Francesca Woodman’s photographs create sibylline worlds that seduce and ensnare. Often set within derelict interiors, their primary subject is her body: nude, blurred or obscured. A silver spiraling snake on her finger recurs, as do gloves, sea creatures, cascading fabric and panes of glass. Organized in collaboration with the Woodman Family Foundation, “Francesca Woodman: Alternate Stories” at Marian Goodman Gallery adds texture to the ample discourse around her work, drawing on archival materials recently bequeathed to the Foundation by her parents to expand the means of understanding her body of art. Split between two galleries, 54 gelatin silver prints are on view, many of which have never been exhibited, and one large-scale diazotype.
The richness of Woodman’s work lends itself to many lines of thinking, even as it refuses to conform to any singular reading. The artist first became known in the wake of an exhibition organized by the Wellesley College Museum in 1986, five years after her untimely death at 22. She has been the subject of much debate in the ensuing decades—which is remarkable given her small body of work—stoked by a desire to find her art’s intellectual, biographical or even spiritual linchpin. The Wellesley show’s catalogue features an infamous text by Abigail Solomon-Godeau that is limited by its focus on the male gaze. Scholars have since written about her work through the lenses of Surrealism, Pictorialism, Minimalism and the Kantian Sublime, to name a few. Others have downplayed it as the promising work of an undergraduate; Woodman created the bulk of her output at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The presentation at Marian Goodman is a refreshing departure, highlighting Woodman’s own words in its exhibition and catalogue. Particularly illuminating is a 1979 letter from Woodman to Alberto Piovani, who was working on a piece for Progresso Fotografico. “I try to be intuitive, when I am actually taking the picture I really only think about composition, not about content + meaning,” she writes. “I try not to force emotions on them, so I can’t really tell you much about the results.” A marvelous trio of dog-eared contact sheets double down on Woodman’s words. Her instinctual approach is evident in nearly a dozen frames in diverse angles and compositions that depict a young woman and a disembodied hand. Some of them read as impulsive explorations of an idea unable to transcend the sum of their parts, while others coalesce to find a harmony that brings Woodman’s concept alive. One wonders if the frame torn messily from the sheet might match one of two related works nearby.
Mercifully forgoing a chronological presentation, the show is centered around loose thematic and formal groupings. For instance, hands dominate a corner of the south gallery that includes works from her fruitful time at RISD, galvanizing junior year abroad in Rome and frustrating post-graduate years in New York City. One tightly cropped photograph, taken in Providence, is dominated by Woodman’s patterned dress. A blurred hand slices diagonally across the frame, while another, clad in her snake ring, is held still, creating an uneasy dichotomy between the real and the imagined. The adjacent photograph, taken later in New York, is framed nearly identically, but flattened by Woodman’s inky black dress dissolving into the background. She holds a pane of glass that might be invisible if it didn’t illuminate the tips of her fingers. On a closer look, her ring appears yet again.
While Woodman’s tiny prints and bohemian sensibility feel incongruous with the gallery’s imposing white cube, luxuriating in her jewel-like images is always illuminating, and the informal nature of “Alternate Stories” makes the show a particular pleasure. “I want my pictures to have a certain timeless, personal but allegorical quality like they do in say ingres history paintings,” Woodman wrote to Piovani. Forty years after her death, they feel that fresh. —Beryl Gilothwest
Francesca Woodman, Contact sheet, Italy, c. 1977-1978. Vintage gelatin print, Paper: 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation and Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2021.