Legendary photographer Francesca Woodman, who was born in 1958, spent most of her childhood in Colorado, where she graduated from Boulder High School and was raised by parents who were successful, devoted and, some might say, obsessive artists.
Her father, George, was a Harvard and University of New Mexico graduate who taught at the University of Colorado for five decades. “The idea that art expresses your self…was really distant for us,” George Woodman says in the 2010 documentary The Woodmans. “When we look at someone else’s work, we don’t [ask], ‘What does this tell us about that person?’ We’re talking about ‘What does this work of art say?’ Forget the artist.”
Renowned photographer George Lange, who recently left Boulder for his childhood home of Pittsburgh, was a close friend of Francesca Woodman when they were classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design. Lange laments that people have focused far more on how Woodman's life ended — she committed suicide in 1981 — than on her art.
Posthumously, Woodman has been deservedly celebrated internationally; however, Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, which opens September 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, will be the first proper exhibition of Woodman’s work in Colorado. The show is based on a private collection that Lange had kept to himself, in a box, for over 35 years.
“It’s kind of a very private thing that I kept all these years,” Lange explains, “and I feel like I have a certain responsibility to my friendship with Francesca to basically take care of this piece of the story that we shared. A lot of the people sold the pictures that they got from her at auction. It feels really nice to be able to share it."
“A bunch of my memories are going out in the world with this show, but it is more the feelings than the images that I remember," Lange continues. "The images are just the artifacts.”
Since Woodman's death at the age of 22, much of the discussion of her legacy has been tinged with sadness and mystery — not only because of the circumstances of how the photographer’s life ended, but also because of the dark, provocative, profound nature of her work. Often black-and-white and featuring Woodman nude, the photographs she left behind are as deeply poetic as the writings of Emily Dickinson and as inspiring, intense and vital as a Savages song.
“She didn’t have a shower or a bath, so she would come to our apartment,” Lange remembers. “There were a lot of people at RISD who were wanting and trying to be an artist. She was the real thing. We were friends because she was in my photo classes, and she was doing this work that was so far beyond what anyone else was doing. Everyone was treated equally, which in retrospect was kind of a joke.”
Despite the close friendship that began in college and continued in New York City, Lange has avoided commenting for books and documentaries after Woodman became world-famous following her death. Now, with the MCA’s highly anticipated Woodman exhibit centered around Lange’s previously private box, he’s excited to show a more human side of an artist who has been entwined with mystique.
“Inside the box were things Francesca had sent me, pictures we had taken together. She had said, ‘You should go to my loft and take whatever you want,’ and I wish I would’ve taken a lot more. Pictures that I had taken of her space, both when she was there and after she was there, invitations to tea parties, a piece of her hair. It was all in the box, and after she died, I really didn’t want to open it. It was really too much.”
Now, almost forty years after Woodman’s suicide in New York City, Lange’s box is about to be shared with the world, and he is heartened by the chance to reveal a more complete picture. “There was a real live human being that has gotten a bit lost in the mythology,” he explains. “My box really held this chapter that’s a little more human, a little more the way she was — at least with me. We had this funny friendship. I have the only picture I’ve ever seen of her laughing, for instance. All the pictures are so serious and so dark, a lot of them, and we had a lot of fun together.
“My idea for this whole show, opening up this box, was just to share this human side that I felt had been barely seen," he continues. "Not to say that it’s necessarily more accurate or truthful or anything. It’s just kind of my way of both seeing the world and seeing Francesca. There are pictures of us playing dress-up — all this crazy stuff. It gets processed through the way that a museum show is thought about and curated, and that whole thing, so it shifts a little bit, but overall I think [curator] Nora [Burnett Abrams] did a really nice job of maintaining the spirit in which the work was shared with her.”
Abrams met Lange two years ago through a mutual Colorado friend, and marveled at his collection, which she describes as “a body of work that has been protected and guarded and loved by someone who was close with Francesca when they were young, and relates to both well-known works she made and also shows some of the steps along the way that she took.”
Since Woodman had left Boulder for RISD after high school and then moved on to New York before her death, Abrams doesn’t think it's surprising that her work has never really been exhibited in Colorado. Still, Lange says, this first major showing of Woodman’s photographs in Colorado means a lot to people around here.
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“Francesca’s from Boulder; there are all these people in Boulder who used to babysit her, or go to school with her or were in pictures with her,” Lange explains. “There are all these connections, and as I started doing this, people started calling me out of the woodwork, [and] I did meet with some of them. To share the work in her home area is just exciting, and I think there’s more that’s gonna come out around the show that’s never been explored by the people that’ve been writing about her. All of that’s fun. I see it as kind of a homecoming, and a very personal one. It’s sharing a part of her that’s a little bit more fun than any side of her that’s been seen.”
Abrams wants to keep the focus on Woodman’s work, offering a more thorough depiction of the late photographer's art. “I’m not really interested in telling the story of her death,” she says. “A lot of people want to read the work through that lens, but that’s not my approach. I think what was really interesting about this project is that there are several photographs that George made of Francesca during their time together at RISD [in which] you really see this additional side of her — you see her silly and sweet and sassy, as a young woman coming into adulthood. That’s not necessarily a part of the [usual] narrative.
“She’s very much treated often as a very serious, very rigorous artist, and she was that; in many ways, there was very little distinction between the life she was living and the art she was making," Abrams concludes. "But I think that we just see a fuller kind of sense of her character. [Portrait of a Reputation] does kind of provide a little more dimensionality. We see a little bit more of her as a person rather than her as a myth. But in terms of the artwork itself, those are gripping and enigmatic and very, very serious. She was pressing up against the boundaries of her medium in many ways. That’s what I’m interested in, I would say.”
Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation opens September 20 and runs through April 5, 2020, at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. For more information, call 303-298-7554 or go to MCADenver.org