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Winter 2013

Francesca Woodman Materializes

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Arthur Lubow

Francesca Woodman,
Guggenheim Museum, New York,
March 16–June 13, 2012.

When an artist’s life ends prematurely, the surviving body of work is varnished with a retroactive poignancy; and if that artist dies by her own hand, as Francesca Woodman did, the varnish darkens. Since Woodman’s suicide in 1981 at the age of twenty-two, her reputation has rested heavily on the circumstances of her death. Unknown publicly during her lifetime, she had barely graduated from college and then, suddenly, she was dead. (Many of her photographs were student assignments.) Adding to her posthumous aura is the fact that in most of her pictures she is the model. While she said that this choice was a matter of convenience and availability, the truth was surely more complicated.

Francesca’s precocity was her birthright. Both of her parents were artists. George Woodman is a painter and art professor whose abstract canvases are grouped with the Pattern and Decoration Movement that flourished briefly in the late Seventies. Betty Woodman—who until Francesca’s afterlife celebrity was the best-known artist in the family—is a ceramicist. From the time of her childhood in Boulder, Colorado, Francesca, the younger of two children (her brother became an electronic artist), regarded art as the only worthy life pursuit. In the Woodman family, the art you produced is what got attention and determined your status. George gave Francesca a camera when she was thirteen. To judge from the few adolescent photographs that have been published, she settled early on the eerie lighting, interaction with architecture, and nude self-presentation that became her trademarks. When she arrived in 1975 in the New England city of Providence to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, she stood out among her classmates—at first glance, for her Vic-torian dresses and long coats alongside their jeans and parkas, and on further acquaintance, for the ferocity and savvy of her art-world ambition.

Aside from the juvenilia of her adolescent work in Colorado (if it is not too absurd to classify juvenilia in the career of an artist who died so young), Woodman’s output can be divided according to where she was based: RISD in Providence (1975–78), a college year abroad in Rome (1977–78), and the final two years in New York (1979–81). The work developed, even during this short period; in particular, the late pictures in New York demonstrate Woodman’s desire to move beyond what she had accomplished in her student years. But in certain respects all her work is of a piece. It is self-conscious and theatrical—the best word is “stagey.” It evokes the tableaux of some of the early masters of photography, in a style that had been part of the riotous mix at the dawn of the medium, and then, under the strictures of twentieth-century modernism, was banished from the canon until the post-modern Seventies, when Wood-man came of age. One of her artistic forefathers is Hippolyte Bayard, whose self-portrait as a drowned man in 1840 was the first demonstration that photographic “evidence” can be faked. Another is F. Holland Day, whose elaborate impersonations of Christ (charming as they seem today) represent just the sort of camp trumpery against which modernism was reacting. It took such artists as Cindy Sherman and David Lamelas in the late Sixties to torque their theatricality with ironic spin and legitimize performance and narrative in art photography.

Because they were too mysterious to be reduced to a caption, these post-modern pictures also escaped another stigma: the taint of middlebrow photojournalism. Beginning in the Thirties, the inclination for storytelling, conspicuously absent among the surrealists, satirists, and formalists, was cheapened by its association with the popular magazine photo-essay. In this degraded form of documentary photography, the pictures were merely illustrations for a preordained text. (Exceptional here as in so many ways, Walker Evans, with his collaborator James Agee, arranged for the photographs and text to be independent in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)

Yet there was a realm of photography in which narrative and performance were always welcome, even to its most elevated practitioners. This was fashion photography. Richard Avedon’s early pictures of models in a gambling casino or among street performers in a Paris courtyard were illustrations for a story that was hinted at without being spoken. By the Seventies, Avedon was shooting in front of no-seam paper in his studio, but other fashion photographers, such as Deborah Turbeville, Sarah Moon and Helmut Newton, were depicting different sorts of tableaux, ones that were darker, edgier, bleaker. Turbeville was a photographer whom Woodman especially admired; she even prepared (although, it seems, never sent) an application to work as Turbeville’s assistant. Although Turbeville is first of all a fashion photographer, her work is also classified as art photography. The shift in vision that inaugurated the post-modern outlook of the Seventies admitted fashion and fashion photography into the house of art.

