended with the woodwork, so to speak, a physical body blending and hiding with the environment around her.

Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Gelatin silver print, 14 x 14.1 cm
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman 
© 2012 George and Betty Woodman

The retrospective at the Guggenheim begins with the many signature images of Woodman's RISD years, moves into her college year abroad in Rome, and ends with her move to New York in 1979-1981. This last section of the exhibit includes the images she made while at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, forays into the body as part of nature. Importantly, we also have the chance to look at her rarely screened videos made while she was a college student. Though fragments, these moving images take the works into a haunting narrative dimension, especially one where she is shown cleaning herself and then leaving a dark shadow on the floor of a room. Few things are more gaspingly beautiful than this sequence. A related still image (above) gives some idea.

Representative of the final New York years, the large blueprint studies for her Temple project (1980) may exceed those last images in sheer bravery. (See image from the Guggenheim exhibit below.) Assuming the subject of the caryatid, the classic figure of the female as column and architectural support - and we have several stellar examples of these in NYC on the facades of Beaux Arts buildings, Woodman extended her work into an ambitious new direction. Her body was physically as beautiful as the Greek ideal. As others who have written about her have noted, however, we see so little of her face. Make of that what you will.

Caryatid, New York, 1980
Diazotype, 227.3 x 92.1 cm
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman
© 2012 George and Betty Woodman

In addition to walking the galleries of the Guggenheim, I suggest taking a stroll south to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see "Spies in the House of Art: Photography, Film, and Video" (through August 26, 2012). On display is Woodman's Blueprint for a Temple (1980), a large-scale (457.2 x 304.8 cm; 180 x 120 in.) diazo collage that more fully realizes the caryatid temple. The work possesses a commanding presence. Though hesitant to once again describe her images as "mysterious," the caryatids show a departure in meaning from the mysteries associated of Gothic fiction. Among other temples to view in the Met, Woodman has led us straight to Delphi. (Met page on the exhibit.)

The walk should be extended to Marian Goodman Gallery (24 West 57th St.) for Francesca Woodman: The Blueprints, on display there through April 28, 2012. The gallery represents the artist's estate. (Gallery website)

Francesca Woodman 
Through June 13, 2012
The Guggenheim Museum 
5th Avenue at 89th Street

The exhibit is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) where it opened in November 2011.

Images above courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Further reading:

• For a particularly insightful and personal remembrance of Woodman, one that also raises the Sherman compare-and-contrast, read the essay "Girl, Seeming to Disappear" by Peter Davison (The Atlantic online, May 2000) Images by Francesca Woodman courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

• Walking Off the Big Apple's review of the current Cindy Sherman retrospective at MoMA discusses the context of women artists in the 1970s.

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