The current Francesca Woodman retrospective up at the Guggenheim serves as a glimpse into the prepossessing private appetites and penchants of the young artist. The exhibit focuses on her brief but prolific career, including more than 120 vintage photographs, artist books, and a selection of recently discovered and rarely seen short videos, presenting a new look at her work. Taking on the role of the subject of most of her images, she has an almost mystical physical presence. She does not attempt to mask her privileges (intelligence, travel, talent), and she is physically beautiful in a very approachable way, but it is her elusiveness that is most seductive.
The photographs present renderings of repetition (a scribbling of gel-ink cursive across one image reads, “yet another day alone I wake up in these white chairs”) and isolation. Woodman lived and photographed in a deteriorating, ancient-looking studio that she reclaimed during her time at The Rhode Island School of Design. Her unreserved engagement with these eerie, crumbling spaces–and with her own body–demonstrates her innate fearlessness.
Recurring symbolic objects (eels, mirrors, paint-as-shadow, taxidermy animals, tree bark, oversized conch shells, strips of mink and lace, and heads of lettuce) are used in a manner that feels intuitive rather than sentimental. Many of the works reveal the inevitability and heaviness of impermanence (through movement and decay), but this is juxtaposed with the lightness of the surrealist imagery that lingers in most of her works. Woodman’s spirit–which is demonstrated corporeally in stripes of daylight across her bare skin and in her movements (recorded as blurred pigments)–is ethereal. Her intelligence and wit are apparent in each image but none of the compositions feel over-thought.
Even without the knowledge of Woodman’s decision to end her own life at the age of twenty-two, which looms (literally in text) over the entire exhibit, there is an ephemeral quality to her photographs. The images are painterly and evocative of the type of dream that is “of” something very similar to a real life situation–just slightly fogged, supernatural, and unearthly.
The Francesca Woodman Retrospective is up at The Guggenheim through June 13th.