In this essay from our November 2006 issue, Michael Duncan reviews the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “The Art of Betty Woodman,” the institution’s first retrospective devoted to the work of a living female artist. Foregrounding Woodman’s relation to modernist painting, Duncan traces the development of the pioneering ceramic artist’s trademark style of splashy bright colors and loose, curvaceous lines. —Eds.
Betty Woodman’s conceptually rigorous, formally audacious ceramic sculptures and installations of the past two decades make any lingering art-world condescension toward pottery seem absurd. Given the pluralistic eclecticism of contemporary art, clay has become as likely a medium for great work as say, garbage, wax, toothpicks or dead animals. But it is not the medium that is the real message to be gleaned from Woodman’s recent dazzling retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What seems most surprising is that the 76-year-old artist has emerged as one of the contemporary art world’s most visible and viable inheritors of modernist painting.
Her recent works are glazed with bright colors in loosely painted images and designs that refer to and further the spatial experiments of Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard and Vuillard. In The Bathers Revisited Triptych (2004), for example, Woodman paints green fronds and sketchy vases on the extended surfaces of a trio of glazed earthen-ware vases, emulating the wispy, gestural drawing style of Matisse’s Bathers By the River (1909-16). In her multipart works, Woodman determines the set arrangement of components, taking account of the negative space between their irregular shapes. Here the three vase fronts collectively evoke a garden tableau featuring depicted pottery surrogates as stand-ins for Matisse’s nudes. Similarly, in Divided Vases—Bonnard’s Window (2006), featured in a concurrent exhibition of new work at Max Protetch Gallery in New York, she painted on the surfaces of two large vases a fractured vase and window in the vibrant contrasting colors of the French master.
Woodman’s formal extravagance and exuberant use of color enable her to transcend the self-imposed restrictions that plague many contemporary artists—particularly painters. Her underrated medium, and her abandonment of many of its strictures, allow her the freedom to tackle painting issues that have long been mired in the swamp of critical theories and art-historical torpor. In her formally variegated, intricately decorated painted works, she refuses to accept the narrowed, browbeaten status for painting as practiced by artists such as Robert Ryman, Gerhard Richter, Christopher Wool and Luc Tuymans. Ideas about color, volume, representation and decoration proliferate. Her work exudes the spontaneity of her physically active process. An element of uncertainty, too, enters the mix, since Woodman’s vivid colors are liquid glaze pigments that must be applied blindly—they come to fruition only with firing. In their application, she must rely purely on past experience and intuition.
Energizing her enterprise is a sophisticated investigation into the ramifications of the vessel throughout history and across cultures. Working in both two and three dimensions at once, she probes this theme in a style based on Cubist fragmentation and postmodern deconstruction. Like the experiments of Cubism and Futurism, Woodman’s work emulates the fractured effects of kinetic vision. With postmodern cheek, she skips through wildly diverse references to the styles and practices of the art-historical past. Yet no matter how outlandish and extended the formal or conceptual workout, Woodman’s art is grounded in the primal shape of the pot. For example, Aztec Vase #4 (2005), a recent sculpture in the Met survey, is a nearly yard-high, multifaceted, cylindrical vase with ceramic appendages resembling flat extended handles. Irregular attachments cut out from flat slabs of thrown clay are a trademark device Woodman uses to apply picture planes to the sides of her three-dimensional vases. Here, they form four niches that are splashily painted in different, disjunctive designs: loops, stripes, a vase shape, and tangled Matisse-like curved lines. With its four false fronts, the work’s over-the-top, hybrid presence offers a theatrical Cubism-in-the-round. Presenting fragmented images of itself while still retaining its utilitarian function, the vase is a kind of embellished variation or elaboration on the formal ideas of Picasso’s painted bronze Glass of Absinthe (1914), a work that critic Barry Schwabsky aptly states essay might be considered the “single salient precursor object” for Woodman’s enterprise1
Employing the negative space of the walls and often spilling out onto the floor, her installations investigate the formal properties of the vase. The vessels seemingly have exploded into component parts. Woodman’s free-form displays flirt with chaos, gleefully pushing the formal envelope, sometimes in the mode of a busy Cubist still life, sometimes that of a sparsely articulated Matisse cutout. Although at times seeming slapdash or hard to grasp spatially, they have a conceptual coherence that distinguishes them from being merely abstract or neo-baroque flourishes. They are both more open and more conceptually rigorous than the contemporaneous, hyperactive relief sculptures of Frank Stella.
In the unpredictably clustered “Balustrade” installation series (1995 to present), for example, Woodman presents vases with flat, painted false fronts, surrounded by ceramic fragments that resemble loose shards, errant handles, plant fronds and the gestural squiggle shapes of Matisse’s late cutouts. The idea for these works came, the artist says, from silhouettes found in the negative spaces of many staircase balustrades. Compounding the formal complexity, the false fronts of the “Balustrade” vases often feature painted images of vases and their edges are sometimes shaped as vessel-like silhouettes, Ideas of the vase as a skin or structural support are turned inside-out as the works compound flat, solid and fractured representations of themselves.
