SANTA FE—About four months ago Betty Woodman sent me a short love note from a hospital. A chill ran through me, I realized that a friend of forty years was saying goodbye. I quickly responded but she did not. It was her last contact. She had recently lost her husband George Woodman and was very ill. She rallied briefly but passed away in Italy on January 2, 2018, at the age of 87.
It will take some time to come to terms with her departure. Betty was part of my career almost from its inception, certainly after my arrival in the U.S. At a time when my role was more controversial, Betty backed me, urged me forward, sharing a vision for greater stature, achievement and ambition within the ceramics world.
We were both outlandishly opinionated. I would speak plainly when I had issues with her work and she would, as plainly, let me know what I could do with them. She took a few to heart. At one point when we were representing her in Garth Clark Gallery, Los Angeles, in the early 1980’s she let me know that she did not want an art critic for a dealer. I recall her saying, “I make it, send it to you, you keep quiet and sell it, that is the whole relationship” Did I say she was tough? I disagreed so she moved on.
But given Betty’s ability to compartmentalize private and business, the friendship endured even through awkward periods. I was not always a fan of her art. We continued to work together on projects, survey exhibitions, books, conferences and other activities. She remained supportive of our myriad nonprofit events regularly donating art to the benefits.
Indeed, our last joint venture was the group exhibition, Regarding George E. Ohr: Contemporary Ceramics and the Mad Potter of Biloxi, that opened November last year at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. I asked her to create a centerpiece for the exhibition, a large wall piece. The result was A Single Joy of Song (2017) made last June. It may be her last major work she undertook. I love the subtlety of the white pots in a painted ground that dissolve into a cloud of handles and blossom into color as they fly away.
In the late 70’s I was living in Claremont, CA and Betty was Paul Soldner’s summer replacement on the Scripps College ceramics program. One night at the “Mad Russian” stone house I rented from Paul we hosted a potluck evening with her grad students.
Discussion turned to how ludicrous some recent attempts were to name pots as art without admitting that a pot is a pot. We were both supporters of using the terms potter and pottery bluntly. Then we tried to concoct the silliest, most ridiculous, cowardly and evasive title possible. Together that night we crafted the term VOCO (Vessel Oriented Clay Object), which still lives in infamy.
Word spread and we discovered that while potters may have a great sense of humor that does not extend to the subject of pots. It was taken as a serious renaming concept and for a while was debated, challenged (or supported) at conferences and in talks about aesthetics. Betty and I kept mum and did not reveal it was a satire. We would call each other to share the latest spotting of a VOCO outbreak. Paul Soldner got the joke and for some time his pots were all titled VOCO.
Her own attitude about being a potter became more nuanced as she entered into the art world via the Pattern and Decoration Movement, closely related to the feminist movement as well. I remember a later interview in the New York Times when she was asked if she answered to the title, potter. “I call myself that,” she replied, “but I would be offended if you did.”
At the time I saw it as showing her imperious streak, an “Oh Betty!” moment. But over years I began to understand the nuances of that statement. No one respected pottery more than Betty, she understood, admired and was inspired by the greatness of the discipline through time and both researched and mined it. So when she said “potter” it was a deep, reverential noun. Most art writers using that term apply it in a patronizing, uninformed way or worse, a cute “aw shucks” aside, a “mere” potter had become an artist. She was not having any of that.
Betty was the most ambitious artist I have ever known, everything was strategic (a plus in the man’s world, but considered pushy in a woman’s). As my partner Mark Del Vecchio once said at a dinner party, “Betty has the sharpest machete in the field and she used it to cut a path all the way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York”. In so doing she achieved a first, the first woman and also the first ceramist to have a retrospective at this august if sexist institution. Not bad for an artist who began with twice-yearly pottery sales on the front lawn of her Boulder, Colorado house.
She was also the most hard working and amazingly skilled, the latter which was sometimes problematic during an anti-craft period. “If I made my work less well”, she quipped to me as we viewed an art fair with many amateurish ceramic horrors, “I would have got into the fine arts sooner.”
All of her work, both the vessels and the flat elements, were created on her wheel. I recall a dinner in the late 1980’s with a group of hard-core traditional potters at the home of Warren McKenzie, high priest of American functional pottery. Warren asked us to name the best thrower in American ceramics, names came up, Peter Voulkos, Don Reitz and others. Eventually Warren said, “you all got it wrong, it’s Betty Woodman. No one else even comes close”.
From the age of Eighty onwards a new strength began to evolve, less from her determined resolve, more for the comfort and confidence of having arrived. As she relaxed the painting grew stronger, the incongruity between 3-D and 2-D eased into a more organic partnership. Simply put, she became a better artist during this decade, a remarkable achievement in itself.
The incessant work rhythms did not slow down and if anything with a permanent studio staff they increased. Her coronation years were 2016-17 with eight one-person shows in London, New York, Los Angeles, Italy and elsewhere. Her decisive exhibition was Theatre of the Domestic at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London . If Betty was looking for her 11 o’clock number, the ICA show was it. The critical ovation can only be described as rapturous and Cfile was thrilled to join in the applause.
The pot was still the core of her art. In her New York Times obituary she is quoted as telling the curator of the ICA exhibition, “the vase is the archetypal ceramic object. The vase is also a symbol for a figure, a woman. Metaphorically, it’s a container; it has that connection for everyone.”
Woodman has finally broken up the once all-male, all-Californian clay cabal that ruled the canon for decades. She bumps Peter Voulkos from the top four pedestals. Sorry, her career is simply more major, joining the top tier alongside Ken Price, and, still in the game, Ron Nagle and John Mason.
In the years to come scholarship will analyze her work objectively. With an output so vast (she sold a massive amount of art and still left two warehouse filled with ceramics) there is unevenness but also genius. In some ways the sheer volume and the occasional misstep blurred the greater achievements. Sorting this out is going to be fascinating.
But when one thinks of a friend, the power politics of art, the sweat and fight for a career, the arguments over aesthetics, are not what rises most lovingly to the surface. It comes down to ephemeral and sacred moments; a meal there a drink there. There were many dinners in New York at her loft with excellent food cooked by her or George, served on her dishes (she was a straight functional potter for the first two decades of her career).
Then too there was a magical chance encounter in Kyoto at the Temple of 1000 Gold Buddhas or when Mark and I were honored together with George and Betty at Anderson Ranch, And over nearly three decades we had regular gossip sessions luncheons and dinners at Darbar, the superb Indian restaurant behind our 57th Street, New York Gallery.
Above all there was the night when Mark, Betty and I got as high as kites at a viewpoint in the Hollywood Hills the night before the opening of her first solo show in Los Angeles. I recall Betty’s response when Mark, rightly proud of our first space, tried to locate our gallery in the sea of light before us. “Is that why we are up here” she asked incredulously, collapsing into spams of laughter.
Her departure is a painful loss. As it should be.