The remarkably gifted artist Francesca Woodman abruptly ended her brief life and career on January 19, 1981, leaping to her death from a window in her New York studio. Francesca was 22 years old. The work of her eight productive years, to which a small show at the Marian Goodman Gallery on West 57th Street is currently paying tribute, would have been magical and enigmatic whatever her fate, but the suicide caused viewers to wonder if it was foreshadowed in her images, which were mostly of herself. The relationship between an artist’s life and work is always tentative, even when the life seems obviously to have been the subject of the work, as in the case of Marcel Proust. The best reason for reading his biography is to learn how different the life and the great novel are, despite the internal relationship between the two. The difference between the author and the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past is a matter of intricate interpretation, though both are named Marcel. And, of course, the novel does not end with the death of its narrator; it ends, rather, with his resolution to begin to write it. “Death is not an event in life,” Wittgenstein said. “Death is not lived through.”
Whether or not Francesca’s suicide is projected in her art, the work seems revelatory of her inner life, not only because she is typically the model for the photographs of which it is made up but because of the way she pictures herself. The photographs are of a young woman, often nude, often wearing the kinds of vintage clothes or intimate garments that Francesca’s friends say she wore. They typically show her alone in the largely empty rooms, with stained, peeling walls and the odd piece of secondhand furniture, that she used as studios or living spaces or both. So people have pored over the prints with forensic eyes, looking for diagnostic clues. I must say the “evidence” strikes me as pretty crude. In one she shows herself in a bathtub, which a hermeneutical sleuth pounces on as metaphorically–a coffin! But models have been shown in bathtubs from Degas through Toulouse-Lautrec to Bonnard, without anyone thinking that mortality is a subtext. Or did the critic have in mind the fact that Seneca committed suicide in his bathtub, fearing a worse end at the hands of his dangerous disciple, the Emperor Nero? In fact, there is very little evidence in the photographs of one of the most important truths of Francesca’s life: that she was a photographer, and indeed the very photographer who took the pictures. In a portrait taken in her studio in Providence, Rhode Island, she sits behind a large, boxy camera on a tripod. But it is by a friend, George Lange. The camera, so far as I have been able to discover, is never a prop in any of her sparsely furnished spaces. There are not even overlooked signs, like a telltale cable, except in the very early picture Self-Portrait at Thirteen, taken when she could have been as old as 17, judging by the date. It is a self-portrait as a 13-year-old girl, whose chief feature is her hair, which covers all her other features, and whose most conspicuous garment is a cable-knit sweater. It is a cable-knit image: The cable is deliberately left in the print to make the pun. Francesca was as fastidious about planting signs and meaning as a Flemish master. If there were so much as the shadow of a camera, it reflected an artistic decision. As it is, the photographic apparatus is always external to the image, though certainly internal to her life.
I have referred to Francesca by her first name, though I never knew her personally. I did get to know her parents, George and Betty Woodman, both of them important artists in their own right. Betty is one of the major ceramists of our time, and I have written about her work on several occasions. George had been part of the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the late 1970s, but is today best known for his own frequently exhibited photographs. By 1986, Francesca’s work had become very widely known, with major exhibitions everywhere. She was the subject of studies by major critics, European and American. Her work, which seemed almost obsessively addressed to her gender and sexuality, coincided with the intense intellectual preoccupation these themes had awakened throughout the art world. The circumstances of her death gave her life an almost Rimbaldian aura. It is impossible to view her work without being drawn into the vast questions it raises about life, art and the meaning and embodiment of sex.