Gaze Control: Francesca Woodman at Marian Goodman
‘I’m trying my hand at fashion photography’ at Marian Goodman Gallery
February 12 to March 12, 2015
24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212-977-7160
The opening photograph of this exhibition of around 30 vintage prints, some of them previously unseen, sees the show’s title, ‘I’m trying my hand at fashion photography’, scrawled in red ink in Woodman’s spidery handwriting. The inscription falls below an image so wonderful in its off kilter poignant economy that it takes a while to take in the nuanced details. Within it, Woodman stands facing us, hands over her eyes, wearing a white dress textured as if quilted, its slight thickness imparting a creamy softness to its folds. Behind her is pinned a skewed quilt, dirty white and slightly torn, against a wall with joins like a giant graph, a large circle peeking down from the top of the frame. It is a minor symphony of textures and composition.
The show focuses on Woodman’s New York years between 1978 and 1980, a difficult period for the young artist: no longer supported by study or residency programs, she was battling to find resolve to continue her practice, gain acknowledgement from the art establishment and pay the rent. Although much is made of the tragedy of her early suicide, the year after this period of her work at the age of 22 what really comes across is that making successful photographs was an act connected to joy and satisfaction, fueled by her indomitable, restless energy.
An image in a completely different mood has Woodman sitting on the floor, the sweep of her hair in a loose top bun caught in frames of falling sunlight, echoed by the casual satin cascade of her dress. Her eyes are thoughtful, looking to the side, a small gothic chair in a corner adding the final compositional touch. The astonishing depth of Woodman’s understanding of spatial and geometric relationships of the body and other objects within the pictorial frame elevated her work, no matter how deceptively simple an individual image might be, to the highest level.
An example of this sensitive arranging is shown in a monochrome photograph where Woodman stands sideways to the viewer, arms above her head so that she forms a black line against the wall. Parallel to her is a hanging skinned fox, its head, legs and tail dark, vulpine and dramatic against the surrounding white. On the floor is a carefully placed decorative plate, positioned on an invisible diagonal to the bottom corner of a painting in the top left of the image. The unobtrusive alignment of painting to Woodman, to stole, to plate, is an example of the precise visual harmonies that lent Woodman’s work its subtle dynamics and formal rigor.
One of the highlights of this sometimes-uneven selection was a rare series done in color that showed a more polished, mature Woodman. These are shot in empty rooms with pastel green walls and pale pink molding, her body sheathed in a green knit dress. The new element of color is added to her compositional mix as she throws shapes through a mirror climbs a door post – all Titian hair and bare legs – or peeks through the camera at us, sensual yet coy in peep-toed shoes.
Woodman is less convincing when she emulates other photographers. A series shot at night outside the New York Public Library in a style halfheartedly reminiscent of Helmut Newton sees a model drape her limbs alongside the giant stone lions. Elsewhere, we have a girl all lipstick and glamour in a bathing suit reclining, in the mode of Guy Bourdin, alongside stuffed, running wolves. Both sets have elements of Woodman but those seem hesitant mixed with the slicker, hard-edged styles of photographers that were so much about the male gaze.
In Woodman’s imagery, she was often both subject and photographer. Just as a dancer uses her body as an instrument, Woodman used hers, alongside many props and clothes as a tool for the camera. Like Cindy Sherman, she controlled the gaze, which with Woodman was unambiguously female.
It was only days after seeing this exhibition, while thinking about how intrinsic and poetic to my understanding of Woodman’s oeuvre her nude self-portraits were, that I suddenly realized that most of the subjects in the show had been clothed. That I hadn’t noticed is as it should be— her work transcended all of that.