Francesca Woodman

Bernard Toale Gallery

Part of the mythology surrounding Francesca Woodman (1958-81), who leapt from a Manhattan window to her death at the age of twenty-two, is that her photographs in some way presage her sensational suicide. Loosely chronological and thematic, the recent exhibition presented twenty-seven haunting black-and-white works selected from her estate's 550 extant images and produced posthumously by printer Igor Bakst. On view were the sensuous and surreal self-portraits executed in Colorado, Rhode Island, Rome, and New York, starting with a tiny, ghostly image that Woodman took of herself at around the age of thirteen. Proof that she had mastered the staged fictional narrative when barely a teenager, Untitled, Boulder, CO, 1972-75, features the young artist as a faceless nude crawling through an opening in a Victorian tombstone under the carved inscription “TO DIE.” The blatant Freudian imagery (the hole is womblike) and surrealist effects (the use of a slow shutter speed to render the figure transparent) would become trademarks of her brief career.

Woodman's interest in the ephemeral along with an investment in formal craftsmanship developed during her student years at the Rhode Island School of Design. In House #3, Providence, RI, 1975-76, the artist seems to disappear into the tattered walls of an abandoned dwelling, becoming just another piece of debris amid the ripped wallpaper, broken plaster, and scattered nails. Aside from the obvious feminist reading of a woman vanishing into her domesticity, there is a strong sense here of an adolescent playing house; her barely visible coy face, long straight hair, and black Mary Janes recall Lewis Carroll's Alice.

Under the influence of Breton and Man Ray, whose work she embraced during her junior year abroad in Italy, Woodman packaged her own alluring body in purposely erotic, often fetishistic photographs—juxtaposing her pudenda with an open lily, staring at herself in a mirror. The central image of Eel Series, Rome, 1977-78, an autoerotic homage to Man Ray's photographs of Lee Miller and evidence of Woodman's interest in European fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, is a white pan filled with slippery eels arranged on a mosaic tile floor. Lying beside the pan, Woodman twists her body suggestively, presenting her backside to the viewer. As in most of her works, her head has been cropped out, which many have read as a feminist statement. Yet the image doesn't seem politicized so much as an expression of resignation to the idealization of the female as subject of the human gaze.

When the artist committed suicide a mere two years out of school, she was questioning her self-image in an almost desperate way. The posthumous reading of Woodman as a tragic Sylvia Plath–like diarist is tempting. The artist's use of her own body as a vehicle for autobiography and her creation of provocative fantasy narratives have become, whether intentionally or not, part of the larger history of feminist art that includes the work of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.

Francine Koslow Miller