DENVER, Co. — Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation is an exhibition with a story. And it’s a good one.
It seems that Woodman, whose brief — though legendary — photography career ended with her suicide at age 22, had a college pal named George Lange who for decades was in possession of a box whose contents he never shared with anyone. Inside that box were dozens of photographs and contact sheets, along with personal notes and letters, all made by Woodman in the late 1970s while she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.
About three years ago, Lange finally told someone about the box. Word got around to curator Nora Burnett Abrams at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, who agreed to take a look. When she drove up to Boulder and peered inside, she realized she was staring at a large volume of undiscovered material, created by one of the most studied, if enigmatic, photographers of the 20th century. The result is the MCA Denver’s Portrait of a Reputation, featuring almost 50 photos and many of the private artifacts. Abrams also included another 45 photos taken by Lange himself, capturing Woodman back in the day when they were classmates.
In that way, Portrait of a Reputation presents the sort of context-driven storytelling you’re more likely to see at a history museum than a contemporary art gallery. Abrams displays Woodman’s letters and images as pieces of evidence not to be tampered with, rather than precious works of art. Her photos, for example, aren’t framed tight to the images Woodman shot; rather, they are given a wide berth, framed around the photo paper itself that holds the images, with darkroom smudges and creases fully visible, a move that keeps the focus on the process of making pictures instead of the finished product.
Rather than taking a particular point of view on Woodman’s work, the exhibition is a showcase for all of the influences and styles observers have long noted. There’s a series of nude self-portraits taken in a graveyard that have Woodman entangled around a tombstone, recalling her surrealist and gothic edges. Another set of shots in a forest, where her young, sinewy body, mingling with nature, is all muscle and no voluptuousness, underscoring her much-discussed feminist responses to female representations in art.
There are a number of photos where Woodman holds or stands on mirrors or plates of glass, a well-known part of her practice that toyed with the limits of photography’s ability to capture and define the objects in front of a camera lens.
While the photographic subjects may be expected by Woodman fans, a surprise does come from their cumulative presentation, coupled with all the intimate objects. What emerges is a portrait of an artist in formation, or “the dress rehearsals before the final performance,” as Abrams puts it.
That is where the show is a revelation. Woodman, who died just four years after the photos were taken, didn’t leave much of an explanation around her intent. Deciphering it has been left to beholders whose natural tendency is to focus on its artifice, as if these shots were actually still captures of a performance, as if the sheet of glass she presses against her breasts in one photo, or the mask she uses to cover her open legs in another, are props for some dark play. Portrait of a Reputation suggests just the opposite: it shows Woodman honing concepts, refining ideas, making careful picks from her contact sheets, enjoying her school assignments.
The show goes a long way toward dismantling the cliché that has built up around Woodman as a tortured genius. She was a hard-working student engaging deeply with her craft.
That’s not to lessen her efforts — the photos prove her talent — but a playful, college-kid essence abounds in the show, enhanced by the Lange photos, which have her doing ordinary things, like eating oatmeal and clowning with friends. It’s a happy story, and happy isn’t an adjective thrown around often when discussing Woodman.
Notably, her famous suicide is totally absent from Portrait of a Reputation. That’s a choice sure to leave the many museum visitors who don’t know Woodman’s story guessing, though it does effectively remove suicide as the filter for experiencing her output. Woodman was very much alive when she created this material, and that vital spirit prevails at the show.
Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (1485 Delgany St., Denver) through April 5. The exhibition was curated by Nora Burnett Abrams, the Mark G. Falcone Director at MCA Denver.