An extensive exhibition of vintage photographic prints, along with rarely seen artist books and video, from the short but prolific career of Francesca Woodman opened this month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The 174 works on view regularly feature Woodman experimenting with the placement of her own often nude form in contrast with the crumbling interiors of abandoned buildings. Spare and elegant, these black and white images sometimes read like lost illustrations from early feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 19th century short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," with Woodman appearing to blend at times with the architecture.
One series from Woodman's years as an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design was shot in an abandoned house in Providence; the House series (1975 – 77) depicts the artist's form blurring with the architecture through simple effects. Further works were developed in Rome while studying in the RISD Rome Honors Program, following her graduation while living in New York, and later as a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Some thirty years after her death, Woodman's experiments can be regarded as astonishingly prescient, anticipating the prevalence of photography and, to some extent, contemporary media's capacity for self-reflection.
Francesca Woodman, House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976; c. George and Betty Woodman.
The exhibition focuses on works from 1975-1981, leading up to the artist's death by suicide at age 22. The challenge, among women artists in particular, is to separate the artist's personal trials from considerations of the work. Within academia the work is resolutely regarded for its formal qualities and there has been extensive, if not excessive, intellectual discourse around the various critical implications of the work initiated by this young artist. Within the catalogue, exhibition curator and SFMOMA assistant curator of photography Corey Keller contends with the tremendous amount of posthumus critical attention focused on Woodman's photographs over the last three decades and notes, "At times, the critical apparatus around them threatens to swamp the entire fragile enterprise." Just as a preoccupation with her death would undermine the potency of Woodman's work, so too does the prevailing tendency towards over analysis by intelligentsia.
Francesca Woodman, Caryatid, New York, 1980; c. George and Betty Woodman
Predominantly black and white -- only a handful of color prints exist -- the images belie the compositional challenge of working in the square frame of a medium-format camera, equipment that was considered cumbersome and outmoded even at the time. Given Woodman's predilection for historic spaces, this preference comes as no surprise. Image after image attests to her natural skill at composing the image in front of the camera, simultaneously considering the various forms within the picture plane, including her own, and the light within the space. Based on her ability to work within these limitations, one wonders how she might have responded to the abundance of tools available today, such as camera phones and web cams.
The works convey intensely personal, indeed private, moments of artistic production and depict the artist as a solitary figure unabashedly experimenting with shadow and light, flesh and form, stillness and motion. Her gaze, when turned on the camera, is often the serious expression of a woman at work. Many of the prints read like working documents, with Woodman's handwritten notes in the margins. The Caryatid series (1980), Diazotype prints exposed on large format paper, are torn unevenly. These are not decorative deckled edges, but rather evidence of an intensive focus on the production of images for the sake of making images. Any preoccupation with marketability is notably absent; she had participated in only a handful of exhibitions by 1981.
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980; c. George and Betty Woodman.
Woodman might have arrived at a greater preoccupation with the market in time, like any other artist committed to making a life from their work, but the surviving body of work is uniquely pure of this concern. Perhaps this distillation, exemplified by an unfettered engagement with experimentation, has contributed to the artist's career trajectory in absentia? Certainly sustained interest in the work can be attributed to the fact that the images have remained compelling, regardless of the personal narrative that swirls around them. Some may still freight the work with questions about the end of her career, but there is greater value in looking at what Francesca Woodman accomplished from the start.
Francesca Woodman is on view through February 20, 2012 at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For more information visit sfmoma.org.
The Woodmans, a documentary about Francesca Woodman and the Woodman family, will air on KQED on December 22 at 10pm as part of the PBS Independent Lens series. Visit KQED TV schedule for air dates and times.