Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation
September 20, 2019–April 5, 2020
MCA Denver, Denver
Despite the tragedy of her death by suicide in 1981, Francesca Woodman remains a much-talked-about photographer whose approaches to self-portraiture and composition are often interpreted as prescient commentary on feminism and the male gaze. Given Woodman’s continued stature, MCA Denver has mounted an important exhibition, a glimpse into one woman’s ebullient artistic promise. Portrait of a Reputation is double-pronged. It generously features several series of experiments in black-and-white photography from Woodman’s formative years in Boulder, Colorado, as well as her time at the Rhode Island School of Design, before she died in New York City at age twenty-two. On top of that, it presents several candid photographs by her college friend, George Lange, who captured the joy Woodman took in her work, revealing that she was not as sullen and intense as we often make her out to be. Remarkably, all of the photos are on display for the first time. The reason: they came directly from Lange, who only recently made his collection available for curation by MCA Denver. Complementing the exhibition are a miscellany of Woodman’s notes and letters, as well as Lange’s photographs playfully documenting a day Woodman spent in New York with her well-known mother, ceramicist Betty Woodman. Most compelling, however, are Woodman’s self-portraits, by virtue of the way they reveal an artist unafraid of experimentation. Take, for instance, several photographs in which Woodman posed herself and female friends, usually nude, against mirrors and glass plates. The compositions not only intentionally disorient but also challenge the frequent objectification of the female body. In another intriguing series, a nude Woodman places herself in a cemetery, in one instance crouching by a gravestone as if to disappear into it. It’s in these series—even though they might be the imperfect exposures and prints of an emerging artist—that Woodman’s legacy particularly shines through.