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    Rediscovering Francesca Woodman

    Date: 18 Dec 2006 | | Views: 10828

    Art imitates life. Or perhaps it's the other way around.

    This dual notion haunts the often enigmatic, sometimes unsettling photography of Francesca Woodman, who jumped to her death in 1981 at age 22.

    While the Colorado native's short yet surprisingly prolific output would gain considerable attention, especially in Europe, the cultish romanticism that grew up around her suicide long clouded serious discussions of her work.

    But now, with the clarifying distance of a quarter- century, perceptions are changing. Curators and critics are looking anew at the more than 800 images Woodman created in a 10-year period from junior high school to young adulthood.

    She is being rediscovered and reconsidered, a process likely to accelerate with the publication of the most comprehensive book yet on her, including edited journals and 250 photographs ("Francesca Woodman," Phaidon Press, 256 pages, $75).

    "I think her work is growing in importance historically," said Douglas Fogle, curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

    "People are looking back at it now as something that has been influential more recently with younger artists."

    Although Woodman's work has been featured in major solo shows, including a large one organized in 1998 by the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris, she has yet to have a major touring retrospective in the United States. But Fogle believes such an exhibition is only a matter of time.

    "I think you're right now at the moment where there is enough interest, where there are curators sniffing around," he said.

    Career in the cards

    It was all but pre-ordained that Woodman would become an artist. Her parents, Betty and George Woodman, are nationally known artists; her father taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder while she grew up. Their home served as the social center of the city's art scene, with prominent and not-so-prominent artists frequently passing through.
    In the summer of 1972, before Woodman left for boarding school in Andover, Mass., her father gave her a camera. She took an immediate liking to it, sitting in on a university photography class to learn the basics.

    An image from that nascent period, "Self-Portrait at Thirteen" (1972), is reproduced in the book. Already, many of the defining qualities of her work are present: the use of herself as the subject, explorations of space and perspective, the blurry, atmospheric effects.

    "It was all about making art," her father said. "It wasn't about documenting birthday parties or camping expeditions. I don't think she ever made a snapshot.

    She quickly became sufficiently sophisticated to have nothing but contempt for the snapshot."
    After graduating from the well-regarded Rhode Island School of Design in 1978, she spent a year in Italy, where her parents often had taken her during summers and their study trips. In 1965-66, she even attended second grade there.

    Chris Townsend, a senior lecturer at the University of London who authored the Woodward monograph, believes she did her best work during that time, working in an old factory building in Rome.

    Far from the inspired naif, as she sometimes has been portrayed, he believes she drew on a range of influences including but not limited to surrealism, especially the work of Man Ray and Duane Michals, and fashion photography by Deborah Turbeville and others.
    "Suddenly, she is making a body of photographs that are all her own," Townsend said. "They take a lot of the reference points and they subvert them. They alter them. They stop being about aesthetics, and they're about the properties of photography."

    Woodman probed the nature of photography and its uneasy relationship with reality. She relentlessly explored what Townsend calls the "spatial and temporal mismatches" between image and object.

    She wanted to evoke the elusive, transient realm between what is and isn't, constantly depicting herself as a kind of specter, disappearing into or emerging from floors and walls, depending on the viewer's

    1977-78: from "eel" series, Rome (Photograph courtesy George and Betty Woodman) perception.

    "She was starting to play all these interesting games within the photograph, examining formal, conceptual problems of photography as a medium," Townsend said. "And very few photographers of the 1970s and even very few photographers outside of conceptualism do that."

    Although Woodman sometimes employed models, she mainly depicted herself, usually interacting in some staged way with the environment around her - wrapping her nude body in wallpaper in the 1977 "Space" series or thrusting herself into nature in images at the MacDowell Colony in 1980.

    "Francesca was ashamed that she took so many pictures of herself and irritated by the simplistic self-portrait label attached to her work," Betsy Berne, a close friend, wrote in an essay in the book. "She tried using models over and over - but the reality was she was her own best model because she alone knew what she was after."

    In much of her work, Woodman treats the body as a kind of fetish, camouflaging and confusing identity. A few images have an air of innocence, while others, such as a 1979- 80 rear view of an undulating female torso, are sexually charged.

    Still others take on an almost violent edge. In "Horizontale" (1976), she binds her legs with spiraling tape. "Portrait of a Reputation" is an undated book of five images in which her darkened hand leaves ugly stains on her body with each touch.

    Woodman was living in an East Village loft in New York City and had barely begun her professional career when she took her life. Apparently, it did not come as a total surprise; Berne writes that on the photographer's "darkest days," she would mention suicide.

    Even though, as Berne puts it, Woodman was "beset by the same contradictions and conflicts" visible in her work, Townsend and the photographer's parents caution against interpreting the photographs through the lens of the suicide.

    She clearly had dark moments, but her parents describe her as a charming, witty and sociable person, a description backed up by Berne's lively and touching account of the young artists' time together.

    "On the other hand," Betty Woodman said, "she did commit suicide. Things were not rosy and wonderful for Francesca. That was her choice. It is there. It's hard for us. I know I just tend not to make this be what the work is about."

    Beset by trends

    When Woodman died, changing trends were already overshadowing her. A new breed of post-modern artists driven by mass culture, including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, were uprooting photography and exploiting it for very different purposes.

    While Woodman had a foot in this conceptualist camp, she was also very much attached to traditional photography, using techniques little different from the 19th century to fastidiously create and print her images.

    As often happens in the natural cycle of the art world, the photographer's work has found new resonance among today's artists, who are looking back at the 1960s and ྂs with fresh eyes and combining the past and present in inventive ways.

    With the help of the respected dealer Marian Goodman, who began representing the photographer's estate in 1998, Woodman's photographs are increasingly making their way to the market. And the book, with more than 100 photographs never before published, should only increase her visibility.

    What will Woodman's ultimate place in photographic history be? Only time can tell. What cannot be denied is the distinctiveness and innate power of her provocative, sometimes troubling images.

    "There's no manipulation of the art market or how they are promoted," said Betty Woodman. "People simply respond to them. So I guess there's some kind of legacy, because isn't that what art's all about?"

    By Kyle MacMillan, Denver Post

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