“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
Looking at Francesca’s brilliant work at the Tate that August day, I felt wistful about how much time had gone by since RISD, and the realization that life is so fleeting. I also felt the oppressive realization that life can veer off on so many paths, and more often than not, a different one than you envisioned as a young person. I had reluctantly chosen a path that was not true to my heartfelt convictions as a fine artist and to the stellar education I received at RISD. Although she later took back her hateful words, perhaps my daughter was right – I was not worthy of calling myself an artist. While I still created and exhibited my work over the years, life had reared its oft ugly head, and as a single mother after a 1995 divorce, I had to find a full time vocation that would pay the bills.
When Francesca took her life on January 19, 1981, I was living in the Netherlands and news of my RISD peers was not on my radar. So after encountering her work at the Tate, I racked my brain trying to remember her. I was seeking Francesca, obsessively – upon my return from London, I read dozens of essays and acquired several books, trying to summon the spirit of this lost soul. I was overcome by sadness and regret, which I realize was as much about the death of a creative genius and fellow RISD alum, as it was about my desperate attempt to turn back the clock. I was reacting in part to my own despair in the face of the passage of time and roads not taken – the proverbial loss of innocence and youth. My wistfulness was accompanied by heartfelt regret that I never got to know Francesca at RISD – to know someone of such rare talent would have been quite a gift.
There is a raw power and sense of longing in her images that is palpable. How could such a young woman have created mesmerizing images and bared her soul, body, and very core – metaphorically and physically? And did the images hold some clues to the horrific demons that caused her to jump from her East 12th Street studio in New York City’s East Village two months shy of her 23rd birthday?
Many people have tried to infuse her work with the mythos of suicide, but the creativity and technical bravura in these images is obvious without knowing a thing about the artist. A recent exhibit at Marian Goodman reveals another side of the artist in which pieces of clothing figure prominently into the compositions. Her age, and the fact that all of her images were created without the magic (or some might say gimmickry) of digital technology makes them truly remarkable.
Her suicide begs a greater question – why is it human nature to attach mythos to talented people who take their own lives? Is it our disbelief that artists who appear to be so charmed, gifted, and brilliant to the outside world could be so tormented inside? Or our utter astonishment and fascination that they could turn their backs on the inherent brilliance that the rest of us can only aspire to? For me, when a young person dies, he or she is forever in my mind at that age – in a false state of perpetual youth – never aging, time seemingly stopping in a re-imagined world that belies reality.
Francesca’s friends and family have stated in film and articles that she suffered from depression and they had let their guard down after things had improved after a prior suicide attempt. In this day and age, we can only hope that she would have gotten the appropriate treatment – however, therapy and medication do not always work – even now with many more treatment options. Serious depression is still tied to an estimated 15% of all suicides. In 2013, there were 41,149 deaths caused by suicide in the United States, and it was the second leading cause of death in young people ages 15 to 24.
I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old RISD acquaintance in 2012 who graduated with Francesca and was close to her. He said she seemed to take everything to heart more than anyone he had ever known. When they were riding together on the subway, she started sobbing uncontrollably. She had received a rejection letter from a NYC art gallery that was not interested in representing her and was overcome with sadness. Her father suggested that an unsuccessful application for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts may have pushed her to suicide. But Betsy Berne, a close friend and classmate who was quoted more recently, refuted that idea and said that plain and simple, depression was to blame.
Retracing the Past
After much reflection and reading countless articles, I recalled walking in on a female photographer on a shoot with Charlie the model in a decrepit building loft – it had to be Francesca. My boyfriend Steve was a photography major in her class and many of the students discarded less than perfect prints without ripping them up – I wonder if any of these belonged to Francesca. Her unheated, large studio was above Pilgrim Mills on Main Street, and her professor Douglas Prince took photos of her there, a few of which I have included. Because I spent a good deal of time at this odd store and occasionally set foot in the photography building, I suspect our paths crossed more than once. Like Francesca and so many other RISD students, I took photographs in the Nature Lab, but never once thought about inserting myself or friends into the tableau, as she did. I also vaguely remembered her boyfriend Ben, who is now a very successful glass artist, but could not recall ever seeing them together. He owns a lot of the negatives and images and has certainly benefited financially from this failed, and now infamous relationship of his youth.
Reflecting ion the ephemeral nature of life, I recall meeting several people who had dark demons at RISD. One was an 18-year-old boy named Ian who I met the very first weekend of my freshman year. He told me on the bus ride to the RISD Farm that he had been hospitalized repeatedly for mental illness and was still depressed. He dropped out of school and who knows what became of him. Nancy was a transfer student with long strawberry blonde hair who was in the Wintersession carving course I took with Arnold Prince. Sadly, Nancy shot herself with her dad’s hunting rifle in upstate New York after leaving RISD after less than a year. I knew little about her, except that Arnold tried helping her and felt terrible after her death.
One thing is crystal clear – Francesca came to RISD as a fully formed, incredibly gifted artist, among many gifted artists who were less developed in their oeuvre. We were all young and most of us thought we would be famous artists – one day. I have read that she was a superstar at RISD, and this was confirmed when I mentioned her to Steve many years later. The overwhelmingly sad irony is that Francesca’s work was so sophisticated and she knew her artistic voice at such a tender age that she deserved the recognition that she craved, which unfortunately eluded her in life. Her posthumous fame is likely of a magnitude way beyond what she imagined for herself.
Betsy Berne was quoted, “She was 21, and yet so many people were jealous of her. But in your 20s, everything feels so urgent. You think you’ve got to be famous in 20 seconds, all the more because she had been making this very good work from the age of 14. The pressure was intense.” Indeed, the art world is a cruel one, full of artifice, and especially so for a fragile, exceptionally talented young woman. She seemed to possess external self-belief outweighed by internal self-doubt with the considerable burden of chronic depression – not receiving the accolades she deserved after success at RISD must have been unbearable. Francesca did not leave a suicide note, but wrote a letter to her close friend and fellow RISD alum Sloan Rankin shortly before she died.
I was obsessed with Francesca for a few years after returning from London, and every so often, I seek her out. Her work and life reappear to me – in new articles, as well as my subconscious and dreams. I am very cyclic when it comes to obsessions, but those that are truly worthy arise to the fore time and time again – an eclectic mix including Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Serge Gainsbourg, Werner Herzog, and Vincent van Gogh, among others. I am certain I will circle back to Francesca and all of these artists. As diverse as this group is, they all have something in common beyond immeasurable talent – a truly unique ability to stop time as it passes, inevitably – but more importantly, transcend it.
Photo Sources: http://www.douglasprince.com/p690616609
Photographs copyright The Artist, Estate of Francesca Woodman, and Douglas Prince