Although the Met exhibition, curated by Jane Adlin, included works from the past 50 years, the show was less a retrospective than a sprawling installation that extended to the rafters of the awkward, box-shaped special exhibitions gallery in the Wallace wing. Works hung frieze-style above the entryways and high on the walls made the gallery seem a cavernous, art-filled studio space. While this increased the visual excitement, the raucous extravagance, audacity and joyful eccentricity of Woodman’s recent installations overwhelmed the small selection of early work, making the trajectory of her development a bit hard to follow.
Placed in a smaller antechamber gallery, the early pots and variations on dinnerware offered a surprisingly tame prelude. The examples of Woodman’s more traditional works made in the 1950s and ’60s included three “Etruscan Series Vases” (1966), small works decorated with loosely striped white dots painted by her artist husband, George. Her trademark style of splashy bright color and curvaceous line first appeared in a few works from the late ’70s, all fanciful elaborations of serving ware: a tureen, a tray, a basket and an overscaled, delightfully strange napkin holder.
In 1975 Woodman first made her most popular and unique single form, the “pillow pitcher”—exemplified here by Pillow Pitcher (1980) and Tang Pillow Pitcher (1981)—a single pot that consists of two horizontal pitched vessels joined mouth-to-mouth, the seams covered by a flat band into which is set the top spout. Over the years Woodman has experimented with a variety of glazes and spouts in these skillfully made works, and their plump, symmetrical forms demonstrate her command of ceramic conventions. Although all these early works feature quirky decorative flourishes—arabesque handles, fanciful drippy glazes, comically crude overscaled forms—they don’t really portend the radical, shocking formal explosion of the mid-’80s.
The development of Woodman’s work is tracked in more detail in the handsome catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. In their essays, Schwabsky and Arthur Danto probe the philosophical and conceptual strengths of the work, while Janet Koplos tracks the development of Woodman’s art from conventional ceramics to sculptural installation. The major events of Woodman’s biography have clearly marked her artistic growth. Soon after training in western New York State at the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University (1948-49), she fell in love with the culture and art of Italy. Rather than following the Asian bent of many American ceramists of her generation, she gleaned ideas and motifs from plainspoken Italian earthenware and majolica, as well as from the sensuous forms of ancient Etruscan pottery.
In 1953 she married George Woodman, and the couple moved to Albuquerque, where George attended graduate school in painting and Betty worked from a backyard adobe kiln. Upon graduation, George began teaching painting and esthetics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Betty set up a ceramics studio. The couple bought a farmhouse outside of Florence in 1968 and since then has spent part of the year there. Making utilitarian pottery in both locales, Betty taught in Colorado, first in community centers and finally, from 1978 to 1998, at the university. A voracious traveler and reader, she has alluded in her work to nearly every period of art history, particularly early 20th-century modernism. In her catalogue essay, Koplos details Woodman’s avid enthusiasms for Early American spongewear, Tang Dynasty glazes, Okinawan folk pottery, Indian textiles, Baroque architecture, the splashy patterns of 16th-century Japanese Oribe tea-ceremony sets, and, perhaps most importantly, the New York branch of the Pattern and Decoration movement.2
Woodman became associated with P&D in the late ’70s, initially through her husband, whose geometric pattern paintings were featured in exhibitions of the Colorado Criss-Cross group.3 When P&D emerged as an art-world phenomenon after the New York artist-organized meetings of 1975-76, the couple began to spend more time in Manhattan, acquiring a loft in 1980 near the flower district. The iconoclastic spirit of P&D—born to challenge Minimalism, the art market, High Art snobbery and the patriarchal art-world—seems the primary instigating source in Woodman’s liberation from the world of conventional ceramics.
A 1980 collaboration with Joyce Kozloff at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery featured Kozloff painting intricate Islamic designs on Woodman’s glazed earthenware. Woodman’s first installation, a 1982 collaboration with Cynthia Carlson, juxtaposed her ceramic tiles and Carlson’s wallpaper, both decorated with a cake froster—Carlson’s trademark painting tool. (Woodman went on to use cake-decorating tools to achieve curly shapes and flourishes in many platters and vases.) Woodman’s freewheeling drawing style is in the mode of the early work of P&D painters Robert Kushner, Brad Davis and Robert Zakanitch, while her installations relate to the columned, decorative arcades of Ned Smyth. Throughout most of the ’70s, Miriam Schapiro had tapped the potential of many forms of traditional women’s crafts, while Kim MacConnel, perhaps the movement’s chief disciple of Matissean color and design, had experimented with abrupt juxtapositions of patterns in his painted fabric works. Since their heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the instigating P&D artists have all continued to develop in interesting directions. Woodman’s breakthroughs of the past decade have confirmed the lasting viability and freshness of the ideas evoked by the movement.
As is true of the P&D artists, a kind of ipso facto feminism permeates Woodman’s art. But her muscular fragmentation of the vase makes her enterprise a very rigorous, contemporary representation of traditional “Women’s work.” With Woodman’s multiple households celebrating decoration, food, flowers, children and guests, domestic life has nourished and enlivened her esthetic. Vases represent the bounty of her gar and kitchens, and her large installations can be seen as representations of her homes/studios. The implied motion of her imagery reflects a practice that involves much physical energy of traveling, intellectual curiosity and sociability.
