JTF (just the facts): A total of 125 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung in a winding series of rooms in the 4th floor annex galleries. The majority of the prints are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1975 and 1981. Physical dimensions range from roughly 3×3 to 40×40; the diazotype (blueprint) works are much larger, some as large as 37×92. Additional videos and artist’s books are also on view. The show was curated by Corey Keller of SFMOMA. A hardback exhibition catalogue is available for $50 (here). (Installation views of Francesca Woodman, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, March 16–June 13, 2012 courtesy of David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
The exhibition is divided into four chronological groups. For each section, I have listed the title and the number of works included:
Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978
58 gelatin silver prints
1 video screen (11 minutes of selected videos)
31 gelatin silver prints
1 case (1 artist’s book, 5 pages displayed)
MacDowell Colony, Peterborough County, NH, 1980
8 gelatin silver prints
New York, 1979-1981
17 gelatin silver prints
4 blue diazotypes
3 brown diazotypes
2 chromogenic prints
1 case (1 artist’s book, 10 pages displayed)
Comments/Context: Early on in this comprehensive retrospective of Francesca Woodman, there is an image of the artist from 1975, standing in an abandoned room with two doors, wearing a flowered frock with a petticoat underneath, her arms and hands angled like she is casting a spell. My reaction to this picture was like a lightning strike: my God, I thought, look at how young she is. At this point, she is 17, in her freshman year at RISD. This show covers the next six years of her life: her years at school, her junior year abroad in Rome, a summer in New Hampshire, and her first few years trying to make it as an artist in New York, before she kills herself at the age of 22. Everything happens so fast, and suddenly she’s gone.
The mythology that has grown up around Francesca Woodman since her death is as dense as a thicket. She has been adopted by an entire spectrum of academics and scholars, who have found nuggets of what they wanted to find in her many enigmatic pictures. She has been labeled a feminist, a Surrealist, a narcissist, a child prodigy, a Victorian Goth girl, a spiritualist, and a mature and gifted artist born fully formed. Having spent some time parsing a selection of these essays and thinking more carefully about the works on view, my conclusion is that she belongs in a Stieg Larsson title: The Girl Who Was Hijacked By Critics. The visual and subject matter seeds of these various theories are all there, it’s the vehemence of the competiting and often contradictory arguments that seems over-reaching to me, given her short period of art making.
Corey Keller from SFMOMA has done a fantastic job of editing the work down into a clear and concise chronological summary, with well defined periods and coherent transitions. Her lucid catalog essay doesn’t take sides, but offers a valuable sense of historical context. I resonated strongly with her connection to the 1978 MoMA show Mirrors and Windows, and placing Woodman in a line of psychological self expressionists going back to Minor White. I also found Rosalind Krauss’ original analysis of the 1986 Wellesley/Hunter show to still be right on the mark. Her thesis is that Woodman’s experimentation with space, with serial imagery, with formal elements and symbolic items, and with herself as a gestural nude model are all byproducts of the student problem sets she was doing (both assigned for class and self imposed).
As I traveled through the chopped up galleries, which do more to confuse the flow of the show than to support it by the way, I could see Woodman taking an idea and pushing at it, making it more personal, testing its edges. She climbs into glass cases, plays with plastic wrap and taxidermy, disappears into scraps of flaking wallpaper, and flits in and out of shadows like a blur. She casts herself as angels and demons, re-envisions empty space, and uses mirrors as both a space modifier and an introspective vehicle. More importantly, I had the strong impression that she didn’t have it all figured out – she was searching and experimenting, and doing so with a level of youthful intensity, vulnerability and openness that makes her work refreshing. I was fascinated by her performative interactions with fly traps, eels, and splashes of black paint, and by her odd birch bark arm coverings from the summer interlude.
But let’s be clear, she wasn’t an artistic genius in college. She was undeniably talented, but still raw and unfinished (which is part of her allure). This is what makes her later work (just a few years later mind you) so achingly sad. In those final years, she was exploring a number of truly interesting directions. Her artist’s book with rough shapes inserted into an Italian geometry text (an almost square, the curve of a chair) have the feel of a more cerebral Conceptual path. The large diazoptye collages of bridges/tiaras or zig zag arms seem to follow toward Rauschenberg (albeit in a personal, not obviously postmodern, way). Her two small color photographs buried on a side wall are much more mature in terms of her use of layers of angled space and striping; perhaps she might of had a career headed toward formal abstraction. And her experiments with lingerie, furs, and jewelry might have led her to a more aggressive feminism. I really was left with a sense of wow, given more time, she might have taken any or all of these roads to go somewhere strikingly new. She had all the raw material, but the story is incomplete.
In the end, I came away with a clearer conclusion about the messiness of Woodman’s short artistic career. While this sounds contradictory, I found her both less impressive and more impressive than I had previously given her credit for. Less, in that I think the mania/cult of personality around her has clouded our judgment about her student work, and more, in that her best works are evidence of the beginning of something that might have been transformative. Of course, the story has no ending, except for the one we imagine, so there is no way to say whether she would have flown high or flamed out. So the debate will continue, with its extreme allusions and scholarly arguments, none of which can ever be proven wrong. It is my hope however that the crisp, even handedness of this well-constructed show will remind us that Francesca Woodman was a talented young woman with an entire artistic career ahead of her, and what we have as souvenirs of her life are small, preliminary fragments of what might have been.
Collector’s POV: Given this is a museum retrospective, there are of course no posted prices. Woodman’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets for more than a decade, with a handful of lots coming up for sale each year. Vintage gelatin silver prints have ranged from roughly $5000 to $45000 in recent years. I could only find one public diazotype sale in the last decade, at $52000. Collectors should also be aware of posthumous prints made in 1999, in editions of 40. Woodman is represented in New York by Marian Goodman Gallery (here), who has a small show of her diazotypes on view in the gallery’s 3rd floor project space. In the recent run of art fairs, vintage Woodman GSPs seemed to be consistently retailing in the mid 30s. Also, Woodman’s massive (and spectacular) Temple diazotype collage is on view in the Spies in the House of Art show at the Met (here).