A Taxonomy of Angels

John Haber
in New York City

Francesca Woodman and Anne Collier

What if Cindy Sherman had killed herself in 1981? People might see her images as self-portraits—and her self-portraits as images of emptiness and fear. In other words, they might be taking her work literally. If that sounds silly, it adds a dizzying perspective on another woman who photographed and withheld herself, Francesca Woodman. She contrasts with Anne Collier, who has kept up the spirit of appropriation while holding herself just off camera.

At the Rhode Island School of Design, Woodman found a cabinet of wonders or of horrors, with herself among them. In one of its chambers, a small mammal approaches. Perhaps a raccoon, it could be running wild or eager for human attention, were it not stuffed. At eye level, a smaller chamber traps a wolf in profile, the glass just slightly ajar. Above and to its left, an ecosystem of birds and reeds is frozen in time. In Woodman's square-format photo, the entire cabinet is cut off and askew, as if that much closer and that much more unsettled. Francesca Woodman's Untitled (Angel) (George and Betty Woodman/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1977)

That leaves the sole other chamber on the floor, with a woman's bare legs visible behind the glass. It may take longer to notice what is right before one's eyes—hair spilling out onto the floor, hiding the artist's face. She is shrouded and obscure, where everything else is ferocious and clear, and her body parts do not easily connect. Is she dismembered, like a laboratory specimen, or the only one alive? Is she seeking refuge or escape? Is she aware how close she too is to death?

Woodman killed herself in January 1981, at twenty-two, but almost her entire retrospective dates to just four years, from 1975 to 1978. They were her years at RISD and her junior year abroad, in Rome. They have haunted fans for whom she has become a cult figure, but most people will be seeing her work for the first time, and they will be seeing her as nearly her only subject. They will see her in a polka-dot dress, in that cabinet or crouched in a corner, as if trapped by her own camera. They will see her in black stockings with a vertical net and in thick horizontal wrapping, like a geometer of sex and the Michelin Man. More often, they will see her baring herself while looking for a place to hide.

The haunted house

She is baring and hiding herself, like Elisabeth Hase before her in Nazi Germany, but for whom? In older art, a female portrait or a nude has a setting that suggests luxury and availability, unless Artemisia Gentileschi is coming at men with a sword. Woodman must have loved the school's natural history display, as the kind of science lab that scientists had long abandoned. She poses by a hydrant in the snow, perhaps because it was too cold for company. She finds space off-campus, but she leaves it bare as well, without so much as her equipment in evidence except in a mirror. She treats her studio like a haunted house, but is she the haunted or the haunting?

She briefly invites an out-of-shape male to serve as a model, an obvious role reversal, and she leans beside an eel as slippery as her flesh, but from that point on she is on her own in her haunted house. She photographs herself ambiguously pinned, displaced, or in hope of safety—between its window frames, in the fireplace, or beneath a door. She simultaneously hides and doubles herself with its mirrors. She poses with clothespins squeezing her breasts and chest, like a Surrealist doing the laundry, and in a sheer robe, at once shrouded and ready to carry out with the trash. When her face finally appears, it looks so blank that one can mistake it for a mask. In one scene, three women do hold up photographs of her as masks, while a fourth photo hangs on the wall without a body.

As she gains confidence, she relies on still sparser resources—especially light and dark. A flash wipes out her face or descends from her waist like a light sabre, while a cord slips into her thesis project like a blot out of Richard Serra. Her outline lies before her on the floor, but it makes no sense as a shadow. When she turns her repertoire into a video, she cannot match her own theater, and she comes off as getting into place. She also starts to incorporate text, like On Being an Angel. I wonder if she had been listening to Talking Heads back then, singing "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel."

The angels follow her to Rome, again with minimal means. She simply leaps up or drops down from a door jamb. She could be ethereal, athletic, weighed down, or hanged. With text comes metaphor, but mostly it just makes explicit the metaphors at hand, as with her 1981 book Some Disordered Interior Geometries. Her thesis project differs only in its large prints, three feet on a side, hung inaccessibly low or high. She calls the series Swan Song, and one wants to believe that it refers solely to her education.

Obviously her dominant metaphor is her body—with the traditional poles of women as angels and as earth. Associations with nature as liberating and constraining start early, from taxidermy to a taxonomy of angels. Woodman tries them on again for size after graduation, with a return outdoors at an artist's colony in New Hampshire. I can imagine her grateful after that to be back in a city, in Manhattan, despite a failed relationship, a first suicide attempt, and living with her parents. She looked for work at first in fashion photography, which makes sense for someone obsessed with posing. It may well have added to a sense of failure.

That metaphor of the body had to mean something extra for a young, attractive woman and a depressive with this too, too solid flesh. Yet she was also a low-tech experimenter, at a time when photography was gaining attention more as appropriation and confrontation. She had a sense of humor and a formalist's eye, for all the metaphors. With all her poses, contortions, calculations, and impulses, it seems wrong to treat the show as autobiography—and just as wrong not to try. Postmodernism and feminism supply any number of arguments for both. It may settle or unsettle things further to place her brief career beside another's all too close in time.

What if . . .

So what if Cindy Sherman really had killed herself? She would not have lived to play the clown or to confront wealth and age. One might have seen her own student pictures, making faces like an awkward adolescent. One might have seen her posed as Centerfolds for Artforum in 1981. Maybe, if one knew her well enough, one might have hints of the ideas that led in real life to her images of fragmentation, degradation, disgust, and bodily decay. Mostly, though, one would know her for just one series from the late 1970s, the Untitled Film Stills.

