The brief life and tragic death of Francesca Woodman only seems to deepen the mystery of her powerful and provocative work. But who was she, beyond the adolescent artist whose haunted photographs are the epitome of American Gothic with a surrealist twist?
The new exhibition and book Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation sets forth to find out by exploring the young artists artist’s coming-of-age period between 1975-1979. Featuring approximately forty unique vintage prints, as well as contact sheets, notes, letters, postcards, and other ephemera related to Woodman’s burgeoning career, Portrait of a Reputation considers how the artist developed her singular approach to exploring gender, representation, and sexuality by photographing her own body and those of her friends.
Photographer George Lange, Woodman’s long-time friend, first met the young artist as a fellow photo student at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1976. “She was the real deal,” he writes in the introduction to the book. “She lived her art. She looked like her art. She had the vocabulary of art. Almost best of all, her images each week, which are some of the most famous of her brief career, blew me away.’
Lange continues, “Francesca’s intensity was palpable. It scared me. I had never met anyone who could so clearly reveal a refined vision. She could also be a mess. Her place was a mess. Her photo technique stained. That mess is the texture of her work. She couldn’t control everything, but somehow with her touch, that mess became poetry.”
Lange collected, guarded, and preserved Woodman’s work, creating an archive that is the basis for the exhibition that acts as a portal into the past. We don’t just see the artist as an outsider would: we see an intimate, deeply felt relationship that has transcended death.
This access transformed the way we consider Woodman and her work, for it grounds her not in myth but in reality. That said, there is a clear sense Woodman was dealing with mystical realms, drawn to Gothic tropes as a means to express the ineffable. The photograph becomes the perfect metaphor of death itself, itself both fixed and immutable yet stil brimming with life.
As the exhibition makes clear, Woodman did not seek answers so much as she sought to question unchallenged ideas. Hers was a gift for finding the space where things are neither “either/or” but “and” — a far more complex proposition that precludes binary thinking.
“Her work rests of that fulcrum between arrival/departure, emergence/disappearance, embedded/separate, stilled/mobile, and figure/ground. In blurring these distinctions, Woodman destabilizes the idea of a photograph as being one or the other,” curator Nora Burnett Abrams writes in an essay for the book.
“Woodman explored the fraudulence of that idea; she worked to expand the set-up or fabrication, the fantasy, the invention, and experimentation inherent to the medium of photography. And in doing so, we work utilizes performance as part of the process rather than the final result.”
In this same way, the documents from Woodman’s life parallel this approach to a paradigm shifting way of creating a portrait of the artist as a young woman. She is both sides of the same coin at the same time, learning how to live on her own terms.
“Writing is difficult for me these days,” Woodman wrote. “I work i walk i read i try to sleep i worry about this and that tit for tat. I think about George a little nervously it is ok to have him know me know my faults but somehow that distance is a little to [sic] small maybe these [sic] is just a quota of faults that you should be familiar with pick and five and get 2 for free but no more than that.’
Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver through April 5, 2020.