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This Odd Geometry of Time: On the Photography of Francesca Woodman

  • Image Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery. 

Francesca Woodman often photographed herself in her studio or apartment, imbuing these spaces with a palpable psychology. This photograph was made towards the end of her life in New York, shortly after she graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in photography. The artist committed suicide in 1981, and it is hard not to see the pallor of the space, or the way the artist hides her face as if to fade away into the all-white background, as an adumbration of her death.  It was originally included in an artist’s book called Some Disordered Interior Geometries, composed of sixteen gelatin silver prints affixed to pages from an Italian math book, which the artist may have acquired while studying abroad in Rome a few years prior. Facing a page with the heading “Esercizi di ricapitolazione sopra i triangoli e i quadrilateri” (“Review of exercises for triangles and quadrilaterals”), the photograph carries the handwritten caption “almost a square.”

  • Some Disordered Interior Geometries, New York, 1980-81. Artist's book with 16 gelatin silver prints, 22.9 x 16.5 cm. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman © George and Betty Woodman

 On another page with a photograph depicting the artist standing over a mirror, clothes strewn about, she writes “These things arrived from my grandmother. They make me think about where I fit in this odd geometry of time.”  Woodman’s near square takes the concerns of geometric abstraction and American Minimalism one step further. While an artist like Tony Smith, drawing on iconography that goes back to Malevich’s famous Black Square, used the form to create an environment, geometrically structured, that changed the way viewers interacted with the objects that now occupied their own physical space, Woodman uses the square as an allegory of a geometry of the psyche and its ramblings over time, which, try as one might to cajole into an ordered scaffold, remains imperfect, disordered.

It is gestures like this that have led some to view Woodman as a post-minimalist, but it is important to look at her work in the context of photographic history. In an important 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows, influential curator John Szarkowski of New York’s Musem of Modern Art argued for two main branches in the development of contemporary photography—self-expression and exploration. Minor White’s photographs, imbued with a sense of transcendence, stood for self-expression, while Robert Frank’s travels to the lesser-known corners of the United States spoke for the exploratory nature of photography.  And exploratory photography was, by and large, the order of the day: the New Topographic photographers, who rose to prominence on the heels of a groundbreaking 1975 exhibition, took to the road to capture “man-altered landscapes” (the show’s subtitle) with sober exactitude. But Woodman’s exploration turned inward, testing the boundaries of the self and the body, as if the skin that separated her from the world were as malleable as peeling paint in old buildings or a loosely strung up sheet. Yet alongside this corporeal allegory, formal elements were at the play that harken back to Aaron Siskind’s experiments with the medium, which blurred the line between painting and photography. Shooting surfaces of buildings close-up and straight-on, he ultimately did to photography—that ostensibly perfect window onto the world – what abstraction did to painting; they brought everything to the surface.  In obliterating spatial rendering, the cornerstone of Western representation since the Renaissance, Siskind, like his cohorts the Abstract Expressionist painters, collapsed space so that the surface was all that was left.

Siskind joined the faculty of RISD in 1951 and would become a significant influence on Woodman. As she has said “I am interested in the way people relate to space. The best way to do this is to depict their interactions to the boundaries of these spaces. Started doing this with the ghost pictures, people fading into a flat plane—i.e. becoming the wall under wallpaper or of an extension of the wall onto floor.” Untitled (Patterns)… does not just contain the ghost of a troubled artist, it harbors the ghosts of the many failed attempts throughout art history to achieve perfection, the ultimate symbol of which is the square. This work is almost a square, and yet separated therefrom by an infinite, abysmal distance; like Zeno’s paradox, an odd geometry indeed.

Source: Corey Keller. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.” In: Francesca Woodman,  Ex. Cat. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.: New York, 2012.

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