It might be hard not to see her in search of an identity that she never found. It might be hard not to look for her in her work—and hard not to see her as frightened, vulnerable, innocent as her characters, and yet dark and self-aware as film noir. It might be hard not to associate her with what Julia Kristeva called abjection, meaning the condition of the marginalized, the disabled, and the traumatic. One might be fascinated by her daring, her focus on images of women, and her play with fashion photography, much as for Ellen Berkenblit and Barbara Probst. One might also be wondering about her as her only subject. Could she have been that alone?

Of course, one would be making a serious mistake. No one has done more to show a pose as a pose. No one has done more to question the border between convention and confession—or between disguise and self-image. And few have done more to ask what that means for men looking at women or women at themselves. The curator of Sherman's retrospective this same year has gone so far as to call her choice of model a matter of convenience, which I suppose holds for a Rembrandt self-portrait as well, more or less. When one looks at the complete Untitled Film Stills, one sees an outpouring of comedy and creativity, and one can recognize the anxiety as one's own.

Obviously, too, there are differences between the two artists. For starters, Sherman did not kill herself, and at last count she was posing in a fashion line, as an odd mix of defying the praise for her retrospective and product placement. For another, she was older and more mature, she was at the center of the action, and she has never stopped changing or starting over. While Woodman worked in series, too, they blend into a single disordered interior geometry, and she never dresses up beyond that polka-dot dress. And while Woodman left behind about two thousand shots, even a careful selection suggests less theme and variations than trial and error. When she joins images on a single page or in one of her two artist books, they look almost like contact prints.

In short, one has four years in the life of an undergraduate who never got to fulfill her promise. And yet the resemblance is real. Woodman has her poses and her series, at a time when feminism and appropriation were in the air. She could easily have joined the "Pictures generation," alongside the Barbie doll legs of Laurie Simmons—and about as far from autobiographical as one can get. She found precedents for women on both sides of the camera in Hannah Wilke, she could well have seen photos by Robert Mapplethorpe or Chantal Akerman, and even her death from a high window has a spooky parallel in Ana Mendieta. She had her own dalliance with fashion photography, although that is a bit like Sherman looking for work as an actual Playboy centerfold.

One can accept art as a matter of life and death, even in an age of irony. Sherman resonates more than, say, Sherrie Levine for good reason. One can take Woodman seriously as an artist and not just a patient—or one can try to do both at once. One can look at how she disguised and exposed herself, and one can ask how the choices differ, if at all. If her work has multiple themes, they all relate to her ambivalence about her solid flesh. And if her work has a single theme, it is having nowhere to hide.

I's have it

In a photograph by Anne Collier, someone holds an open book, with a pair of eyes on facing pages. If art is a mirror onto nature, here it is a window onto an artist's book, as reproducible as a photograph—or as unique. The well made-up eyes in black and white could belong to the same person as those slim, bare outstretched arms in color. A woman is reading, but the book is reading her, with a cold objectivity at odds with the multitude of subjective eyes and I's. Anne Collier's Open Book #8 (Prints)(Anton Kern gallery, 2012)The viewer can contemplate them both, but each remains unknown, fragmented, and divided, and they and the artist are already staring back. Everyone involved claims control, and everyone is in double trouble.

Collier has played this game before, a game of eyes, doubling, and redoubling. In her contribution to a 2007 group show, "Strange Magic," the doubling placed one eye within another, like the start of an infinite regress. And both belonged to Faye Dunaway in The Eyes of Laura Mars. The redoubling may take place across work, like paired but distinct photographs of paired but distinct SLRs. A woman's arm lies behind one pair of cameras, legs behind another. The redoubling may also progressively reveal or conceal, like stacked panels on the floor in one photograph or sheets of paper pinned over one another in a second.

The front sheet of paper offers to define relevance, three times over—and each time as a question. What, for one, does it all mean? For one thing, it means sex, or at least it means gender as defined by others. In previous shows, the open book contained a seascape at dusk or the constellations, in line with the traditional identification of women with nature, the body, "the primitive," and the rest of an undergraduate seminar—but they keep getting better. Those panels on the floor show clouds, and Collier titles two photographs of breasts to bring out the resemblance to mountain landscapes. A reclining woman seen from the rear is looking at a photograph of African sculpture, with a light meal on the floor.

Those others, the ones asking questions and creating definitions, belong simultaneously to past and present. The reclining woman quotes J.-A.-D. Ingres, and a naked torso by Edward Weston is a calendar page for the month of Veteran's Day. A series shows postcards and greeting cards that emulate old still-life painting but with an unlikely assortment of luxury goods, including cameras. Collier is taking the usual swipes at advertising, popular culture, and art history, but also seeking precedents in artists who already subverted sexuality and vision. The ad in one photograph tries to appropriate Caravaggio, but she takes him back—while also taking back the female subject's felt sadness. The breasts have the look of "rayograms," or photograms by Man Ray, and clouds have floated within an eye by René Magritte.

Collier is not, then, just shooting women, and she is not just shooting male fish in a barrel. Oh, it can sure look that way. All this rephotography can seem a holdover from the 1980s, with the same chill certainties. Still, she does not need to insist quite so much on literal quotation. She allows temptations, especially as she moves past constellations and hard edges to soft bodies and wide-open eyes. I would not say that she is warming up, but she does seem willing to let viewers figure things out on their own.

When "Strange Magic" opened, it seemed all about feminism, identity, and appropriation. Over time, photography has become more slippery and more relevant, as it has continued to cross genres and media. Of the others in that 2007 group show, Liz Deschenes has treated a photograph as a theater set and not just as a theater. Sara VanDerBeek in New Orleans has approached abstraction while bearing witness. Eileen Quinlan and Amy Granat have come still closer to painting while breaking symmetry and by hiding human presences. Collier is much more detached, in part because she is looking back. She looks back, though, because she misses what she finds.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Francesca Woodman ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through June 13, 2012, Anne Collier at Anton Kern through May 12.

 

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