SFMOMA hosts the first Francesca Woodman retrospective in the United States in more than two decades. It runs until February 20th and explores the complex body of work produced by the young artist before her suicide at age 22. Carmen Winant talks with the show’s curator, Corey Keller. The full interview will run online in mid-March, when the show travels to the Guggenheim in New York.
THE BELIEVER: I assume the fact of Woodman’s suicide was impossible for you to avoid, as a curator. Do you feel that her premature death informs the reading of her work as inherently tortured?
COREY KELLER: There is obviously no way to avoid her suicide, but I have chosen not to focus on it. When you write a history, you know how it ends, and it inflects the way you read the beginning. Because of the particulars of this story, and the shortness of it, it has a way of casting a pall over all of the work. I have heard someone describe her images of “Sloan in the Bathtub” as referencing a coffin. But I’ve talked to many of her friends, and the one thing that came across from all of them is is that they don’t recognize the person that people tell those stories about. Each person described Francesca as whimsical, quirky, fragile — and needing taking care of, perhaps — but not depressive or sad. All of them talk about how funny she was, and when she worked, how it was madcap, imaginative flights of fancy.
BLVR: How did she actually take the self-portraits? I don’t think I’ve seen a release in her images; I assume she used a self -timer?
CK: In some cases there is a release, but not very often. Sometimes she had a friend focus and snap the image, and sometimes she used a self-timer. I believe it is a combination of the three.
BLVR: I’ve taught photography to college students, and without fail at least half of the group name Woodman as a towering influence. I’m interesed in her effect on young, contemporary female photographers.
CK: Woodman’s appeal to me seems obvious: Here is a young woman who took the simplest and most available of subjects — herself — and turned it into an incredible body of work. And she received international recognition. That must feel incredibly appealing to an art student. She worked with basic, close-at-hand materials, and to great effect. She has a powerful self-confidence in her work and a maturity in her vision. When speaking to one of her old New York friends, I asked if they went to galleries often together. She replied that they did, but not to look at other people’s art. They went so Francesca could show her work. She was an ambitious young woman and a hard worker with an understanding of self-promotion. Francesca was not naive.