Betty Woodman in her studio. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
By Deanna Sirlin
Rooms occupied by artists sometimes reveal their inner psyches, their work habits and preferences as well the physical needs that must be met so that they can realize their ideas. Betty Woodman, who has been working as a ceramicist for over 50 years, divides her time between NYC and Antella, a small mountain town outside of Florence, Italy. For many years, she also spent part of the year in Boulder, Colorado where she and her artist husband, George Woodman, taught in the Art Department of the University of Colorado. She has shown all over the world from the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, to Beijing, to the Museo Delle Porcellane, Palazzo Pitti, Giardino di Boboli, in Florence, Italy.
Betty recently welcomed me to visit with her in her NYC apartment and studio. I thought I had first met the Woodmans in Venice, during the Vernissage of the 2009 Biennale, but she reminded me that we had met in Denver years earlier when I was having a show at a gallery where one of her graduate students was also showing in the next room. It makes me think some cosmic rule of the art world is in play, that some artists' paths are meant to cross. I don't remember what we spoke about in Denver, but I do remember being struck by Betty’s keen gaze behind her large eyeglasses that left nothing left unobserved.
Betty’s New York studio was warm and very bright to my eyes as I entered in late afternoon on a cold, gray, slushy January day. I sat on a bright pink plastic chair, while Betty sat on a delicately hued one. She did not look at me while we talked but always focused on her work. As she spoke about her life and work I watched the light behind her go from that northern winter gray to a rich dark cobalt blue inside a window-frame painted vivid yellow. This shift in light and color made all the works of art in the room look more intensely hued and seductive as we sat and talked.
Woodman's studio. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
On the studio wall surrounding us hung brightly colored drawings on paper. The tools of the potter--a wheel, tables, brushes and glazes—were set around the room’s periphery. Woodman’s kiln was out of view, but I could faintly hear the white noise it produces. There were also new works being thought out, brightly colored paper carpets of fuchsia and yellow or blue and black, and works in black and white with repeated linear patterns of three parallel lines lay on the floor. Large vases, bent and twisted, stood in the middle of the room and beckoned with a kind of sensual physical richness. Her studio is a complete world that encompasses the colors you sit on, the ones you look at flat on the wall, and the vases provocatively invading the space.
Betty began as a functional potter, a maker of small vases and pots that owed much to ancient pottery. Except that these were no ordinary vases: they were not only formally inventive but also she applied the glazes the way a painter applies oil; the touch, the dip, the hue were all exquisite. Her work reflects her sensibility: at once playful and in-your-face. She is deeply invested in color relationships and the intensity of the hue. Ultimately, it is these glazes and their counter play with the geometric shapes of the vases that draw me into the work. Over time, her work grew larger and became more painterly and sculptural. She continued making vases but the handles became more architectural and wing-like: she threw them flat on the wheel, then them cut into geometric shapes before attaching them to the vases.
Betty Woodman Landsdowne Vases, Ceramic, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.
These wings are crucial to Betty’s work. Because of their distinctive geometry, they function more as extensions of the vessel than handles with which to carry it. Betty takes generous liberties with glazing: the three-dimensional pot becomes a support for the spirited movement of color, which takes on a life of its own rather than functioning as decoration. By drawing additional vases on the surface of her ceramics, she creates a play between two- and three-dimensionality that recalls Cubist space. In some cases, the glazing creates very different images with very different relationships to the shape of the vase on different sides, giving three-dimensional objects a defined front and back.
Betty also goes further by removing the wings from the vessels and attaching them to the walls behind them as untethered, freeform shapes. This approach is similar to the one the artist Howard Hogdkin uses in his abstract paintings, where the painting exceeds the limits of the canvas and moves onto the frame and thus into the viewer’s space. Her large painted walls are not autonomous paintings but environments against which the vases are to be seen. She thus transforms the ceramic vase from sculptural object to shallow relief to installations in which she deals with entire space of the gallery or room. She overlooks no detail in the way she presents her work: when she had her show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Betty replaced the vases holding the ever-present flowers that fill the atrium with her own.
Betty is a woman of power. She is physically strong from a lifetime of manipulating clay. Growing up during the Depression (she was born in 1930) must have made her want to make things that people could use. But her desire to make art rather than functional objects took over. She projects a strongly defined persona. Her outfit is youthful and funky; she wears big glasses made of small bits in multiple colors, knee socks and sneakers, and a patterned dress with a vest for warmth on top. Her outfit, like her work, is full of wit but rooted in functionality. Betty talked to me about what people wear: she told me that this year, the people she sees on the subway all have winter hats with a braid on each side, while artists continue to wear the all-black uniform (I am guilty of this). She concludes that most people are followers, but she is not. It's true: she is not a follower but a player.
Betty tells me about a post-war building in Italy in a small town whose architecture was so impossibly ugly that the mayor convinced her to design a new façade to be painted on the side of the building to disguise it. I love the way this project participates in the tradition of painted buildings in Italy with their wonderful ochre and green stuccos. But this painting creates the illusion of giant red Cubist vases on a wall. An architectural mess is now reinvented as an art object by Betty’s intervention. This building so impressed the mayor of the town where the Woodmans live in Tuscany that he wanted her to paint a building there as well. Even though one can tell she was fascinated by the prospect, Betty put the proposal aside: she makes her own decisions of where and when she will create her work.
Aztec Vase #7, Ceramic, 38 x 32 x 24" 2007. Installation View Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94
Installation View. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94
Deanna Sirlin is the Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She is an artist and a writer.
This essay is part of a project on living American women artists she is working on under the art writers' mentorship program of Creative Capital and the Andy Warhol Foundation.