Although fashion photography inspired Woodman, her work departs from the genre in its sense of urgency and its self-dramatization. Her playfulness is tinged with neediness, as if games of hide-and-seek carry life-or-death consequences. Her ploys often involve disappearance and emergence: she slips into the crack between a wall and a detached wooden mantelpiece, or she obscures herself behind torn pieces of wallpaper, or her bare legs jut out of a wall cupboard. “I am interested in the way people relate to space,” she once explained. “The best way to do this is to depict their interactions to the boundaries of these spaces. Started doing this with ghost pictures, people fading into a flat plane—ie becoming the wall under wallpaper or of an extension of the wall onto floor.” In one sequence of three photographs done in Italy, she is initially half concealed by a screen, then seated next to it so that the forms of the screen and her naked body rhyme; finally, she is standing by the screen and moving her body during a long camera exposure so that she blurs almost to the vanishing point. Sometimes the glowing light from an open window renders parts of her invisible in a contrejour effect. In one picture made in Providence, she is seen from behind, crouching, her hands pressed against the wall, her body covered with a piece of ripped paper so that only her hands, arms, and the top of her head are visible. She has become an architectural detail of the room.

There is something disturbingly off-kilter in these pictures, and not simply in comparison with fashion photography. Woodman’s photographs share affinities with those of Minor White, who, on a mystical quest, had explored similar questions of figure and ground when he photographed bodies moving lyrically within an architectural setting; but the sense of psychological displacement in Woodman’s pictures is more pressing than in White’s. Much the same can be said when juxtaposing Woodman’s work to the narrative photo sequences of Duane Michals. The pictures of a third photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, feel closest of all to Woodman’s. For both photographers, ruined houses with broken windows and peeling wallpaper are the most sympathetic backdrop, and the presence of people within these dilapidated surroundings is transient and insubstantial; but Woodman’s differences from Meatyard are more telling than the similarities. A Meatyard signature trope was the depiction of members of his family wearing Halloween masks. Comical but vaguely sinister, his relatives look like goblins on the loose in rural America; the pictures are testimonials to the weirdness of everyday life. By contrast, one of Woodman’s best known pictures is of three young women, all nude, each holding in front of her face a head shot of Francesca. A fourth portrait of Woodman is tacked to the wall. At first it appears that only those intimately acquainted with her body would be able to detect which is the “real” Francesca in this thicket of representations, until it becomes apparent that one of the three women is not completely undressed, but instead wears knee socks and Mary Jane shoes, items that were part of Woodman’s usual wardrobe. And so the picture becomes a witty formulation of Woodman’s continuing project —her shout for attention at a moment when she seems to be invisible. It is a physically contradictory but psychologically consistent stance. By exposing herself to the eye of the camera, she could feel more substantial. She was made more objectively real by virtue of a recorded image, as she explored her subjective sense of nothingness.

As in fashion photography, Woodman’s pictures often suggest a narrative. Her performances conjure up imaginary scripts. In some cases, Woodman had a friend press the camera shutter as she posed, which underscored the collaborative nature of her enterprise. She was avowedly and self-consciously theatrical. Lying supine on a flower tapestry carpet with a slender snake slithering over her arm, she is not Cleopatra, but a modern girl striking a Cleopatra pose. Occasionally, she makes the impersonation too blatant, the simile too obvious. A photograph in which she poses against a wall in a corner, with a tall calla lily occupying the corresponding wall, is trite. However, in another photograph she leans in a contorted pose by a window. You might say that her nude body is as elongated and top-heavily graceful as a calla lily, and the picture benefits immeasurably from her discretion in not saying so explicitly.

Woodman cannily used the parameters of the picture to serve her purposes. She often depicted herself at the very edge of the frame, as if about to slip from view. In a beautiful late photograph in New York, she hugs the left edge of the square frame and presses her back against the wall. Her patterned dress blends with the mottled wall surface. She is taking up as little space as is humanly possible; at the same time, she is the subject of the picture. In another photograph, shot earlier in Italy, her naked body is exiting the right edge of the frame, against a wall that is sprayed with dark drips of paint, one tendril of which appears on her bare flank.

