Francesca Woodman exhibit displays haunting beauty

Riveting images: “Polka Dots

It’s hard to imagine an artist barely out of college deserving a retrospective. The late photographer Francesca Woodman is getting just that, and deservedly so.

Thirty years after her death, her brief career is the focus of an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The show features more than 150 of Woodman’s hauntingly beautiful photographs, most of them black and white.

Using her body as her main subject, Woodman photographed herself nude or wearing vintage dresses, often in dilapidated interiors.

Her face is both old and young, lending a timelessness to her exploration of the human form in architectural space. She was fascinated with pattern: the zigzag made by the crook of an arm; the arched space beneath bridges and tiaras.

Woodman studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and went to Italy for her junior year. Her photographs reflect her time there, as well as her life in New York after graduation. She committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22.

“The work’s youthfulness, its sense of being on the cusp, is also the source of its potency,” says Corey Keller, MOMA’s associate curator of photography. “Although Woodman was unusually talented and precocious, her compact career represents an artist on the verge, neither mature woman nor innocent child but in that fertile, tumultuous, provisional moment before true maturity.”

Woodman, the daughter of two artists, took up photography around the age of 13 using a camera given to her by her father.  

Keller, who organized the exhibition, says it was difficult to determine who Woodman’s greatest artistic influences were — so much so that she used a magnifying glass to look at photographs of Woodman’s studio to read the titles of the books the artist collected. She talked to Woodman’s family and friends and was given access to parts of her diaries, which were beautifully written but enigmatic.

“There’s no decoder ring for her work,” Keller says.

Woodman also experimented with the diazotype process, a technique often used to make architectural blueprints. Using a slide projector, she projected images onto large sheets of light-sensitive paper. The paper required a long exposure time — sometimes overnight — and was then taken to a commercial processor.

Woodman used the process for her “Temple” project, an assemblage of blueprints that suggest the facade of a Greek temple. Although the piece is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, three caryatid prints are included in MOMA’s exhibition. More than 6 feet tall, the pictures have a soft, painterly quality to them.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 20 and opens at the Guggenheim Museum next spring. See it before it goes.

 IF YOU GO

Francesca Woodman

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily; except until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays and closed Wednesdays; through Feb. 20.

Cost: $18 general, $12 seniors, $11 members, free for children 12 and under

Contact: (415) 357-4000; www.sfmoma.org

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