Skip to main content

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.


FRANCESCA WOODMAN

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.

FRANCESCA WOODMAN
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.

FRANCESCA WOODMAN
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)

Information:
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.

Comments









Popular posts from this blog

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.*Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries.I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I would sit in t…

In Washington Irving Country: A Walk Between Irvington and Tarrytown on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

A stroll in the countryside may be slow and rhythmic, accompanied by a soft breeze among the trees, but walking in this sleepy fashion doesn’t mean the brain is not alert. This pace is especially true for a walk in Washington Irving country about thirty miles north of New York City along the Hudson River. Up near Irvington and Tarrytown, just south of Sleepy Hollow, a steady yet alert pace is recommended, taking in whatever happens as the walk progresses. Walking along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail and going off the trail in whims and reveries can awaken the imagination, especially for overactive imaginations primed for the pump. You don’t want to get too sleepy near Sleepy Hollow.When I mentioned to an acquaintance not long ago that I had been exploring the woods south of Sleepy Hollow, this person affirmed with great conviction that this land was truly haunted. She said, “It suddenly gets cold and dark in the hollow.” As a child raised on the tales of the Headless Horseman and Sleep…

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors. 

At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020. 

With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out. 

It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and happy. Thanks to the city’s gardeners and landscapers, the city parks are looking particularly lush and splendid this summer. The grounds of Battery Park feel…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED September 25, 2020. Many favorite local destinations have now reopened. 

Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations   
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC will allow indoor dining at 25% capacity.
• As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER.
• The 9/11 Memorial reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices.
• Libraries: NYPL. Starting on Monday, July 13, the library will allow a grab-and-go service.
Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets. 
• The High Line reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entrance only at Gansevoort Street. See High Line website for details. 
The Bronx Zoo reopened J…

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video, filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.”

When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months.

I hadn’t ventured into Central Park since before the pandemic. While I’ve b…

The Company of Nature: Walking With Butterflies in Fort Tryon Park

If wandering the empty urban canyons feels a little lonely and depressing, a better idea would be to head to the nearest park. This past Saturday, a day that was sunny but not too hot, Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan turned out to be the perfect place to not only satisfy wanderlust but to rediscover the company of nature. Butterflies were there. Hundreds of butterflies - Tiger Swallowtails, Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage White Butterflies, and Silver Spotted Skippers, among them. Moths, too, although I have not yet learned their names.  The Heather Garden is situated just beyond the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. With seasonal plantings, the garden is always a serene spot.  Observing butterflies involves watching their interaction with blooming flowers and shrubs. The Tiger Swallowtails are easy to find and found here in significant numbers. Just look for the Butterfly Bushes. The Cabbage White Butterflies are here in abundance, too, though not as showy as the swallow…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge: 
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apro…

Connect the Dots: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan

Please see the revised and updated post, New York as Outdoor Museum: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan, June 2012.)

Lower Manhattan, with its tapered narrow geography between the two rivers spilling into New York Harbor, is not only a convenient area to walk but it's rich in public art.

Be sure to include Jean Dubuffet's Group of Four Trees, 1969-72 (left), in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza off of Pine Street, the Louise Nevelson Plaza on Maiden Lane (below), and many of the works in Battery Park City.

The latter area, under the guidance of the Battery Park City Authority, raised a new high standard in the 1980s with its commitment to incorporating public art into the new community. There, be sure to see Jim Dine's Ape and Cat (at the Dance) in Robert F. Wagner. Jr. Park, a blend of charm and danger, and South Cove, a great collaborative work of environmental design.



Also welcome is the Downtown Alliance's public art program, Re:Construction,…