The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver will present, “FRANCESCA WOODMAN: PORTRAIT OF A REPUTATION” opening 9.20.19 and running through 4.5.20. The exhibition is drawn from a collection I have kept under wraps since I was a student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The show includes original prints by my classmate and friend Francesca Woodman along with invitations, letters, postcards, and notes from Francesca. Also being seen for the first time ever are images I took of us together and images of Francesca working, hanging out with her mother (Betty Woodman), along with still lifes from the Main Street loft she created much of her work at RISD in. My goal with the exhibit is to share some of the fun we had. Rizolli is publishing the accompanying catalog.
When we are born, we are given a jewel box. In it, we keep our relationships. Our family. Our best friends. Our communities. Even though our boxes can hold an awful lot of love, they do have a limit. Some people are everyday jewels then fade to once a year. Sometimes the jewels are our parents that whisper in our ear the exact thing they think we need to hear while we are trying something new or trying something dangerous. There are jewels that let us feel beautiful when we are feeling ugly. There are jewels that will be with us on our ring finger forever. Sometimes the most precious jewels are hard to wear. They are fragile and don’t really go with anything else we have – but we know they are incredibly rare and special.
When I first visited Rhode Island School of Design and got my first view of the photography building, I knew right away that was where I belonged even though I didn’t know anyone who had gone to art school. I got to Providence in the summer of 1976 and everyone was trying to be an artist. There were lots of creatives and lots of people working really hard. But real artists? That was a much more rarified breed.
Each week as photo students we were expected to produce a series of prints, tack them up for our crits, and talk about them. Without talking, most of the work had little to no meaning. We were taught how to talk about pictures in a way that made them seem important. We were taught how to make archival images that would last forever – implying that our work deserved to last forever. All the work was terribly serious. I was told in no uncertain terms that if someone was smiling in my pictures they were not art. It took me a long time to learn what my own pictures were about.
I met Francesca Woodman as a fellow photo student in 1976. She was the real deal. She lived her art. She looked like her art. She had the vocabulary of art. Her images each week, which are some of the most famous images of her brief career, BLEW me away.
Francesca was the fragile friend you could not refuse to help, and she was also one of those friends you could not have many of. She could be a handful. Her loft on Main Street had no kitchen, no bath or shower; it was the living set you see in her pictures. I lived 2 blocks up the hill from her loft and was roommates with Francesca’s close friend, Sloan Rankin. We helped take care of Francesca; not by being charitable, but just by inviting her to use the shower, feeding her, and by being her friend. Francesca would slip into the bathroom and run the hot water until it ran out with steam pouring under the crack of the door. She would then emerge in one of her slips, hair wrapped in a big towel, ready for a tuna fish feast.
My memories of hanging out with Francesca are light and fun. I picture her floating over the ground (or maybe just touching it with Chinese slippers) rather than clomping around like the rest of us. Francesca’s voice was very high and kind of quiet, but sweet. I can still hear it.
Francesca’s intensity around her work was palpable. It scared me. I had never met anyone who could so clearly reveal a refined vision. She could also be a mess. Her place was a mess. Her photo technique stained. That mess is the texture of her work. She couldn’t control everything, but somehow with her touch, that mess became poetry.
I saved everything Francesca shared in a box. It filled up with pictures we took together, prints she would send through the mail (with a stamp and writing right on the back), invitations she would slip under my door. When Francesca left RISD, she told me and some others to go to her loft and take whatever we liked. The space was littered with dozens of prints and felt like a ruin still alive with all the work she created there. The walls had her writing. From the floorboards to the fractured light – they were all still the canvas of Francesca’s world. Mostly what I took were pictures of the abandoned space, although I did gather some of the prints for my Francesca box.
I left the box closed for many years. I had this feeling that if I didn’t open it, that somehow all that Francesca and I shared would stay alive inside. After Francesca died, her work became quite famous. It was really astonishing to see the work in museums and galleries and so many big monographs with the same tack marks that she used to hang them in our classes together. It was thrilling to see the work grow and touch so many all over the world. It was also hard for me to read about all the sadness hanging over the work after she died. In recent years, I had come to think of the box as a chapter of the story that got lost. The box had pictures of Francesca smiling, being silly…exploring Little Italy and Chinatown in New York with her mom. The box was not Francesca’s complete biography, it was just the chapter we shared.
Finally, almost 40 years after Francesca’s death, it is time to share the contents. Living in Boulder, Colorado where Francesca was brought up, it felt acceptable to finally catalogue the contents. Nora Abrams from the MCA Denver came up to Boulder to see what was in the box and was immediately interested. I had remained friends with Betty Woodman, Francesca’s mother, through the years and I wanted to get her blessing. Betty had been ill in Italy throughout the summer and fall of 2017, and it was touch and go whether we would be able to meet. Finally in December, on a freezing cold New York day, I was buzzed into the Woodman loft on 17th St. We sat down over tea, drinking out of Betty’s handmade cups, which were all unique and extraordinary. I told Betty about my plans to finally share the contents of my Francesca box in a show at the museum. I explained the idea of the show as a chapter of Francesca’s story that I hoped really humanized her and shared more light than darkness. We talked for two hours as Betty gave me her blessing. She told me about all the shows she had coming up all over the world; it was incredible how hard she still had her foot on the gas. Betty then asked me about my own art. I stumbled. I said that I was not brought up by artists and had never learned about the value of my own body of work or creating my own art objects. Betty’s brow furled. She was not pleased. The more I tried to explain that I never understood my own work as art, the more displeased she became. Betty’s passion for creating art was her life. She passed away two weeks later.
Francesca came by her art honestly and powerfully and passionately. What made her so special came from a humanity that had more dimensions than is sometimes apparent when just seeing the work. The contents of the box I kept for all these years shows some of the humanity (and fun) that gets lost in the mystery. The thrill right now for me is hearing Francesca giggling and saying, “OH George! REALLY!”