Francesca Woodman at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1976); courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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For 30-some years, Cindy Sherman has played dress-up in front of the camera in pursuit of “mortification of the self” and “the exploration of identity.” The photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), who died by her own hand at the age of 22, took a lot of self-portraits as well, and for related reasons: “female subjectivity” and “photography’s relationship to both literature and performance.” That the Guggenheim overview of Woodman’s oeuvre is running concurrently with MoMA’s Sherman retrospective is a fortuitous opportunity to compare and contrast.

To Sherman’s detriment, you can’t help but conclude. True, Woodman was no less prone to theatricality and adolescent notions of self-expression (taking into account, of course, that Woodman barely lived past adolescence). Depending on one’s taste for melodrama, her weakness for the picturesque—dilapidated buildings served as backdrop for many of the photos—and pat religious allusions are likely to strike one as precocious rather than earned. The work’s eroticism is part and parcel of an overweening narcissism and is less appealing because of it.

But Woodman knew how to take photographs—photographs that are rich with texture, isolated blurs of movement, ghostly sweeps of light and rare moments of washed-out period color. Sherman? She doesn’t know a photograph from a deconstructionist hole in the ground.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York (1979-1980), chromogenic print, 8.6 x 8.9 cm.; courtesy George and Betty Woodman

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An early, tragic death is an all but insurmountable hurdle for aesthetic contemplation. Anyone who has seen The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis’ devastating documentary of a family rendered dysfunctional by art, knows how inextricably Woodman’s vision is tied to biographical particulars. We do the artist no favors by overinflating (or romanticizing) a flawed but diverting achievement.

The Guggenheim, to its credit, does right by Woodman in setting out the work with jewel-like sobriety. Any serious artist would welcome such an approach. Viewers should welcome it, too.

© 2012 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of City Arts. Related articles can be found here and here.

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