Francesca Woodman at the Guggenheim, New York

by Natalie Donghia, April 2012

Let go of everything you already know about the life and art of Francesca Woodman. Her photographs, now on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, shape a mythos that exists voluptuously outside the parameters of biography, a mythos perpetuated in the realm of photography.

The ongoing allure and cult appeal of Francesca Woodman owes as much of its gravitas to the details surrounding her death as to the content of her work, which has scarcely been displayed and is still protected by an estate established by the Woodman family. Woodman has been subsumed into a particular chapter in the twentieth-century lore of the female virtuoso driven by madness and the burden of talent to suicide (we may look to Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as predecessors). As a result, she may have more “fans” than any other female photographer.

The Guggenheim exhibition marks the photographer’s first comprehensive survey in America and is organized chiefly in terms of the chronology and loci of Woodman’s photographs, beginning in Providence, Rhode Island, where Woodman went to college, then shifting to Rome, Italy, where she spent a year of study abroad, and ending in New York, where Woodman spent her ultimate years looking for photography work. The photographs, true to the technique of their maker, resist facile categorization within that zeitgeist. The artlessness of the clothing, props and interiors in Woodman’s photography combines with complexity of technique and camera positioning to create portraits in which time ceases.

The celebrity status which Woodman’s figure has been accorded is contradicted by the actual photographs, many of which highlight the candidness and caprice of the photographer’s preferred sitter: herself. Francesca Woodman was involved in a different kind of myth-making, which involved extremely personal exploration aided by elements which Woodman had at her immediate disposal.

In the cover photograph for the exhibition, Polka Dots (1976), the subject (Woodman herself) crouches in an unzippered polka-dotted dress that she clutches in one hand, while the other hand conceals her mouth, in the kind of dilapidated, haunted-looking interior that the photographer preferred. There is a look of wide-eyed hesitation on the subject’s face. Many of Woodman’s introspective self-portraits highlight the substance and vulnerability of the sitter: she meets the viewer’s gaze like a siren who has lost her voice.

In addition to the photographer’s small-scale matted photographs, the exhibition highlights large-scale works such as the Swan Song series, Woodman’s final project as a photography undergraduate major at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the life-size diazotype prints that Woodman experimented with in New York and which comprise 1980s Temple project, which she created prior to her death. In both works, Woodman postures herself evocatively—the former in homage to Greek mythology’s Leda, the latter in direct contradistinction to the female sculpture of antiquity par excellence, a flesh-and-blood Venus de Milo dismembered, decapitated, and draped in an ethereal tunic. These images are probably the most divergent from the matted self-portraits.

The exhibition also holds other surprises—including photographs with male subjects, still-lifes, photographs with hand-scrawled captions, such as I could no longer play I could not play by instinct (1977), and an artist book, Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1981), which Woodman re-purposed from a nineteenth-century Italian aesthetics manual. The most interesting addition to the exhibition, however, is a series of taped performances that Woodman created while in a video art class at RISD and that the Woodman family released for the first time. In one performance, an animated, self-aware Woodman tapes herself staging some of her most iconic photographs from the RISD period, the photographs with the imprint of a woman’s figure impressed in the floorboards of the interior depicted. In another taped segment, a hand turns the pages of an art book that yields glossy images of some of the most iconic female sculptures from antiquity, including the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo.

This retrospective opens a crucial window onto Francesca Woodman’s short, yet prolific career and successfully highlights the full range of the photographer’s contributions to the field. Her photographs plumb an interior world that simultaneously proposes and deconstructs the role of the female subject as photographer/artificer and muse, a figure that assumes mythic proportions and continues to intrigue.

Francesca Woodman
16 March–13 June, 2012
New York