The great Betty Woodman died a couple of days ago at age 87. Part of the Pattern and Decoration movement which was a reaction to the prevailing abstraction – and particularly the abstraction manifested in the work of Voulkos and his followers- Woodman, while not overtly a feminist artist, joined a coterie of mainly female artists who celebrated ready-made patterning and design elements as part of their work and dropped temperatures from reduced stoneware to oxidised earthenware. She said, “It was a macho scene, a man’s world. Being a woman it was not easy to achieve recognition”. However, Woodman received notice early, particularly for her Pillow Pitchers – two closed off cylinders joined end to end and placed horizontally as basis and in the manner of T’ang pouring vessels, then added a central neck and spout that could be decidedly Islamic and surface decoration derived from Persian ceramics and other eclectic sources. These hybrid pots were some of the first that combined various elements of ceramic history in single works. They were something entirely new at the time and they underscored her career. She did not stop there however, she continued to extend her parameters and her sources in painting and ceramic history while looking at various countries’ distinctive additions and styles and utilising these in new ways to produce something fresh. Japan, Mexico, Korea and particularly Italy were subjects for her distinctive gaze and she held shows in major museums and public galleries all over the world.
She is the only living woman to have received a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and also the only one (male or female) to have done this as a ceramic artist. (Rie and Coper had a sizeable show of work there early in the ‘90s but that was posthumous). Of that show the, could be acidic, critic for New Yorker, Peter Scheldahl, in a rapturous review called Woodman, “…beyond original, all the way to sui generis”.
We were very aware of her work here in NZ and twice I was instructed to be in contact with her to come as Juror for the Fletcher Challenge Awards. However they (she and husband George – a painter who died last year) had homes and studios in Colorado, New York and Tuscany and they split their year between those places. After the second long telephone call we agreed I should not bother her any more as she would rather spend May in Tuscany than in New Zealand!
I saw large scale shows of her work in Geneva where the subject was the decorative arts of Japan, and in Faenza where she was guest artist for the Biennale and riffing off their impressive and vast collection of majolica. Both times it was a surprise once there and both times the work stopped me in my tracks. Relaxed, almost careless in their acceptance of cracks and twists in slab backgrounds they were exuberant, colourful and sumptuously rich in detail of applied painting alongside surprising and elegant ways to display work partly affixed to a wall or as a feature in a large rectangular painted composition. Her use of majolica techniques was vivacious and lush with every flowing brush-ful necessary to the whole. Twisting, snaking, expresive handles, positive upon negative, 2D upon 3D, trays of squishily Baroque elaboration, ceramic pots with ceramic shadows upon ceramic shelves, ceramic flowers in ceramic vases, exploded drawings of pots of flowers and always the pillow pitchers and their variations upon some national trope and their quotations around necks, handles and pouring devices… I recall being struck by the absolute confidence of every aspect from assemblage of vessel and slabs to surface embellishment. It is great work, constantly developed and re-figured over some sixty + years. Endlessly inventive while being endlessly self-referential. There was a film showing her at work in her NY studio at Wellington City Gallery some years ago, that I watched several times, (see image above) but I forget in relation to what it was on. She was absolutely a one-off and a great artist in any genre.