We’re fascinated by artists who die young. Something about the unnaturalness of an early death gives us a kind of morbid thrill. We hail their genius, attracted by the mystery of the unknown (and unknowable). Maybe we’re envious—at least, the parts of us that seek fame and approval. For the dead, everything is fixed and frozen; there’s no more work and no more pressure to perform. Pore as we will over their output, what they’ve left behind in the world will never change.
Francesca Woodman was an artist who died young. She committed suicide, jumping from a window when she was twenty-two. I was thinking of waiting to tell you that, of trying to withhold the information until later in this essay, but the effort seemed futile: if you’re in art school, or read the New York Times, or have looked at the Guggenheim’s Web site lately, or even if you get the Skint, a daily New York events e-mail, you already know.
The Skint mention is particularly curious. Somehow, in a newsletter composed of brief, one-line descriptions of featured events, Woodman’s suicide merited inclusion: “Thru 6/13: 120 works of photographer francesca woodman (nsfw), who committed suicide at age 22 in 1981, go on display at the Guggenheim.” The implication seems to be that her suicide either makes her more interesting or more worthy of an exhibition.
The blurb reiterates the central problem surrounding Woodman: her art and her life have become inextricably linked. You can’t have the photos without the suicide, and quite probably, you wouldn’t have had the suicide without the photos. But in the equation, the photos get lost, subsumed by a story they weren’t meant to tell. Is there a way to pull the two pieces of her legacy apart?
Woodman produced some six hundred photographs, 120 of which are currently on view at the Guggenheim. This seems like a hugely prolific output for someone so young, but she came from a family of artists: her parents, George and Betty, as well as her older brother, Charlie, are artists, though each worked in a different medium (George: paintings; Betty: ceramics; Charlie: video; Francesca: photography). The children were raised with a strong work ethic and the idea that art was “serious business,” says George, in a documentary about the family, The Woodmans, by C. Scott Willis. “You don’t go off and do hobbies on Sunday or something like that. You make art.”
And so Francesca did, from the time she was a teenager, through her years at the Rhode Island School of Design, through her summer at the MacDowell Colony, and through the two years she lived in New York. Photographing was so much her natural state that one of her best friends, Sloan Rankin, says in the film that she became alarmed when Woodman called, not long before her suicide, to say she wasn’t taking pictures.
Woodman’s most frequent subject was herself, most often nude. She photographed her own body ceaselessly, in black and white, often in ruinous spaces: rooms with peeling wallpaper, crumbling paint, light streaming through uncovered windows. She staged scenes with props: mirrors and gloves and eels and panes of glass. She blurred her image so that she appeared like an active ghost—or perhaps more appropriately, after the title of one of her series, like an angel.
In two of the “Angels” pictures, Woodman positions the camera just above herself. In both, she pushes out her chest, the outline of her breasts and arms creating an abstract shape against the empty space beyond them. Taken together, the two images form a yin-yang, a study in complementary contrasts: in one, Woodman’s body, lying on the floor and positioned on the bottom of the frame, is awash in bleaching light; in the other, her body fills the top portion of the photo, with her breasts silhouetted against a thick, black darkness.
Technically, these photos are nudes. They are also, technically, self-portraits. But they don’t feel much like either. They feel instead like explorations—experiments in the art of photography, for which she used herself as a prop. And therein lies the great irony of Woodman’s work: though she photographed nearly every inch of her body, she revealed so little. Though her work is ostensibly self-involved, its true interests seem formal (investigating the properties of light, playing with framing), epistemological (how does a body relate to the space around it?), or art historical (what happens when a nude woman is both the subject and the object of a work?). And so, though we look to the photographs for clues to the mystery of her suicide, we’ll never find them. Woodman’s art does not answer the questions raised by her life.
The first time I looked at Woodman’s photos, in reproduction, I was engaged but not invested. The images elicited only occasional strong emotions, and mainly I was troubled by my inability to keep track of her, even after a hundred pages. I confused her with the friends she sometimes used as models, and even when she was clearly the subject, she looked like a different person from picture to picture: in one, a bit pudgy and awkward, in another, thin and stunningly beautiful. Surprisingly, she called to mind photographer Cindy Sherman (also currently the subject of a major museum retrospective, at MoMA), who uses makeup, prosthetics, and all manner of illusions to transform herself into an incredible range of characters. The work of both women places the “self” of self-portraiture in full view, but in doubt.
