On view at SFMOMA and traveling to the Guggenheim in 2012, Francesca Woodman is a testament to the faithfulness of an artistic inquiry. In photo after photo Woodman experimented with formal elements, tested endless configurations, and explored feminine identity. Woodman’s self-discipline is evident in the multiple galleries hung with her photographs. Considering her age—she was in her late teens and early twenties when the work was made—her tough-minded dedication is rather surprising: to produce the 174 photographs now on view, she had to have been in front of or behind the camera, or in the darkroom, to the exclusion of much else.
Woodman most often acted as her own model, and the small black-and-white compositions, usually nudes, are visually straightforward but conceptually complex. What complicates the work is the knowledge that Woodman is not just the vulnerable nude, but also the architect of that condition. In many photos Woodman’s gaze is directed at the viewer; and yet knowing she was also the photographer mediates that directness, because ultimately what her model-self was looking at was her photographer-self, backwards through the lens of the camera, posing for her own view. In this way, she was able to explore her femininity as a construct of at least partially her own making, bringing a feminist awareness to her investigations.
Take, for example, Polka Dots (1976). Wearing a spotted dress, Woodman crouches against a decaying, dilapidated wall. Over her head there is a fist-sized hole punched through the plaster and lath. Similarly, her dress is unzipped at the side, revealing part of her torso and the curve of her left breast. Splayed fingers hide her mouth, heightening the vulnerability of her posture and semi-nakedness, and her messy hair corresponds to the ruined nature of the room. Her awkward, submissive pose and undone dress belong to a madwoman—but her eyes are not crazy, they are guiltily sexual. They dare the viewer to compare the hole in her garment to the hole in the wall and to see how they might be similar. And yet the title is neutral, focusing coyly on the pattern of the dress and the concurrent black spots on the wall, redirecting the viewer to the composition as a whole and reflecting the conceptual slyness of the work. Contradictions and ambiguity create depth as Woodman refuses to provide an easy summary of femininity or desire.
Woodman’s understanding of formal compositions was truly remarkable for someone so young. Consider Untitled, New York (1979-1980), in which a nude body reclines on a striped mattress. Echoing ancient Roman and Greek statues, the head is missing, cut off by the camera’s framing. The clean, bold stripes of the sheet direct the eye across the width of the photo, providing a strong horizontal pattern that is softened by the zigzagging line of the torso and knees. Gentle folds in the flesh at the waist echo the soft ripples in the fabric. An open barrette scattered on the sheet implies the sensuality of unbound hair that the viewer can’t see, yet the idea of that looseness is physically present in the undone fabric billowing from under the bed’s front edge. Two mysterious black disks lie near the ribcage, like pupils, alluding to sight. The configuration of elements appears intuitive, but the many correspondences indicate that it was very carefully composed.
Identity is the main issue that arises repeatedly in Woodman’s work. If she is located in front of and behind the camera simultaneously, then her sense of self is similarly flexible. Nowhere is this idea more apparent than in Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1976) in which three naked women stand in a row in a dilapidated room. Each woman holds a photograph of Woodman’s face in front of her own visage. The posture of the two women on the left indicates that their hidden faces are turned to each other behind the photographic facades. The third woman, however, faces the camera. Comparing this woman’s body to the other photographs in the exhibition, the viewer can deduce that this is Woodman herself, cheekily replacing her own face with a representation that claims to be her. This tableau is further complicated by a fourth photo of Woodman’s face tacked to the wall, and by the paint that divides the wall horizontally making the row of women into an ersatz police lineup. There are four Francescas in the room: which one is the criminal, which the innocent, or even the “real”? Further, each woman is naked, but her face—the principle social marker of her individuality—is concealed, questioning what constitutes feminine identification. Woodman’s own pose, leaning toward the viewer in knee socks and Mary Janes, seems to say you can see me naked, but I am unrevealed; exposed, I am protected.
Woodman committed suicide at the age of 22, and it would be easy to let this cast a pall over her work, robbing it of its sly humor and replacing its youthful sincerity with something darker. Knowing this fact, her nude body can suddenly look isolated, her propositions for selfhood change from playfully unfixed to confused, her blacks even more opaque than before. But subjecting her oeuvre to armchair psychology is the wrong strategy: it’s too convenient to attribute her imaginative choices to the facile cliché of the tortured artist. Although her photographs expose her physical body and her thoughts to a public audience, it is in the privacy of the darkroom that I imagine her: coaxing an image from light and shadows, sliding paper into chemical trays, bringing an ever-changing idea of herself to life, over and over again.