Betty Woodman (1930–2018)

Remembering the visionary ceramic artist whose aesthetic was that of a painter: ‘Everything she touched was edged with delight’

I think of Betty Woodman, a few days after she died at the age of 87, and remember her eyeglasses. They had colourful confetti frames, but were clear across the middle – so like her. Woodman had remarkable drive; for a female artist of her generation to succeed, that was an absolute requirement. Yet everything she touched was edged with delight. Her hand was sure and quick, her every mark imbued with something difficult to name. The word appreciation comes close. And the word life. Now she is gone. It is as if we had lost not just a great artist, but a whole bandwidth of the visible spectrum.

Betty Woodman Silk Pillow Pitcher, 1985 Hand-thrown and assembled white earthenware with majolica glazes 24 x 22 x 17 inches (61 x 55.9 x 43.2 cm)

Betty Woodman, Silk Pillow Pitcher, 1985, hand-thrown and assembled white earthenware with majolica glazes, 61 x 56 x 43 cm. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

Betty Woodman, Silk Pillow Pitcher, 1985, hand-thrown and assembled white earthenware with majolica glazes, 61 x 56 x 43 cm. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

Woodman began her career as a functional potter in the 1950s, when American ceramics were basically brown. Most ceramists worked in the muted tones of high-fire stoneware. She shared the central conviction of the craft movement: ‘If you have beautiful things to live with, it changes the kind of person you are.’ But she drew from an unusual palette of sources, the earthenware traditions of southerly climes: Italian majolica, Mexican redware, Tang dynasty figures, and Hispano-Moresque lusterwares. She loved pots that were fresh and loose, glazes that ‘haven’t tightened in the kiln, that stay where they’re put’. Her aesthetic was that of a painter, even a watercolourist. She wanted to bring to her recalcitrant medium a ‘kind of breath, or air’.

Woodman achieved exactly that in her celebrated ‘Pillow Pitchers’, a series she began around 1970. They embodied her transition from functional to sculptural concerns: the upper extremity of a jug sprouting from a swelling cushion, whose broad surfaces act as a canvas. Pottery and painting, painting and pottery: for her, it was the great romance.

8-betty_300dpi.jpg

Betty Woodman. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

Betty Woodman. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

In the 1980s Woodman made Janus-faced vases, dead flat on one side and volumetric on the other – vessels backing into their own representations. She also made triptychs of pots with handle-like cutouts attached, another pairing of round and flat. Noticing the importance of silhouette in these arrangements, she took a figural turn, bringing dance and fashion references into the work. Her iconography expanded to include Japanese references, the graphic asymmetry of ukiyo-e prints and the glorious fabrics of kimonos.

Through it all, Woodman used the wheel as a form generator. She might throw a large disk of clay, then elongate it by slapping it against a canvas-covered board. She would then cut up this stretched oblong and use the pieces to collage her forms. Sometimes, you can still see the spiral motion of her throwing; always, you can feel it. This was typical of the way that Woodman re-imagined conventional techniques. She never abandoned studio pottery; she took it along with her, as if guiding a well-loved friend by the hand.

Betty Woodman Allusion Pillow Pitcher, 2007 Glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint 24.25 x 23 x 16 inches (61.6 x 58.4 x 40.6 cm)

Betty Woodman, Allusion Pillow Pitcher, 2007, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint, 62 x 58 x 40 cm. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

Betty Woodman, Allusion Pillow Pitcher, 2007, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint, 62 x 58 x 40 cm. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

For all the joy she threw our way, Woodman’s work also had an argument in it. Like other artists associated with the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the late 1970s and early ’80s (among them her friends Cynthia Carlson, Joyce Kozloff and Robert Kushner), her work is art/craft, domestic/public, serious/fun. It postulates an untroubled, non-hierarchical situation for ceramics that had never previously existed, and mostly still doesn’t. When her sculptures were acquired by major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, they were often set out in the lobby with flowers in them. Another artist might have objected to such treatment, but to Woodman it felt just fine. When a visitor entered, hers was the first work they saw, offering its warm welcome. What could be wrong with that?

'Betty Woodman: Theatre of the Domestic’, 2016, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, installation view. Courtesy: ICA, London; photograph: Mark Blower

'Betty Woodman: Theatre of the Domestic’, 2016, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, installation view. Courtesy: ICA, London; photograph: Mark Blower

'Betty Woodman: Theatre of the Domestic’, 2016, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, installation view. Courtesy: ICA, London; photograph: Mark Blower

Eventually Woodman’s confidence was rewarded by a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by Jane Adlin, in 2006. This was the Met’s first-ever retrospective of a living woman artist. That is pretty shocking, as is the fact that no ceramic artist has been so honoured since. As Woodman always said, when it came to art-world success, the fact that she worked in clay was always a bigger problem to overcome than her gender.

Characteristically, after the Met exhibition she became still more ambitious. (As she put it in an interview accompanying her solo show at London’s ICA, which followed in 2016: ‘What was I supposed to do, crawl into the corner and go away?’) She began making huge installations: spidery wall-sized collages made from individual bits of clay, leftovers from her other projects, with painted backdrops evocative of Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, or simply of theatrical set design, with vessel forms once again playing the leading role.

Betty Woodman The Vase with Pink Flowers and The Yellow Vase, 2010 glazed earthenware, acrylic, canvas 85 x 181 x 12 inches (215.9 x 459.7 x 30.5 cm)

Betty Woodman, The Vase with Pink Flowers and The Yellow Vase, 2010 glazed earthenware, acrylic, canvas, 216 x 460 x 30 cm. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

Betty Woodman, The Vase with Pink Flowers and The Yellow Vase, 2010 glazed earthenware, acrylic, canvas, 216 x 460 x 30 cm. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York

Today, as ceramic art has come into vogue in museums and the marketplace, many younger artists are looking to her as a model. They could scarcely do better. She exemplified the fact that art of any medium constitutes its own inexhaustible permission. Under her wings, there is plenty of room to take flight.

Main image: Betty Woodman in her studio, 2014. Courtesy: Salon 94, New York; photograph: Stefano Porcinai

Glenn Adamson is senior scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA.

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018