Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 43 gelatin silver prints (lifetime), 1975-1976, c1975-1976, c1975-1978, 1976, c1977-1978, 1978, c1979-1980, sized 16×16 inches
  • 11 gelatin silver prints mounted on mat board (lifetime), 1976, sized 16×16 inches
  • 1 diazotype collage with gelatin silver prints (lifetime), 1980, sized 170×125 inches
  • 3 diazotypes (lifetime), 1980, sized roughly 87×38, 87×46, 93×46 inches

Comments/Context: When the estate of a deceased artist switches gallery representation, one of the most fruitful byproducts of that sometimes traumatic process is that a set of fresh eyes is generally applied to the artist’e entire career. It’s only natural that over a long period of collaborative representation, a gallery will build up a specific conception of the arc of the artist’s evolution and determine which parts of that trajectory seem most worth systematically highlighting. A change in the partnership offers the potential for a reset, and for perspectives that weren’t featured previously to come forward, opening up new vantage points on the artist and his or her intentions.

Francesca Woodman died more than forty years ago now, and after a comprehensively researched and handsome retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2012 (reviewed here) and a continuing stream of further book projects (the reproduction of some of her artist’s books by MACK in 2023) and shows (a current pairing of Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron at the National Portrait Gallery in London), it might seem reasonable to conclude that there isn’t much more to discover about Woodman’s life and art. But a recent switch in representation from Marian Goodman Gallery to Gagosian Gallery has coincided with some new finds and scholarship on Woodman coming out the estate, which essentially forms the basis for this gallery show.

In the last year or so of her life, Woodman was experimenting with large scale diazotypes, many of which featured nearly life sized full body figures and nudes, some styled with drapery as the caryatids of ancient sculpture, like the kind she would have seen in her year abroad in Rome a few years earlier. Several of these graceful blue, brown, or purple-tinted figures have popped up in Woodman shows over the years, including her retrospective, and three more are included in this show, so it’s clear that she was actively testing this theme, trying out the aesthetic possibilities of different setups and color tonalities.

One of the last projects she worked on before her death in 1981 was a temple-like structure made from diazotypes, which included some of these figures, as well as other diazotype images of pillars, geometric friezes, and architectural details, which she arranged into the literal form of a stylized temple building. Woodman’s parents donated “Blueprint for a Temple” to the Met in 2001, and it was eventually shown (the piece is some 14 feet high when installed, so not exactly easy to display) in “Spies in the House of Art: Photography, Film, and Video,” a group show in 2012 (reviewed here, with an installation shot featuring the work.) It’s a surprisingly ethereal piece given its massive scale, and it shows Woodman playing with both the body as sculpture (a visual motif she had been wrestling with for years), and also repurposing images of decaying tilework details from tenement buildings to approximate the styles of antiquity.

Woodman’s parents George and Betty died in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and subsequently the estate went through a period of consolidation, so it wasn’t until 2022 that the foundation curators unwrapped an overlooked bag that contained additional rolls of diazotypes and gelatin silver prints. What they discovered was a second temple work by Woodman (“Blueprint for a Temple (II)”), which no one knew existed, and now forms the towering centerpiece of this show.

To my eye, while this second rediscovered temple work has been presented here as a finished artwork, it has the feel of a work in progress, almost like it was pulled down from a studio wall after her unexpected death. The large scale temple form from the first iteration is essentially repeated here (albeit only as one half of the building), with diazotype figures holding up the first floor of the structure and an angled roofline of geometric tile patterning on top. In this second version, the upper floor is more pronounced, with cropped images of the foot of a clawfoot tub arrayed in a line with more tilework, topped by a lineup of columns and room corners. Along the right side of the composition, Woodman has essentially “shown her work”, with diagrams of how the piece fits together and source images of sinks, tubs, and floor tile patterns from the tenement bathrooms attached, with some scrawled explanatory notes about how the bathrooms provided inspiration. An array of faces in profile is placed along the bottom, seemingly like a tantalizing potential idea that Woodman hadn’t yet quite figured out how to incorporate into the structure.

This second temple piece is certainly a thrilling discovery, and the insights it offers into how she was thinking are perhaps its most valuable components. But given its scale, the viewer is required to stand back several feet to take in the entire structure, which makes the small tacked on images and notes entirely illegible from a distance. This lack of spatial coherence seems likely to have been only temporary, with Woodman still testing ideas and figuring it all out. If we conclude that these additions and notes were in some manner final, then we need to reassess how we think Woodman’s approach was evolving in the last year of her life, as there aren’t many other finished works (if any, aside from perhaps some artist books) that incorporate this layered collage/scrapbook effect.

The rest of this show is made up of a selection of Woodman’s black and white photographs, happily all made in her lifetime (so as not to be confused with the posthumous prints made later by the estate), but unfortunately not arranged chronologically, so the different phases and locations of her artmaking (RISD, Rome, New York, etc.) are jumbled together. While it’s often easy to track that Woodman had created a setup in an empty room somewhere and then proceeded to make a number of variant images in essentially the same place or with the same props, what’s new here is that apparently Woodman actually identified some of the prints as specific sequences, sets, or series, rather than all just single stand-alone pictures.

One group finds Woodman in a shadowy room with two empty sculpture plinths, using a mirror and the light coming in from a nearby window as additional compositional tools. The variants place a nude form posed between the plinths and hidden by a crumpled white sheet, with the setup then refracted by views in the mirror or interrupted by the angled light cast from the window, seemingly testing variations on the spatial dynamics of the body as sculpture. Another sequence (titled “Self-Deceit”) captures Woodman playing with a square of shiny reflective metal, in the setting of an empty room with pockmarked concrete walls. The figure is alternately blurred, bent, hidden behind, and posed near the mirror-like sheet, creating a range of possibilities for evading the reflection of self. And a later series seems to have been made in Woodman’s studio in New York, as some of the diazotype figures can be seen in the background; the pictures capture the mix of body and cluttered setting, with a pot of tulips on a white chair seen from several angles.

Other single images are filled with experimentation. Woodman plays with the geometric black form of an abandoned door tilted inside a room. She encourages the bright light to stream in through a large gridded window, pushing the interior to shadow. She swirls herself in plastic sheeting near a crumbling bookcase. She peeks around corners, looks through windows, arches back dramatically, and hides her body in scraps of peeling wallpaper. And while in Rome, she seems particularly drawn to interacting with sculptures and architectural details in different ways. Seen together, these various images are consistently engaging, a testament to her restless attempts to reconfigure the photographic relationships of body and space.

The most fascinating thing about this show is how it makes clear the transition that was taking place in Woodman’s aesthetics from interior-focused intimacy to something quite a bit more muscular and physical in the last year or so of her life. In particular, the difference in scale is altogether striking, with an obvious oscillation between the precious smallness of her photographs to the swaggering largeness of her diazotypes. The new temple discovery is worth a visit to this show on its own, and the process of then refitting that work back into what we think was happening in her art at that time leaves plenty of unanswered questions, most of which will never be entirely resolved.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $80000 to $1M, with some works sold only as sets (that Woodman conceived) and many available only to institutions; this is generally consistent with the pricing at Woodman’s last New York gallery show in 2021 (reviewed here). More broadly, Woodman’s work has been 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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