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Friday, December 28, 2012

Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Guggenheim Exhibit, Summer 2012

Note: The following post is one that I began over the summer, put aside for a while by other responsibilities. Hence, you'll notice the use of present tense.

I don't remember what drew me to her work, but one night I was working in my college library re-shelving art books. I stood beneath the fluorescent lighting in the stacks pausing now and then to flip through monographs and catalogs. And that's when I found Francesca Woodman by David Levi-Strauss et al; it was an extraordinary find. More than once did I check this book out of the library, studying her photographs, reading the essays. I cannot deny that her death was a curiosity to me- a talented woman so young creating work as early as age eleven that even then included advanced techniques in photography . However, I never felt that her photography made any connection to her death.  As a college student at Rhode Island School of Design, Woodman created the bulk of her work, mostly self-portraits. So many years later after my 'discovery' of this book, I had to see the Francesca Woodman retrospective at the Guggenheim.

I made myself wait. As excited as I was to be there, I made no rush to the third floor gallery, but traversed the funnel with ease, taking in the abstraction show; chatting quietly with my husband about a few of the works. I was disappointed Joan Mitchell was not represented. Unless I missed her, which I don't think so. I allowed anticipation within myself to build in order to fully take in the Woodman exhibit with as much focus as possible. When we entered the short hall into the gallery I forced myself to read the wall text before beginning a provocative journey.

The exhibit is curated chronologically, beginning with photographs taken while at RISD, including one year abroad in Italy, followed by her residency at the MacDowell Colony in  New Hampshire. The exhibit concludes with the New York photos. At first I was surprised by the size of her early pictures; I had only seen one of her photos on display at RISD 'cornered' with a Nan Goldin photograph during the Aaron Siskind show six or seven years ago. The photos are small, requiring attention. Here and now, I stop at each piece looking as carefully as possible, reading the pictures, sometimes eavesdropping on other viewers: "Hmmm."  "Interesting."  "Narcissistic." "Hmmm."

The exhibition catalog is a gorgeous tome featuring essays by the associate curator of photography at SFMOMA and catalogeditor, Corey Keller, curator of photography at the Guggenheim Jennifer Blessing, and associate professor of art history  at the University of California Berkley Julia Bryan-Wilson. In Corey Keller's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman" he explores as much as one can, her brief life as an artist from her upbringing through the New York years; the  but what I love about Keller's piece are the descriptive, near poetic, passages in regards to Woodman's photographs: 

Though she sometimes demurred that her sole motivation for appearing in her photographs was that of convenience, it appears to have been rather more a productive compulsion, albeit one she chose not to examine to closely. Despite her perpetual presence in the photographs, she is always on the verge of disappearance. her face is most often obscured from the camera; on the rare occasions when she fixes us squarely in her gaze, the effect is riveting but disquietingly unrevealing (178).

Bryan-Wilson's text, "Blurs: Toward a Provisional Historiography of Francesca Woodman looks at "some of the trends and patterns in the writing about Woodman... the text is not organized around close readings of her photographs, but rather attends to the thematics of interpretation that have surrounded her work since the critical literature began in 1986" (186).  The essay does not lend itself to biographical discussion, but considers the historical dialogue as told by other critics, feminist or otherwise, on Woodman as a female artist.  Finally Jennifer Blessing's text focuses on six untitled videos created by Woodman during her time at RISD, and "explore[s] the relationship between photography and video... the still and moving image" (197). All three of these essays will remain relevant and important in the study of Woodman and her work. Besides, they are simply a pleasure to read.

What always fascinated me about Francesca Woodman's art was the absence of face, or the blur or conceal of face in the majority of self-portraits, which suggests that her intentions were not narcissistic, but simply an exploration of the self in movement, meaning, and the pre-emptive opportunity to non-acquiesce to any one's gaze: You can look at my body, but I won't tell anyone if I'm pretty or not. I won't let you see me completely, try to read my eyes like you think you might know what I'm thinking. For me, her photographs are playful at times, disturbing at others, and even though she was aware of feminist discourse as discussed in Blessing's essay, I do not necessarily see her work as feminist. I see a young woman exploring her relationship within the frame of a natural and unnatural world. As much as I love her early work as a RISD student, through my experience at viewing this exhibit, reading the catalog and reflecting more on her pictures, I like the MacDowell Colony series the best; clothed and unclothed, her birch bark arms, her stance in patterned dresses that lean to mimic the trees, each picture untitled as they should be. 

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