Reconsiderations of self-portraiture are having a moment in New York, with a major retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s work at MOMA and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that intimately juxtaposes self-portraits by Degas and Rembrandt. The Guggenheim has mounted its second retrospective of photographs by Francesca Woodman, the young American artist who ended her life abruptly in 1981 at the age of twenty-two. The survey, which includes over 120 works spanning the artist’s brief career, also includes a cross section of her rarely screened experimental short films, six of which have been newly discovered.
Woodman’s portraits, in contrast to those staged by Sherman, do not rely on contrived personas and tableaux culled from elsewhere as an outlet for self-expression. The few occasions when she does focus her lens on other women, they bear a striking resemblance to Woodman and can be easily mistaken for the artist herself. In one particular instance, three naked women appear holding photographs of Woodman’s face that conceal their own in a somewhat narcissistic study of the Three Graces. Woodman’s portraits are highly subjective and can initially feel inaccessible in their hauntingly intimate focus on self-contained, fragmented narratives, but this is also what makes them so captivating.
Woodman’s photographs evince an understanding of the body in its awkward relationship to space and sometimes border on architectural studies. The female figure is inventoried; a number of photographs counterpoise the virile female body with deteriorating architectural interiors and taxidermied animals. In many instances it is unclear whether the subject is reclaiming space or being ensnared by it, but that seems to be the point. Her portraits reveal a penchant for truncated, paratactic storytelling, reconfiguring and complicating self-portraiture within the context of nonlinear narrative.