• Francesca Woodman Visible/Invisible

    Date posted: April 23, 2012 Author: jolanta

    On January 19, 1981, photographer Francesca Woodman jumped to her death from the roof of a loft on East 12th Street. She was just a few months shy of her 23rd birthday. Like Rimbaud, Woodman left behind a very special legend and legacy, from which 120 vintage photographs, various large–scale blueprint studies of human figures for the ambitious “Temple” project (1980), two artist books and a selection of six of her rarely seen short videos currently line the Annex Level 4 galleries at the Guggenheim, curated by Carey Keller (of San Francisco’s MOMA) and Jennifer Blessing (senior curator of photography at the Guggenheim).

    “Often the figures are only partly visible or blurry, as if trying to escape the frame”


    Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976. Gelatin silver print, 13.3 x 13.5 cm. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman. © 2012 George and Betty Woodman

     

     

    Francesca Woodman Visible/Invisible
    By Valery Oisteanu

    On January 19, 1981, photographer Francesca Woodman jumped to her death from the roof of a loft on East 12th Street. She was just a few months shy of her 23rd birthday. Like Rimbaud, Woodman left behind a very special legend and legacy, from which 120 vintage photographs, various large–scale blueprint studies of human figures for the ambitious “Temple” project (1980), two artist books and a selection of six of her rarely seen short videos currently line the Annex Level 4 galleries at the Guggenheim, curated by Carey Keller (of San Francisco’s MOMA) and Jennifer Blessing (senior curator of photography at the Guggenheim).

    Woodman was a prodigious and original artist, and in her all-too-brief life she created an estimated 10,000 photographs, from which only some 500 published images and 800 negatives are so far known to exist, along with several recently discovered videos. Like Sylvia Plath, her art is irrevocably connected to her suicide, and the path that led to it stems from her long-held intention to become visible/invisible. She was truly a “spy in the house of art” as the title of a concurrent group-show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests.

    Often seen through the lens of the distinctive agendas of 1970s and ’80s—surrealism, feminist theory, conceptual art, photography’s relationship to both literature and performance, postmodernism, even de-constructionism—Woodman’s art also is of a moment in history when photography fully entered the sphere of contemporary art.

    Woodman was a complete artist/photographer. She not only took the pictures, she designed her own sets and lighting, told her own stories, made her own puns and references to mythology (e.g., “Leda and the Swan”) and served as her own model (often nude). Some of her work functions as a form of a diaristic correspondence. The sculptural props used and the way she studied the human torso were confrontational in nature. Often the figures are only partly visible or blurry, as if trying to escape the frame.

    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

     

    As photographer and model, she projected a diffuse intimacy that dissuaded a voyeuristic reaction from the viewer. Although monochromatic, her blue and sienna prints arranged like collages, have a classic Greek/Roman composition (e.g., “Caryatid,” 1980). The images are ephemeral and temporal, serial in their narrative-intuitive photographic magic; bodies appear and disappear, complimented by psychosexual references lifted directly from surrealist literature. Woodman arduously studied such texts in Rome at the Libreria Maldoror, a bookshop-gallery that specialized in work about and by surrealists, and which ultimately hosted her first small show. Indeed, she made use of many surrealist motifs, among them mirrors, gloves, birds and bowls. Like Magritte, she often shrouded her subjects in white sheets; like Man Ray, she painted body parts, especially hands. And as Hans Bellmer did, she bound her legs tightly with tape, and perhaps like Claude Cahun she used mirrors to emphasize ambiguous sexuality.

    Woodman’s assemblages of objects form nightmarish environments for her nudes, well thought out in advance and spray-painted white, with fragments of the decomposition producing a patchwork of urban decay, a crazy quilt of her fragile and complex emotional landscape, her contradictory impulses and equivocal questions. Never sexually provocative, her work merely suggests loneliness (“I could no longer stay, I could not play by instinct”), romantic hopelessness wrapped around eels, unrequited love and death and sometime a bit of self-masochism, as in clothespins attached to her nude breasts and stomach.

    Any eroticism that does come through is almost sadistic or sarcastic, as in the plaster mask placed between the open legs of a headless nude to guard the vulva, or three nude girls hiding their faces behind Woodman’s black and white headshots. Obscurity and ghostly apparitions were favorite settings for her narrative: Francesca became a saint or an angel, and then she fell from grace into a corner, onto crumbling walls, with windows to nowhere, her image disappearing into the perimeters, dissolving into smoke or morning fog, or becoming one with the trees. She achieved a chameleon-like invisibility, as in a composition with ferns glued to her arms, held upside down like a reflection of pine trees in a lake.

    The artist’s body oozes out of a grave or from a fireplace and floats like a vapor evaporating into the air. It is clear that she did not use improvisation or chance operational systems, but instead invented her own neo-surrealist language that explored mysticism, as in her nude in a crucifying position hanging from the doorframe. Her first published artist book was called “Some Distorted Interiors Geometries” (1980-’81), which reveals that the “magical dexterity of a fugue” can be found in her theory and practice, complimented by drawings and photos.

    Woodman has been called a feminist, but she was not political or aware enough to be a feminist and felt guilty about it, and she had the most intense girl crushes. She loved women, although she was ambivalent about being one of them. She was infatuated with Gertrude Stein’s writings and obsessed with the photographer Deborah Turbeville, whose work —along with Duane Michal and Miroslav Tichy’s — most directly precedes and now seems to echo hers. 

As 1980 ended, she was very depressed from a broken romance, a denied grant application, and a stolen bicycle. Most importantly, she abruptly stopped taking her meds for psychological problems. That marked the end of her life narrative, but after a historical reconsideration, Woodman’s art has become immortal.


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