Francesca Woodman: Alternate Stories @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 photographic prints and contact sheets, generally framed in beige and matted, and hung against white walls in the North and South galleries.

The following works are on view:

North Gallery

  • 30 gelatin silver prints, c1975, 1975-1978, c1976, 1976, 1977, 1977-1978, 1978, 1980, sized between roughly 4×4 and 7×10 inches
  • 1 diazotype, 1980, sized roughly 37×92 inches

South Gallery

  • 19 gelatin silver prints, 1975-1978, 1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1980, sized between roughly 4×4 and 6×7 inches
  • 5 gelatin silver print contact sheets, c1975-1978, c9176, c1977-1978, c1980, sized roughly 10×8 inches (or the reverse)

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: A gallery that represents the estate of a deceased artist faces an ongoing challenge – since no more new work is being produced, the gallery needs to put on shows of the artist’s work that don’t just rehash the artist’s most familiar and accessible pieces, but continue to challenge and expand our understanding of the artist and his or her broader career. This isn’t easy; the temptation to keep rehashing the same “greatest hits” is strong, as those works tend to be both crowd pleasers and easier to sell. But as an estate inherently empties out over time (with many notable works long ago skimmed and sold off, leaving behind more secondary, tertiary, and lesser known works), galleries are forced into being more thoughtful and creative. One solution is to chart out a long term plan for an estate, one that incrementally reveals more and more depth and perspective in the artist’s output.

Given that Francesca Woodman died in 1981 at the age of 22, this problem is perhaps more acute than in other artist’s estates; she died young (after committing suicide), after a relatively short photographic career. A 2012 travelling retrospective (reviewed here, as installed at the Guggenheim) ably provided a framework for understanding her approach to photography and the important development milestones in her work, and a 2015 gallery show (reviewed here) followed that up with a foray into her little known efforts in fashion photography.

This show dives deeply into the storage boxes (in conjunction with the Woodman Family Foundation) and unearths a number of never-before-seen prints, essentially offering us a look at some of the ideas, experiments, and small projects that haven’t been as thoroughly mined by previous curators and collectors. What emerges is something far better than a limp gathering of outtakes, variants, and leftovers; set into small clusters of two, three, or four prints, the show allows us to follow along as Woodman works through approaches to a given subject. In this way, the show is really about her evolving process of seeing and creating, encouraging us to think about how one image led to others in sequence or spirit.

Three early works from circa 1975, when she was living with her family in Boulder, Colorado, before going off to college, find Woodman starting to assemble some of the pieces of what would soon become her aesthetic toolbox. Working outside (which would eventually become somewhat unusual for her), she used a textural grassy area with dark dappled light as a kind of canvas, on which she placed the fleeting blurred image of her own nude body, a squiggly snake-like rubber cord, and a white conch shell in various combinations. The three pictures feel provisional, like she was beginning a more systematic search for the right moods, as well as the most evocative spatial and symbolic relationships.

During her years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Woodman tended to work in the empty (and in some cases abandoned) buildings that dotted Providence at the time, using the echoing rooms as available venues for different setups. Some of the selections from that period in her career more directly make her nude or clothed body the primary subject, with plates of glass, ink stained fingers, vertically striped tights, and surreal ribbons introduced as provocative interventions. Another trio of prints uses a floral quilt as a ground, on which Woodman (now in a floral dress) poses with dramatic grace, as though fallen, exhausted, or overwhelmed, her twisting body iteratively rearranged, in one instance with a snake draped over her outstretched arm. And yet another series finds her experimenting with large white sheets and gauzy hanging curtains, variously hiding and wrapping herself in the diaphanous linens, using the natural light streaming in through the windows to quietly accent the folds of drapery. But evocative drama is never far from Woodman’s mind in these setups, and this series culminates with her body covered on the floor, like a corpse at a crime scene.

Woodman went abroad to Italy during her time at RISD, and without a consistent studio to work in, she had to get more improvisational with her settings. The results are slightly more staged and mannered than before, from posing herself with cases of anatomical wax bodies in a museum exhibit in Florence to setting up a psychologically-charged two-person interchange in a cafe. When she did find spaces to work in, she returned to familiar interior themes, in still life arrangements that variously connect her presence with lemons, thin needlefish, and white gloves, and performative exercises like pulling her hair or jumping. Some of Woodman’s strongest works from Italy involve images of her surreally pulling an arm through a hole in an aging wall, the connection through the crumbling concrete made tenderly physical by the gentle touch of the hands.

After graduating from RISD, Woodman did a short artist’s residency in New Hampshire in 1980 before moving to New York. The images from that time play with texture more overtly, using a dark draped cloth hung on a wall as the primary tool for interaction. In addition to her usual intimate black-and-white prints of this subject, Woodman also made a much larger diazotype print, which bathes the undulating textures in contrasting shades of rich tan and brown, making the arrangement even more tactile and darkly mysterious.

This is a delicate show filled with nuances and discoveries, and its organization into small discrete moments and clusters of images amplifies the feeling of progression and building. With each individual idea she explores, we see Woodman testing and re-imagining, and tagging along on that process of search can be engrossing. Of course, not every pathway leads somewhere durably interesting, but fragments of new ideas, poses, and areas of aesthetic exploration seem to blossom even in the failures. That she generated so much personal expression while in college (and at a high intensity art school like RISD no less) remains remarkable. Hopefully there are more hidden stories like these in the archives, just waiting for the next layer of thoughtful excavation.

Collector’s POV: The black-and-white prints in this show are priced at $80000 each (regardless of size), and the single diazotype is $300000. Woodman’s work has been more consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $200000, with some posthumous prints filtering into the data at the low end.

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