Francesca Woodman

Untitled

1975–80

Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper on ink on paper
Dimensions
Image: 109 x 109 mm
frame: 458 x 402 x 20 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00347

Summary

This square black and white photograph is attached to an off-white paper mount. Shot from above, the photograph shows the American artist Francesca Woodman crouched on her hands and knees on top of the reflective glass of a rectangular mirror, which lies flat on the floor. The mirror is bordered by a dark carved frame and fills most of the image at an oblique angle to the edges of the picture. Occupying the top left corner of the image and covering nearly half of the mirror’s surface is a small woven rectangular rug. Woodman, who wears a sweater but apparently nothing else, is positioned diagonally across the mirror so that her head is framed by the corner of the rug to the left of the image, while her naked backside arches up towards the top right corner. She leans down low towards the mirror with bent arms but turns her head, which is slightly blurred, to look up at the camera. Below the photograph, on the off-white paper mount, Woodman has written in red ink, ‘See you Sunday Bow Wow love Spot’.

This photograph was created while Woodman was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence between 1975 and 1978. At RISD she was a fiercely dedicated and independent student who devoted herself exhaustively to her work. She set up a studio and living space in the shabby rooms of a former dry goods store, and she frequently worked in nearby abandoned houses and other rundown spaces. This work features Woodman prominently as its subject. When asked by her roommate and close friend Sloan Rankin why she was so often the subject of her own photographs, Woodman replied, ‘It’s a matter of convenience, I’m always available’ (quoted in Chandès 1998, p.35). This photograph is also notably small-scale. Woodman’s square photographs rarely measure more than 150 mm in height or width.

Below many of Woodman’s photographs are ideas and phrases scrawled by her on the works’ paper mounts, but few of them contain as straightforward a message as this one. As with Untitled 1975–80 (Tate AR00356), Woodman gave this photograph to her then-boyfriend Benjamin Moore. The playful correspondence suggests that ‘Spot’ was a pet name for Woodman, which, along with the ‘Bow Wow’ and her stance on all fours, represented a sexual fantasy.

Writer and art critic David Levi Strauss has written that in photographs such as this one Woodman’s role as both artist and (nude) subject subverts the conventions of traditional photography, whereby women are captured, so to speak, and looked at exclusively by men (see Chandès 1998, p.19). Curator Harm Lux has argued that the mirror, a prop used frequently by Woodman in her work, does not serve a narcissistic purpose – in this work Woodman even turns away from it – but rather he sees the mirror as ‘mocking the voyeurist [sic] viewer’ by rarely reflecting Woodman very fully or clearly (Lux 1992, p.18). Untitled complicates this interpretation of Woodman’s work in that it was intended for her boyfriend and appears to invite rather than deny sexual pleasure. In fact, the mirror’s reflection here affords the viewer a glimpse of Woodman’s chest, in particular the sharp V-neck of her sweater. The work therefore seems instead to support art historian Lorraine Kenny’s position that Woodman yields to or strategically complies with the pornographic gaze rather than frustrates it (see Keller 2011, p.190).

Further reading
Harm Lux, Francesca Woodman: Photographic Works, exhibition catalogue, Shedhalle, Zürich 1992.
Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris 1998.
Corey Keller (ed.), Francesca Woodman, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2011.

John White
The University of Edinburgh
November 2014

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Online caption

Woodman has inscribed in red ink below the photograph, ‘See you on Sunday bow wow love spot’. Given as a gift to her boyfriend, this may have been a private message between the two. Woodman would often paste photographs on to paper and in journals as works in progress, surrounded by expressive, personal notes. Her photographs explore issues of gender and self, looking at the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings. She usually puts herself in the frame, although these are not conventional self-portraits, since she is either partially hidden, or concealed by slow exposures that blur her moving figure into a surreal, ghostly presence. This underlying fragility is further emphasised by the small and intimate format of the photographs.