Published: September 6, 2011
This fall, 60 Southern California museums will mount exhibits that explore the postwar art movements that flourished in and around Los Angeles through 1980. An initiative of the Getty Research Center, the collaboration provides the first focused survey of the region’s hard-edge painters, assemblage artists, film and video artists, performance artists and modern designers. One of the most revealing exhibits is “Beatrice Wood: Career Woman †Drawings, Paintings, Vessels and Objects,” opening at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA) on September 10 and continuing through March 13.
Wood moved to Los Angeles when the West was just beginning to establish a modern identity. Prior to that, she had appeared on the international art scene early in the Twentieth Century, a refuge from high society who called Paris and then New York City home. Throughout her fruitful 105-year existence (1893‱998), Wood seems to have been at the center of major movements in art and culture. She was an actress, a seminal figure in the Dada movement, a Theosophist and a career artist. Her artistic evolution interfaced with Southern California’s artistic development.
Her oeuvre spanned the disciplines from drawings and paintings to ceramics. If line-a-day diaries are a form of art, she excelled at that as well, filling journals with personal insights about her loves, including the Marcel Duchamp/Henri-Pierre Roché triad that inspired the “Mama of Dada” nickname; her life, including the influence of Walter and Louise Arensberg; her spirituality and experiments at the kiln.
“Beatrice Wood: Career Woman” exhibits more than 100 drawings, one painting, ceramics and diary entries. The diaries, excerpted by Francis M. Naumann and Marie T. Keller, are published for the first time in the catalog.
The show’s emphasis is on Wood’s ceramics. More than 60 pieces of pottery are displayed, from practical items and miniature figures to miniature and oversized vessels.
Wood discovered ceramics in 1933, at the age of 40. As the story goes, she had bought luster plates in Holland and once back in the United States, could not find a teapot to go with them. Deciding she could make one herself, she enrolled in a ceramics class at Hollywood High School, one of the few places that taught the craft.
According to Lisa Melandri, SMMoA deputy director, Wood was not a born craftsman. She worked tirelessly to master her art.
In a 1989 interview with the artist, Abby Wasserman quotes Wood on her performance in the Hollywood High classes: “I made two plates that were an abomination. They were so terrible I decided to amuse myself, and I made two little figures. And Helen Freeman bought them for $2.50. That was the bottom of the Depression and I was living on $73 a month, so I made another figure, which sold for $3.50, and this fired my financial genius.”
Throughout her life, Wood balanced art with the desire to be a good businesswoman. Although she was born into a wealthy family, she did not receive support after “running away.” Perhaps that is why she believed that invoices were one of the most important parts of the artistic process.
After that initial introduction to clay, Wood uncovered more advanced techniques in classes with Glen Lukens at the University of California.
Describing her initial encounters with glaze, Wood said she “had great trouble for a year finding out what glaze was: cream, water, solids †I didn’t know!”
Under the guidance of Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Austrian potters living in California, she acquired both advanced wheel techniques and glaze secrets. Unfortunately, tension between mentors and student developed when Wood’s career began to take off. Then, from 1959 to 1974, she studied intermittently with Vivika and Otto Heino, both classical technicians.
The Spanish chemist Artigas advanced her trials with luster glazes by giving her several old Arabian formulas, which, she said, never quite worked out.
In the Islamic world, lusters were used to imitate gold and silver as early as the Ninth Century. Many are created by starving the kiln of oxygen at a certain point in the firing process. Lusters have always been known as fickle partners, a factor that appealed to Wood and became a hallmark of her work.
To develop her own brand of luster, Wood experimented with firing and glazing techniques. She often threw mothballs into the kiln as it cooled, or bone ash or mustard; whatever came to mind. At other times she smoked the kiln with salt, wood or camphor, allowing the smoke to attack the glaze and change it. In a YouTube video (www.eastofborneo.org/archives/Beatrice-wood-documentart) Wood describes the opening of the kiln as the most exhilarating part of the process.
Were the idiosyncratic glazes reproducible? Garth Clark, Wood’s dealer, has said the results were closely monitored, guarded and kept in a “compendium of clay.”
In the beginning, Wood made commercially viable dinnerware sets and figurines. Known later for bowl and vessel forms, she never thought of beauty or decoration as superfluous, but believed that objects could be both decorative and functional.
In the 1940s, she created a form known as “sophisticated primitives,” figures that were often humorous or used to address complex subjects. These were often repeated elements that could stand alone, be combined or become the decorative elements applied to vessels.
For instance, one figural tableau is the “Virgin’s Dream,” which mocks the seated virgin’s celibacy by placing two flirtatious couples on the flying buttresses of her mind.
From politics to the interplay between the sexes, Wood’s appetite for worldly themes was strong. In 1993, on the occasion of her centennial birthday, Wood created both a drawing and sculpture called “Career Women” that inspired the exhibition’s title. It depicts three female figures planted firmly atop the prone figure of a man.
By the 1970s, Beatrice Wood had an established reputation as a fine artist and could afford to turn her creative focus to decorative ceramics and complex vessels. According to Clark, Wood began to take more creative freedoms with the vessels sometime in the 1980s.
Although the forms and subjects remained consistent with the oeuvre she had been building for half a century, both figurative and functional ceramics became larger. Teapots, often with beaded decoration, grew to Mad Hatter proportions. Chalices and goblets acquired ever more handles and surface decorations. Some items, on the other hand, shrank considerably, with no discernable linear evolution of size.
Wood worked in the studio almost every day. When she was not potting, she was drawing. Late in life, she began allowing visitors into the studio. Then she would talk about her work and sell items, actually balancing the marketing and sales of the work on a regular basis.
She was a diligent archivist as well; few of Wood’s works are unaccounted for. Many on loan for the exhibition come from the Walter and Louise Arensberg Collection, now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Others are on loan from private collections.
From about 1917 onward, the drawings were integral to her life. At one point she took a hiatus from them, but returned to the form in 1976 and continued to draw until her death in 1998. Many of the early drawings document the salon culture of Dada New York, as well as the artists and intellectuals surrounding the Arensbergs. She also made a number of travelogues documenting her European travels and the more interesting people encountered along the way. Other drawings are biographical. Almost all are figurative.
Wood did not create many traditional paintings. The single example in the exhibition is from 1917.
After 1960, photographs of Wood show her dressed in an Indian sari. This was a manifestation of her interest in India and the philosophical teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Interestingly, Indian †and Mexican †folk art were influences on her decorations for clay.
Wood worked up until her passing. She died a few days after receiving a copy of James Cameron’s film Titanic . She never viewed it, saying it was too late in life to watch a sad story. The fact that Cameron said the character of Rose was based in part on Wood seems not to have fazed her. She had, after all, much earlier in life been credited with inspiring Roché’s story “Jules and Jim.” Her autobiography, I Shock Myself , exposed aspects of a personality that found most people as malleable as clay.
The legacy of Beatrice Wood is greater than the studio ceramics she left behind. Her journey and the spirituality that gave impetus to her life and work will be inspiration for career women for generations to come.
“Beatrice Wood: Career Woman †Drawings, Paintings and Vessels” is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog. In addition to the diaries, it contains articles by scholar and critic Jennifer Sorkin, clay scholar Garth Clark and art historian Kathleen Pyne.
A robust schedule of lectures and events surrounds the exhibit. For exhibition information, www.smmoa.org or 310-586-6488.
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