Francesca Woodman’s Crowning Achievement, and Mystery

Francesca Woodman’s Crowning Achievement, and Mystery

In the 12 months earlier than she jumped to her demise in January 1981, Francesca Woodman toiled furiously on her most bold venture, “Blueprint for a Temple.” A soft-focus blue collage that measured greater than 14 ft excessive, it reworked a couple of of her feminine buddies into sculptural caryatids and melded the tile work of dilapidated New York tenements with the grandeur of historical Greece.

Composed primarily of diazotypes, an affordable sort of photocopy usually used for architectural and technical drawings, the big piece was exhibited in 1980 on the now-defunct Alternative Museum in downtown New York.

Francesca’s mother and father, the artists George and Betty Woodman, donated “Blueprint for a Temple” in 2001 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the place it was displayed in a bunch present in 2012. There issues stood till 2018, when an appraisal of the property after the demise of each her mother and father turned up an missed bag that contained 24 rolled-up diazotypes and 4 gelatin silver prints.

Unwrapping them in summer time 2022, Lissa McClure, government director of the Woodman Family Foundation, and Katarina Jerinic, collections curator, realized what they’d found: “Blueprint for a Temple (II),” one other model of Woodman’s crowning achievement. No one had thought to search for it as a result of nobody even knew that it existed. It was one other thriller in a life that engendered extra questions than solutions.

Although George and Betty apparently believed in any other case, documentation confirms that the missed “Blueprint for a Temple (II),” not the work owned by the Met, is the piece displayed on the Alternative Museum. It is looser — much less polished, extra conceptual and experimental — than the beforehand identified iteration. On one facet of the taped and stapled diazotypes that represent the temple, Woodman connected photographic prints and a hand-annotated diagram to disclose how the collage was made. At Gagosian, which has simply begun representing the artist’s property, “Blueprint for a Temple (II)” is accorded satisfaction of place within the present “Francesca Woodman,” which additionally contains greater than 50 lifetime prints.

For Woodman, “the temple,” as she casually referred to as it, departed radically from the small black-and-white gelatin silver prints — largely depictions of her personal physique, usually within the nude — that she had beforehand produced. “She needed to get away from the intimate private work,” McClure stated in an interview. The diazotype collages opened a brand new door that her suicide, at age 22, slammed shut.

This is an auspicious time for Woodman. She is presently paired with Julia Margaret Cameron in an exhibition on the National Portrait Gallery in London; and final 12 months her fame was burnished by the publication of a luxurious facsimile version of eight artist’s notebooks that she created by including images and scrawled captions to Nineteenth- and early-Twentieth-century tackle books, ledgers and schoolbooks.

Like a comet, she burned out rapidly and left behind a path of posthumous appreciation. I’m typically reminded of Edwin Mullhouse, the novelist protagonist of Steven Millhauser’s mock literary biography, who dies on his eleventh birthday and is then subjected to intense important scrutiny. What does it imply to categorize “durations” if an artist’s profession spanned roughly six years and consisted in quite a few cases of scholar assignments?

Although her early demise arouses inevitable conjectures on what she might need achieved, Woodman in her temporary life developed a definite model and explored recurring themes. Playing off the centerpiece, the Gagosian present is organized to disclose one of many via strains: her preoccupation with the physique as sculpture.

In the 2 “Blueprint for a Temple” collages, Woodman organized diazotypes of feminine figures, who put on pleated attire just like the caryatids that assist the entablature of the south porch of the Erechtheion, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens. But as early as 1976, when Woodman was a scholar on the Rhode Island School of Design, she already photographed her naked legs, as clean and white as marble pillars, planted firmly on the pine board ground and juxtaposed with torn scraps of wallpaper. Perhaps across the identical time in Providence, she depicted her nude physique for a photographic triptych in an erect pose that resembles the one she later utilized in “Temple.”

During her junior 12 months in Rome in 1977-8, surrounded by classical relics that she knew effectively from a childhood that was partly spent in Italy, she made a portrait of a good friend carrying her polka-dot costume and standing straight as a column between two columns as she gazes up at a statue; and, as soon as once more in a museum, she photographed a nude physique, most likely her personal, from behind, as she lies alongside a crumpled sheet on the ground beneath a plinth which may have as soon as supported the fallen determine.

With the indifferent insouciance of a youngster whose physique is untouched by the ravages of time, Woodman romanticized decay. She stated that she adopted diazotypes as a result of they supplied an affordable and fast technique to make massive prints and assemble imposing items. (The two “Blueprints for a Temple” every measure greater than 14 ft tall.) But it appears possible that she additionally was drawn to their fragility. Without modern-day conservation efforts to stabilize them, the diazotypes would have quickly deteriorated in mild.

The underlying conceit of the “Blueprint for a Temple” venture stemmed from Woodman’s commentary that the outdated loos and hallways of the East Village flats she noticed in her final 12 months in New York regularly featured Greek-key motifs within the tile flooring and sculptural claw ft on the bathtubs. She wrote that she favored the “pressure” between the picture of the temple and the constructing blocks that derived from “the on a regular basis banality of the toilet.”

There can be a pressure between the dreamy, blurry images that Woodman made and the harder truths beneath them. Her salient predecessor is the French Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun, who made groundbreaking self-portraits within the interval earlier than World War II. A gender-shifting lesbian who may establish immediately as nonbinary, Cahun proclaimed, “Masculine? Feminine? It is dependent upon the scenario. Neuter is the one gender that all the time fits me.”

It’s unsure if Woodman even knew of Cahun. But like Cahun, she photographed herself, usually within the nude, confined to corners and crammed into cabinets, dramatizing methods by which the human physique, and notably the feminine physique, is positioned and displaced. Both acknowledged and overtly defied the conventions that restrain ladies in society, and each celebrated their (very totally different) sexualities with startling openness and distinctive aptitude. They mixed the mundane with the mythic. Largely unknown of their lifetimes, immediately they’re heralded as visionaries and commemorated as cult figures.

Francesca Woodman

Through April 27, Gagosian, 555 West twenty fourth Street, Manhattan; (212) 741-1111;



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