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Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1976, courtesy George and Betty Woodman
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1976, courtesy George and Betty Woodman

THE FRANCESCA WOODMAN OBSESSION

Mar. 16, 2012

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What is one to make of the lasting appeal of Francesca Woodman’s relatively small, 30-year-old oeuvre of photographs? The work has high-powered champions as various as critic and historian Rosalind Krauss and art dealer Marian Goodman. Last year saw the release of Scott Willis’ documentary The Woodmans, about Francesca and her artist parents, George and Betty Woodman. This year an exhibition of 120 vintage photographs and videos debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and has now opened at the Guggenheim Museum, Mar. 16-June 13, 2012.

Central to Woodman’s mystique is the tragic narrative of her brief life, which she ended by her own hand in 1981 when she was just 22 years old. Her work itself has considerable esthetic appeal, needless to say, compounded by Woodman’s brutal artistic treatment of her own body, her primary subject, as some kind of abandoned prop -- often rendered a naked thing crawling on the floor or hanging from a door jamb, or as a headless caryatid or a ghost locked in motion. 

But Guggenheim curator Jennifer Blessing has another explanation for the persistent interest in Woodman. “It’s a yearning for the analog in a digital age,” she said. The small, black-and-white photographs Woodman shot while abroad in Rome and as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design are disarmingly perfect in their simplicity and they’re perfectly accessible to a generation that’s revitalized old-fashioned items like Holga cameras, Timex watches, straight razors and record players.

Woodman’s work is also keyed to an obsession with physicality that characterizes much feminist and post-feminist art by artists ranging from Ana Mendieta to Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman.

“The short answer,” Blessing said to the question of why people are still so attracted to Woodman is that “the work is amazing and unforgettable.” That might sound oversimplified, but, nonetheless, that’s exactly the rare gift Woodman has left us, one of access to the basic human pleasures of storytelling and beauty.

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Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1979-80, courtesy George and Betty Woodman
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1979-80, courtesy George and Betty Woodman