The most daring work in the House of the South (1906), presents vases, pedestals and ceramic fragments scattered over a roughly 13-by-20-foot expanse of wall. The effect is of an abstract drawing or sprawling Matisse cutout applied directly to the wall, while also suggesting a bizarrely decorated pottery shop or studio. The work toys with gravity, placing two freestanding vases on shelves amid flat clay images of vases, pedestals and disembodied handles. Several images of vases are lifted, tilting off their nonfunctioning pedestals, ready for acrobatic tumbles. Woodman sweeps away the idea some viewers might retain of vessels as cool, pristine containers. The traditional feminine connotations of the vase, too, seem blithely toppled.
In this expansive mode, Woodman comically uses vases as human surrogates. Installed on seven ascending platforms, Aeolian Pyramid (2000) was the Met showstopper: a triangular stack of 35 vases with similarly shaped flat fronts painted with images of fragmented vases. Only vaguely similar, the light-yellow images have the appearance of a wildly misregistered, vibrating silkscreen print. Although Woodman was inspired, Danto tells us, by seeing a stack of ancient amphorae that had been recovered from the hold of a sunken vessel in the Mediterranean, the result is something more raucous.4 Enhanced by the irregular negative spaces between the pots and the curvaceous cartoon images, the installation reads as a busy chorus line, profanely dancing away all connotations of the “sacred” vessel. The association with dance spectacles isn’t accidental: Woodman titled a similar installation, featuring 15 vases climbing a double staircase platform, Theater 2: The Rockettes (2001, not in the exhibition).
In Woodman’s precisely arranged vases, Danto detects a “communicative vitality” that enables them to appeal to “our disposition to connect with one another in moments of shared relatedness.”5 Woodman uses the vases in her double-sided tableaux as interlocking characters, able to tell two sides of a story or two entirely different tales. Figure drawing animates the painting on one side of works such as River Viewing/Studio Screen (26×4) with its Japanese woman kneeling at riverside. Here, the work’s flip side depicts a pattern whose colors are indicated by their glaze pigment numbers, a visual joke used elsewhere in Woodman’s work. On one side of its two-vase tableaux, Bonnard Ladies III (2004, not in the exhibition) depicts three women in boldly patterned fabrics; the other side includes their still-life counterparts, three black-and-white decorated vases.
Intrigued by the elaborate embellishments of Italian baroque architecture, Woodman has made a series of wall works mounted on canvas and painted in terra sigillata, a watered-down clay commonly used as a ceramics finishing coat. The 18-foot-high Roman Panel (2006) features a loosely structured, ornamented column and balustrade done in terra sigillata. The work is punctuated by three wooden shelves, each holding a vase with a flat false front decorated with the image of a black and white vase. While impressive, the forms and ideas of the panel pieces are still much in progress; her Protetch exhibition featured seven complex new works in painted clay on canvas or paper.
Springing out of the galleries, the Metropolitan exhibition included, in the museum lobby and Trustees’ Dining Room, six Woodman vases used to hold flowers. The vases seemed themselves in full bloom, although with their extravagant flower arrangements—the glorious result of the Lila Acheson Wallace Endowment—they were a bit cramped in the Beaux-Arts niches of the lobby. As the exhibition catalogue reveals, Woodman regularly uses her vases to hold flowers in her homes and studios, something that radically changes their character, especially in regard to height and volume and the positions of the vases on their pedestals. Given the audacity of her work, it seems apt to hope for future exhibitions that will include floral components throughout.
Woodman mixes elements of sculpture, painting, and architecture to create a ceramic amalgam of her own. The flat fronts of her simple cylindrical vases allow her to indulge through drawing in the creation of pots with fantastic baroque flourishes, wild arabesques and extended spouts. They are theatrical false fronts, props that encourage extreme fictional personae and decorative fantasy. Woodman’s work champions the theatricality of the decorative impulse, and the desire of artists to make objects that transcend, indulge, fill to the brim, explode and expand our expectations.
1. Barry Schwabsky, “Betty Woodman and Modernist Painting: Beginnings,” in Janet Koplos, Arthur C. Danto and Barry Schwabsky, Betty Woodman, New York, Monacelli Press, 2006, p. 43.
2. In conversation, artist Robert Kushner noted the similarity, too, of the fancifully painted utilitarian vessels and plates of Japanese ceramicist Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959).
3. Founded in 1974 by three of George Woodman’s students, Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit and Charles DiJulio, Criss-Cross was dedicated to exploring the ideas evoked by P&D. They published an art journal and organized several multi-media exhibitions int eh West. See Criss-Cross at the Yellowstone Art Center, Criss-Cross Art Communications, No. 13, Billings, Mont., Yellowstone Art Center, 1981; Michael Paglia, “Paint by Numbers,” Denver Westword, Oct. 9, 1997.
4. Arthur C. Danto, “Communicating Vases: The Centrality of the Vessel in Betty Woodman’s Art,” Betty Woodman, p. 33.
5. Ibid., p. 32.