Betty Woodman: The Ultimate Still-life Object

Betty Woodman House of the copy
Betty Woodman pictured with House of the South, 20½ ft. (6.23 m) glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, paint, 1996. From The Art of Betty Woodman, April 25–July 30, 2006, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, California.

Betty Woodman’s eclecticism is astonishing; her influences are wide-ranging and include Persian vases, wallpaper, Japanese prints, and Baroque architecture. While fully embracing abstraction, her sculptures verge on realism; her early interest in functional ceramic objects is always visible. Woodman’s work plays in the territory between the high arts and craft and at the borders between painting and sculpture: it is shot through with humor and sensuality. Her imagery is bound to the realities of life, dealing with the accoutrements of pleasure and the experience of beauty. She blends the furniture of the table—platters, vases, cups, and tureens—with the history of art and architecture. Woodman has spent over six decades looking at art of all kinds and incorporates elements of old and new into each object.

Conceptual boldness and extreme experimentation are her work’s most prominent characteristics. She has broken through the limits of traditional ceramics through innovative uses of materials such as lacquer paint on earthenware and terra sigillata on paper. One of the most significant aspects of Woodman’s work is its quality of effortlessness—as she says; “I want the work to look as if it was rather easy, even if it wasn’t.” This sense of effortlessness is contradicted by her relentless self-questioning and desire to keep her ideas developing. As she told the American Craft Council; “I’m always interested in the next piece I’m going to make perhaps more than the last one I made. Well, [you can be] seduced by the last one you made because you think, ‘Oh! Look at that.’ I’m the kind of person who may be totally seduced by it and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. . . . And then I look at it for a few days, and then I sort of realize, well, you know, this has got a lot of problems. Maybe it’s not that wonderful. Maybe I need to go back and think about something else, do something else.”

Woodman’s career started with a commitment to clay; the vase form became an obsession. She studied at the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University in the late 1940s where she began her career as a production potter. By the early 1960s, Woodman’s ideas shifted away from function, partly in response to a move to Italy where she and her painter husband, George Woodman, spend part of each year. The Italian influence shows itself in forms inflected by the aesthetics of the Mediterranean, majolica, and Baroque architecture. The area between the stone balusters of Baroque staircases particularly fascinates her; her employment of negative space is a major facet of her work.

Betty Woodman Rose et Noir_OUT

Rose et Noir Pillow Pitcher, 32 in. (81 cm) in height, glazed earthenware, epoxy, resin, lacquer, paint, 1989. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, California.

In the early 1970s, Woodman became involved with the Pattern and Decoration movement and began to emphasize surface design. She incorporated imagery from outside of what was considered fine art, focusing on the geometric and floral patterns used on fabrics, wallpaper, and quilts. In 1975, she produced the first of what became known as her pillow pitchers. These were loosely based on Cretan pitchers and made by joining two cylinders horizontally and pinching the ends closed. A narrow sash of clay that becomes a spout and handle often conceals the join. These forms are not functional and their pillowy curvatures provide a challenging surface for glaze painting. The glaze is painted on in the loose and gestural fashion that is the hallmark of her work. The simplicity and assertiveness of these forms makes them iconic; they are completely original and have a clear correspondence between form and meaning.

By the late 1990s, Woodman’s forms became more diagrammatic and Cubist in appearance. She began using the vase form, the ultimate still-life object, in a number of different ways; flattening and deconstructing it, breaking it into its constituent pieces (tops, feet, spout, handles) and painting/glazing in the details. She also does the opposite, emphasizing the three-dimensional, by presenting a faceted arrangement of vase-like objects with features so disparate that the back and front are stylistically unrelated. Around this time, she also began creating multi-part wall installations. These aggregations play with shifts between two- and three-dimensionality with a particular stress on the negative space between objects. House of the South, is one of numerous examples of enormous, mural-like arrangements of flat and modeled ceramic parts. Some of the pieces lay flush to the wall, others project out from it; the space in between the pieces is as important as the pieces themselves.

The Red Window (overall and detail), 7 ft. (2.2 m) in height, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, acrylic paint, canvas, 2014.  Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, California.

