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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Marina Abramovic & Francesca Woodsman Documentaries: Artists and Audiences


Marina Abramovich: The Artist is Present
available on HBO/HBO in Demand/HBO to GO

The Woodmans (Francesca Woodman documentary)
available on  streaming Netflix

   I'm very interested in the biographies of "serious" Artists to learn about their relationship to their Audience. Even if I'm not a huge fan of the work of the Artist in question, it's interesting whenever someone muses on the relationship between a successful Artist and their relationship, how that relationship is understood by the Artist, etc.

  Two recent,  easily available documentary films that address the Artist/Audience relationship in interesting detail are Marina Abramovich: The Artist is Present and The Woodmans, about Francesca Woodman, the young photographer/Artist who committed suicide in 1981 in her mid-20s.  Both films are excellent and well worth watching for anyone who actually reads this post.

    Prior to watching  Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (HBO In Demand) the only fact I knew about her is that she had recently had a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and the retrospective shared a title with the film, "The Artist is Present,"  and that she is a performance artist.

    I was eager enough about the prospect of learning more that I actually went into the On Demand section of my Cable Provider and watched it after missing the initial showing.  Marina Abramovic is a celebrated performance Artist, a pioneer in her field of Artistic endeavor and she's notable for several reasons within the realm of contemporary art.

   As The Artist is Present discusses in some detail, Marina Abramovic was active in the field when performance art was beginning to exist, one interviewee describes it as "a reaction to painting."  Given the time of her early performances, the early 1970s, this would place her initial efforts roughly after the Warholian factory epoch.

   Watching footage of Abramovic's early performances, where she did things like cut herself with a razor and allowed audience members to assault her, I was reminded of California performance artist Chris Burden, who was doing the same kind of activities in the very early 1970s in the Los Angeles area.   She is obviously highly influential on contemporary Artist/Celebrity Matthew Barney.

   The details of Abramovic's career are fascinating, the critical moment being a split with her long time partner/husband in 1988.  After that, it basically sounds like she decided to get paid- she hooked up with Parisian fashion houses, moved to New York, got a business manager (who provides several key interviews in the film.)  From a Art/Market perspective the film claims that Abramovic was the first performance Artist to sell still photographs from her pieces.   The fact that this film was made, and it centers around a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art- is a testament to her status as a successful Artist.

 Of course, the most interesting part of The Artist is Present is the documentation of the piece that Abramovic performed FOR the exhibit, her sitting in a room for eight hours a day, for six weeks, and making eye contact with all comers.  It is totally fascinating to watch this artistic activity unfold over a six week period, and you come away from the film with a deep respect for the Artist in question.
Francesca Woodman photograph: This should be the cover of the Yohuna LP

    Any appreciation of the photography of Francesca Woodman, a young photographer who committed suicide in her mid 20s after compiling an impressive "ahead of its time" body of work, is complicated by the fact of her suicide.   This film deals with this difficult subject in a matter-of-fact way, exploding myths about the romantic Artist and not shying away from asking tough questions while maintaining a respectful tone.

   Again, I didn't know anything about Francesca Woodman other then a vague idea of her existence, and the existence of this film, but I was interested in knowing why a young Artist would do something like that.  Certainly, the young Artist committing suicide is literally the most classically "Romantic" thing that an Artist CAN do.

    Although the film suggests that the post-death appreciation of her work was an example of the general Audience "catching up" with an avant garde Artist,  it also made clear that Francesca Woodman, herself, was

(1)   A savvy, ambitious, calculated young Artist who sought the acceptance of critics and a wide Audience 
(2)   who failed to obtain that goal at the time of her death,
(3)  and whose failure to obtain that goal played some role in the decision to kill herself.

   I think one of the most cinematic scenes in a film that recalls a Sorrows of Young Werther-esque lead character is the description of Francesca Woodman, post RISD-y, living in New York City, working as "third photographers" assistant at a fashion shoot captained by an Italian fashion photographer.  That is as pure an instance of "unrecognized genius" as you can get outside of a Vincent Van Gogh biography.

   Francesca Woodman's parents were/are both Artists of some note and both have thoughtful and trenchant observations to make about the death of a child.  The father, in particular, notes that the reasons she killed herself are some of the same reasons he loved her so much, and if she didn't have those traits, he wouldn't have cared as much when she died.

  The father also observes that in the years immediately prior to her suicide- a time when he was also in New York City trying to jump start his career as a painter, he had lunch with her and she sternly told him "You have to make one career related phone call" every day- which sounds like something out of a "get rich/positive thinking" book- and certainly indicates that Francesca Woodman was anything but the model of a non-commercially motivated Romantic Artist with a capital A.

 The documentary points out that Woodman had an interest in being regarded as a "Capital A Artist."  This observation is made by one of her college friends, and considering the early date of her suicide it's fair to say that her thought did not evolve significantly from that point on the subject.

 She obviously was not considered so by the New York City Art community.  It sounds like she didn't even merit a show at a gallery during her life time.

  What I took away from the film is that Francesca Woodman was a talented young photographer who began to manifest depression in her early 20s and for whatever reason, she quickly succumbed to that depression in a way similar to many people, Artists and non-Artist alike.  However, the fact of her suicide has perversely upped the value of her work in terms of both critical and general audience response, and today she is a highly influential female Artist on current Artists working in and out of photography.

  Where is the Sofia Coppola directed biopic of Francesca Woodman?

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