Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 13, 2012
Corey Keller, ed. Francesca Woodman Exh. cat. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2011. 224 pp.; 157 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9781935202660)
Exhibition schedule: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, November 5, 2011–February 20, 2012; Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 16–June 3, 2012
Francesca Woodman. Space2 (Providence, Rhode Island, 1977). Gelatin silver print. 4 11/16 x 4 11/16 in. (11.9 x 11.9 cm). Courtesy George and Betty Woodman. © George and Betty Woodman.

Francesca Woodman was three months shy of her twenty-third birthday when she took her own life in 1981, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) surprisingly extensive retrospective of her work, curated by Corey Keller, is haunted by this fact. One reason is the attention and acclaim that has been given to Scott Willis’s 2010 documentary titled The Woodmans, which chronicled the family romance of artistic competition surrounding Francesca’s short life and career, noting among many other things that she jumped to her death five days before her father George was to enjoy the opening of a group exhibition including his work at the Guggenheim Museum. Who could resist speculating about such coincidences? Certainly not Adele Tutter, writing in a recent issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. In an article titled “Metamorphosis and the Aesthetics of Loss: The Transformative Lens of Francesca Woodman,” she argued that Woodman’s work reveals a “preoccupying topos of regressive longing,” serving to “make sense of change, of loss, and of life itself” (Adele Tutter, “Metamorphosis and the Aesthetics of Loss: II. Lady of the Woods—The Transformative Lens of Francesca Woodman,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 92, no. 6 [December 2011]: 1517–39). Needless to say, once the engine of this kind of speculation gets ignited, it becomes impossible not to look at Woodman’s photographs with an eye for detecting early signs of suicidal pathos. Such signs may indeed be there for those who want to work hard at finding them, but, whether or not they are, another question inevitably comes to the fore: does this collection of 180 photographs executed from 1975 to 1980 warrant on their own merits the attention represented by a lavishly cataloged major museum exhibition? Such questions point back to the fraught institutional status of the museum and its recently expanded audience that might be more comfortable with the relics of a tragic, pseudo-celebrity life story than it is with the historical assertion of mature artist accomplishment.

The preponderant majority of the images included in the exhibition were executed during the time that Woodman was an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design (1975–78), which included a year’s study in Italy (1977–78). Some of the later works were executed at a residency she had at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, during the summer of 1980. Perhaps her frequent change of living circumstances are part of the reason why the large majority of her prints are small (only forty are more than six inches in height or width), but the tendency of Woodman’s work to reveal itself in intimate scale might also stem from an attempt to seduce the viewer’s gaze into an imaginative space of private fantasy. Given the fact that any art teacher can see that some of the earliest works presented here are smart and talented responses to rather conventional classroom assignments (such as the series of four photographs from 1975 collectively titled A Woman, a Mirror: A Woman Is a Mirror for a Man, each of which feature a nude female model “compositionally” interacting with a mirror in a dark interior space), it is rather remarkable that so many of the 1975–78 gelatin silver prints are extremely accomplished insofar as a crisp and consistent darkroom technique is concerned, just as they bear the clear stamp of an authorial focus informed by a repeated engagement with consistent overarching themes that bespeak a serious artist grappling with a great subject.

In a nutshell, it is fair to say that this subject pertains to the experience of a psychological interiority shaped by an exaggerated ambivalence that comes part-and-parcel with the desire to be an object of desire, and the fear of dehumanization associated with this status. Thus, many of the photographs feature the artist depicted in self-portrait mode, often partially or completely nude, and almost always occupying a confined interior space framed by an aspect ratio that often forms a perfect albeit very claustrophobic square. In much the same uneasy way that an exotic reptile might occupy the confines of a terrarium, Woodman’s photographs reveal the awkward guilelessness of a young woman simultaneously seeking, mocking, and evading the definition that the camera might provide. Sometimes she basks in the warmth of the camera’s gaze, while in many other instances she seems to want to hide from it, either by camouflaging herself behind elements of the picture’s described environment (as in My House (1976)), or by making a point of capturing herself slyly seeking an exit from the pictorial environment depicted in the cone of vision established by the picture-taking process (as in Swan Song (1978)). The association between the “chamber” of the camera and the depiction of a figure or group of figures awkwardly positioned in an interior space represents a compelling analogy in itself, but it is all the more so when both are synthesized and brought to bear as metaphors for a general condition of interior subjectivity that simultaneously seeks attention and refuge from it, only to feel confined when it is found, or abandoned when it is not.

A few of these works specify the young Woodman as a specific and particular subject—for example, take the self-portraits titled Polka Dot and Polka Dot 5 (both 1976), which are both more-or-less conventional images that emphasize the specific personhood of the sitter. On the other hand, many more of the photographs emphasize their sitters as interchangeable “types of people”: witness the trio of young nude women in Untitled (1976), who hide their faces behind large photographs that may be of themselves or someone else. This jumping back and forth between two notions of the portrait seems to seek out the imagistic space between Diane Arbus’s famous naturalizing of the other and Cindy Sherman’s even more famous unnaturalizing of the self, but Woodman’s work is too tentative and distraction driven to lay real claim to that space, nor does it successfully proclaim itself as having any clear affiliations with the feminist practices of the era save the unconvincing vagary of her being female and using her body in her work at a time when other feminist artists such as Ana Mendieta were doing so in a more pointed and mature way.

Upon Woodman’s 1978 return from the year in Italy, she began seeking new methods and new subjects. Earlier, she had worked in the medium of black-and-white video. A trio of Untitled video fragments from 1978 are included in the exhibition, one of which features the slow peeling away of translucent paper to reveal her own nude body. She also made a series of large Diazotypes, which had her exposing large sheets of light-sensitive paper that would later be output by a commercial blueprint printer. These also tended to feature graphic silhouettes of her body, separated from any clear idea of a containing environment. Timing seems to be crucial here, for these works (like so many other photographic efforts of the time) seem coincidentally responsive to the publication of Rosalind Krauss’s influential “Notes on the Index” essay from 1977, which postulated that the “essence” of photography could be found in the way it provided an “index” of light fixing itself on a photosensitive surface (Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Part 1,” October 3 [Spring 1977]: 68–81; and “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Part 2,” October 4 [Fall 1977]: 58–67). That argument was a rhetorical dagger pointed at the soon-to-be-revived pictorialism inscribed in John Szarkowski’s landmark exhibition titled Mirrors and Windows, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in July of 1978. The thesis of his exhibition proposed a bifurcated definition of “what a photograph is: is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world” (John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978, 25).

Clearly, the majority of Woodman’s pre-1979 gelatin silver prints are of the mirror ilk, but because they look too comfortably derived from Szarkowski’s time-honored lineup of “mirror” photographers such as Les Krims, Judy Dater, and Arbus herself, the claim that her work was somehow groundbreaking or otherwise ahead of its time is blunted by historical fact. When we look at the restless explorations represented in Woodman’s 1979–80 works, we get the feeling that she herself might have realized her work had come to look dated, and the move away from the gelatin silver prints to a variety of other photographic forms makes it seem as if she was casting about for a new way to represent her interests. But this too became a problem in that even if her earlier work may have looked somewhat dated to sophisticated eyes at the time of its creation, it was ruthlessly honest about its internal obsession with the above-mentioned ambivalences. When Woodman’s focus shifted toward other more technically exotic photographic forms, she seemed to lose touch with her deepest motives for making her work, however infused with egoism and anomie those motives might have been.

Mark Van Proyen
Associate Professor of Painting and Art History, San Francisco Art Institute