The densely packed and layered composition, Aeolian Pyramid, is one of the most spectacular of her pedestal-mounted assemblages. It’s a tiered, pyramidal arrangement of 44 flat pink, yellow, white, and black vase shapes cut from earthenware slabs and patterned with small raised or incised textures. Each is a different shape and size; there is much confusion between foreground and background, which works to the piece’s advantage. The imagery painted on the slabs is floral, geometric, and Mediterranean in style; the effect is of an archeological site or a shrine.

Over the course of the past decade, Woodman has been combining painted patterns on canvas with painted or glazed ceramic elements to create still-life tableaus that combine illusionism and tactility. The canvases serve as a backdrop to ceramic pieces and are tacked directly to the wall or placed on the floor. The ceramic pieces are used in a variety of ways; positioned on a table-like shelf that appears to be projecting from the painting, placed on the floor in front of a painting or posed on top of a rug-like painted floor cloth. She also places sculptures on top of cut wood pedestals that magnify the extremely deconstructed nature of her ceramic vases. A recent Woodman exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, California, featured examples of all of these arrangements.

The Red Window combines several techniques and objects; a painted, wall-mounted canvas with a number of curving thin slab pieces nailed directly into it paired with a tall, freestanding ceramic sculpture. Every looping brushstroke on the canvas is articulated and magnified. Attached to the canvas are four calligraphic black and white ceramic fragments that create a vase form in the negative space between them. An adjacent unglazed trio of fragments implies a handled pitcher with the flesh-pink of the background showing through between them. These stand above a pale brown area painted to resemble a heavily grained wood tabletop. A white, painted, uneven shape on the canvas resembles the big ceramic sculpture on the floor below it. This red, black, and white form resembles a vase, but the flanges coming off its sides make it into something exotic, both organic and architectural.

BWoodmanAeolianPyramid

Aeolian Pyramid, 14 ft. (4.27 m) in length, 44 vases, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, paint, 2001–2006. From “The Art of Betty Woodman,” April 25–July 30 2006, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, California.

The Boardwalk is a canvas with a wedge-shaped tabletop built into it. The painting resembles a beach scene with blue sky, expanse of sand, and striped wooden boardwalk with a white fence. The tabletop echoes the stripes and bears two cylinders hidden by two large, flat, platter-like oval slabs. Each platter has painted on it half of a striped and curvy-footed vessel with spectacular red and yellow, long stemmed blooms emerging from it. When looked at from the side, the cylindrical forms come into view. They echo the stripe and grid motif of the canvas behind them but with a totally different color scheme. This view is so unexpected, its imagery so different from the front, that it has the impact of a totally different piece.

The aspects of surprise, difference, and multiplicity are typical of Woodman’s work. It is especially so of Aztec Vase and Carpet: Bumble Bee. The object is made up of a tall, central cylinder with a number of flat slabs projecting from it. These slabs effectively divide the piece into four quadrants, each of which is glazed so differently as to create the experience of seeing four different objects. The sculpture is placed on a black and white striped canvas “rug” on which are scattered colorful flat forms that look as if they were cut out from the vase’s projections. This sculpture is almost encyclopedic in the number of references it makes. She’s parodied Cubism’s intention to show three dimensions while using only two. She’s plundered art history in combining the wild projections and geometric and curvilinear surface decoration of ancient Aztec ceremonial objects with Modernist abstraction. As an aside, she’s borrowed the imagery of Persian carpets.

Aztec Vase and Carpet: Bumble Bee, 5 ft. (1.5 m) in length, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, acrylic paint, canvas, 2013.  The Boardwalk, 4 ft. 5 in. (1.3 m) in height, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, acrylic paint, canvas, wood, 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, California.

Woodman’s eclecticism is carefully considered; it is pure pluralism, not a random gathering of styles and systems. Her organization of diverse sources into a single vision requires extreme selectivity. The fact that she doesn’t stick to a single standard, that she is the beneficiary of centuries of global art history, is what fuels the variety and vitality of her work.

Now in her 80’s, she continues to produce significant work. In 2014, she was the American Craft Council’s Gold Medalist recipient. Her work is in more than 50 museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has had over 100 solo exhibitions around the world. Her 2006 retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum was the first such show to be given to a ceramic artist or a woman. She taught for 40 years, most recently at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

the author Kathleen Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California. 

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