Then I watched The Woodmans, and everything changed. Willis’s powerfully nuanced film tells a broad story of Francesca’s life, beginning with her parents’ marriage and ending with her posthumous fame and its effect on her family (in a word: complicated). Willis establishes Francesca’s presence not just through interviews with family and friends, but also through the use of her photos, videos—she experimented a bit with the medium; six of her most complete videos are on view at the Guggenheim—and journal entries.
The journal writings are eloquent and almost unbearably intimate. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Willis reproduces the text of Woodman’s last journal entry against the backdrop of her video footage:
This action that I foresee has nothing to do with melodrama. It is that life as lived by me now is a series of exceptions … I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist … I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see … and show them something different … Nothing to do with not being able “to take it” in the big city or w/ self doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side.
These words conjure Woodman in a way that her artwork doesn’t. Reading them makes the fact of her suicide—even though we’ve known it all along—completely heartbreaking.
I next saw Woodman’s photographs at the Guggenheim, where my emotional connection to them felt stronger. Of course looking at art live is always more visceral and stimulating than paging through a book, but there were little things: it seemed eerier, now, that Woodman wore a ring similar to one I wear. Her elusiveness seemed more significant, possibly some kind of taunt. Staring at one photograph, which shows her lower half—naked legs with feet in black Chinese slippers—sitting in a chair alongside a silhouette of herself on the floor, her flesh suddenly seemed real. I could envision myself reaching out and touching her bare thighs.
But no, I thought, this was a trap—the snare of retrospect. “History is by necessity written backward; its narrative takes shape with an ending already firmly in place,” writes curator Corey Keller in the exhibition catalogue. Here I was falling prey to history; the movie had made Woodman’s suicide real to me, and now I was reading it into her photographs. All of which was compounded by a creeping sensation of feminist guilt: women artists are perpetually shoehorned into the “art as life” equation, their biographies dismissively used to explain their work.
Still, any attempt to remove Woodman’s life entirely from the story of her art is impossible. Keller points out that the two were intertwined for her: while at RISD, she lived and worked in an old industrial space that served as a setting for both her photos and her performative personality. And of course the decision to reproduce and manipulate one’s image—to conceal, blur or crop it—is itself a manifestation of the artist’s personality. “Woodman’s work is and is not autobiographical,” writes Guggenheim curator Jennifer Blessing in her catalogue essay. “I don’t see them as autobiographical,” Betty Woodman says in the film, referring to her daughter’s photos, before adding, “but I think, in a way, all the art we make is in some ways autobiographical—it’s about us.”
Toward the end of her life, Francesca’s work became less explicitly self-involved. Though she still photographed herself, she also went in new directions, using a process for architectural blueprints called diazotype to make large-scale collages based around themes, such as a panorama of zigzags that appear within images of arms, tin cones, a dress, and a building. One of her most exciting works from this period is a ten-by-fifteen-foot diazotype collage called Temple, for which she photographed people as caryatids and enlarged tiling patterns she found in New York bathrooms. The piece—on view not at the Guggenheim but at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the exhibition “Spies in the House of Art” (hanging across the room from a Cindy Sherman, no less)—tantalizingly suggests a move away from inhabiting preexisting space toward creating her own. Standing before it, I wondered what else Woodman might have created, had she lived.
Wandering through the final room of the Guggenheim exhibition, I stopped in front of a mesmerizing self-portrait. In it, Woodman is naked, with only a scarf around her neck and a ribbon holding her hair in a side ponytail. She stands with her hands on her hips, her face awash in bright light, and stares directly at the camera, her gaze unusually confrontational. The overall effect was so unsettling that I started to wonder if it was an illusion, if somehow she was wearing a mask (a prop she used in other works).
Suddenly a male voice yelled out, “Hi, Francesca!” I turned around, startled. Was he talking to the dead artist?
No. A woman responded with a wave and a smile, and they began to talk. But it seemed plausible that he might have been trying for Woodman. She was undeniably present.
Jillian Steinhauer is a Brooklyn-based writer and assistant editor of Hyperallergic.