“At the beginning, people were quick to dismiss me or not take me seriously. Back then, the world of ceramics was totally male dominated, it was a very macho world. If you weren’t willing to be one of the boys, it was very difficult to be a part of it. But I’m a little combative, so I guess I also enjoyed it.” — Betty Woodman to The Guardian’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen.
Above image: Betty Woodman, House of the South, 1996; glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint, 159 x 246 x 9.5 inche.
It will be her first solo show there, but the UK is nevertheless welcoming Betty Woodman warmly. Betty Woodman: Theatre of the Domestic is currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, February 3 – April 10).
The Guardian begins by warning “call this octogenarian a potter at your peril,” before describing all the other wonders that spring out of her studio, including wallpaper comprised of clay cuttings, women wearing kimonos or voluptuous vases. Woodman’s Theatre collects work from the past decade, including vase triptychs, wall-mounted mosaics and canvases that play in the borderlands of ceramics. Ellis-Petersen states:
“Woodman learned her craft making dinner sets and decorative crockery, but from the 1950s onwards, she pushed her work into the realm of sculpture, creating vibrant, unruly pieces that have occupied art galleries rather than kitchen cabinets. It is only now, at the age of 85, that Woodman has her first solo show in the UK, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.”
The artist is coming off of her first museum show in Italy at Museo Marino Marini in Florence. Those firsts seem long overdue, something Woodman states could be due to clay’s transition in the public consciousness from craft to fine art. Woodman said that when she started out many people didn’t know how to define her work. And yet that idea seems to be the hook with Theatre. The ICA states that her combination of painting and ceramics resonates with younger artists. According to the ICA:
“All her work relates to her ceramics, their decorative design, imagery and unusual use of various media, and can be seen as a way of exploring her painterly sensibility. For many years she has focused on the vase, which over time has become her most salient subject. For Woodman, the vase can be a vessel, a human body, and animal figure, a metaphor, or an art-historical reference. Painting, particularly in recent years, plays a key role in the work of Betty Woodman. Her later works are large, colourful drawings and paintings on handmade paper or canvas that combine graphite, ink and lacquer with terra sigillata and wax. Her work alludes to and blends numerous sources, including Minoan and Egyptian art, Greek and Etruscan sculpture, Tang Dynasty works, majolica and Sèvres porcelain, Italian Baroque architecture, and the paintings of Bonnard, Picasso and Matisse.”
In addition to London and Florence (her other home), Woodman has had a major show in Los Angeles with David Kordansky, and a joint show at Salon 94. All of these (pictures of the installations are spread throughout this article) took place in the last year.
Woodman remains a powerhouse, and addressing it puts us in danger of being biased with how we perceive her work. CFile’s founder, Garth Clark, sees Woodman’s work as having an inertia all its own; it keeps pushing forward. One’s third act, he says, is often thought of as a time to slow down, to become more contemplative, to ease the ambition a little and look inward. Apparently the memo never reached Betty Woodman. Clark, who has been a friend and critic of Woodman’s for 40 years, likes the feature image that starts off this article, saying that it puts Woodman in context. She’s diminutive next to a giant installation that reaches high up the wall. In a similar way her work has loomed larger and larger in contemporary ceramic art than nearly all other artists.
“Betty is making the best work of her career,” Clark said. “Something has been released in the painitng and the compositions that is richer in oxygen. Almost unbelievably, she has reached a new spirit of effortlessness.”
For further information on the richness of Woodman’s work, we suggest you visit this page to see a video interview with the artist. Woodman discusses her wallpaper pieces with the ICA. The work was initally started as a way to save interesting “spare parts” from her other clay works.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Betty Woodman (b. 1930, Norwalk, Connecticut) lived, worked, and taught in Colorado for 40 years, and now divides her time between studios in New York and Antella, Italy. Besides numerous gallery exhibitions, recent solo presentations of her work include: Places, Spaces & Things, Gardiner Museum, Toronto (2011); Roman Fresco/Pleasures and Places, American Academy in Rome (2010); L’allegra vitalità delle porcellane, Museo Delle Porcellane, Palazzo Pitti, Giardino di Boboli, Florence (2009); and Somewhere Between Denver and Naples, Denver Art Museum (2006). Her work has also recently been featured in group exhibitions including Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics: The Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection, Museum of Fine Arts – Houston , 2012 ; Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2011); Sèvres, Porcelaines Contemporaines, The Menshikov Palace, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (2010); and Dirt on Delight: Impulses that Form Clay, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2009). Woodman’s artworks are featured in over fifty public collections including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
What do you think of Woodman’s unrelenting contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.