It should be unsurprising that Woodman felt an abiding fondness for angels, since angels possess bodies that may or may not be visible, and they can fly in and out of view. They are also associated with sudden bursts of illumination. The lighting effects are what preoccupied Woodman in the “Angels” series that she produced in Providence. Later, in Italy, she riffed on angels’ white garments and their ability to levitate. In one striking picture, her pale, slightly out-of-focus naked body is in midair, behind a seated, elegant woman who is wearing a fashionable dress and occupying a handsome room. Although this angel is visible to the viewer of the photograph, she is out of the sight of the woman in the chair.

Using the camera to record what is invisible to the unaided eye is a mission that lies at the core of Woodman’s project. Some of her pictures look supernatural, with shafts of otherworldly light emanating within a room. In one picture that she took in Rome, an angelic figure in a white dress is moving behind a scrim that exaggerates her head into a blob, as her irregular shadow etches a dark shape within a rectangular slab of light on the tiled floor. Is she an angel, an extraterrestrial, or something in between? Whatever she is, this is not an everyday pedestrian.

Because of this pursuit of the unseen, Woodman’s art can resemble the spirit photography that was in vogue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leaving aside questions of their motivations or manipulations, the spirit photographers sought to bring to light the forces and forms of the occult. Had Woodman’s picture of the blob-headed angelic figure appeared seventy years earlier, it would have been taken as the image of a ghost. A strange self-portrait that Woodman made in Providence depicts her “talking,” with what looks like a stream of metal filigree marching off the decorative pattern on a curtain and into and out of her wide-open mouth. Peculiar as it is, this image is less weird than the many spirit photographs that depict mediums with ectoplasmic emanations emerging between their lips. In her picture, Woodman may merely have wished to portray the human voice, a mundane ambition that, because sound is invisible, is beyond the reach of a photograph.

Adding to the tragedy of Woodman’s premature death is the fact that, in her last months, she took pictures of herself in which she was commanding the space instead of receding into it, and playing a load-bearing not a dependent role. She was also shifting her scale from photographs that measured a few inches on a side to dimensions calibrated in feet. A harbinger of her new direction is a charming earlier photograph from Rome, which depicts her friend Sloan Rankin looking up (arms extended behind her, dressed in Francesca’s familiar polka-dot frock) at a statue of a man holding a large orb and standing on a classical plinth. It makes an interesting pendant to a photograph Woodman took of Rankin in Providence, running in the snow alongside a stained and cracked concrete wall that could be a highway embankment, with Rankin’s black coat and pants forming a shapeless blob against the concrete like another stain, and her pale hands cupped around a white circle that someone has painted on the drab gray concrete. As a stand-in for Woodman, Rankin here is a faceless, recessive woman pursuing a mysterious, even mystical, shape. But the statue in Rome that Rankin admired was lifting a sphere, not chasing it.

In some of her last pictures, done in the diazotype process that is usually used for blueprints, Woodman portrayed herself (and other women) as being as big and strong as that statue. She is a caryatid in pleated garb, her arms raised as if holding up a pediment. Indeed, the individual photographs are studies for her grandest achievement, an enormous collage of nine by fourteen feet that she assembled in 1980 from about twenty-nine separate images. In it, she drapes women in classical attire and creates a representation of a temple façade. In both its scope and its self-depiction, the so-called Temple Project indicates a new strength and self-confidence. And yet, in January 1981, at the time she was working on these images, she succumbed to the depression that had plagued her over the previous year and died in a leap from a building.

Because Woodman’s life was too short to take on sharp contours, it has been inserted freely into different narratives: feminist, saintly, pathological, post-modernist. It is probably more useful to examine how her psychological need for visibility dovetailed with the ascendance of feminism and performance in the photography of the time. The tension between her feeling of invisibility and her methodical exploration of self-revelation animates her art. She had only a moment, but for a photographer with her agenda, it was the right moment.

Arthur Lubow, a longtime magazine journalist, is writing a biography of Diane Arbus, to be published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2015. The present essay on Francesca Woodman first appeared in Portuguese in the Brazilian magazine ZUM.

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