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The Art of Betty Woodman
Review by Nel Bannier

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York—April 25 – July 30, 2006

On entering the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum, one is confronted with five huge bouquets of flowers behind flat vase shapes made by Betty Woodman. Four are in niches, and one is on a big base in the middle of the hall. The flat vase shapes have images of vases painted on them in glazes. On closer scrutiny one discovers that the flat shape is a big platter thrown on the wheel, cut out in the shape of a vase and attached upright to the vase hidden behind it. A vase shape added to a functional vase, and several vases painted on it. Well, which one is the vase, the painted one, the cut out one, the one that actually holds the flowers? To add to the dilemma, the decoration is so lush that one gets the feeling that the bouquet is there for the pot and not vise versa. This is 2005 work by Betty Woodman, born in 1930, still vividly active working in clay, sculpting and painting, and playing games with illusion and functionality.

From the lobby, one proceeds to the exhibition galleries devoted to Woodman. Here one is first met with Woodman’s earlier work. One senses in the work a hunger to explore, a speed to get the research done and move on to new explorations, hence the crudeness of execution. It is as if once understanding the principles of the problem, Woodman loses interest and hurries on. In this way she works at a rapid pace through the history of pottery, decorative arts, painting, and sculpture, and makes it her own, as in her “Italian Window,” 1984.

Looking closely at the work process used by Woodman, one finds that all elements, both flat and round, originate as wheel-thrown shapes. This and the above-described characteristics of speed and crudeness are already present in a 1978 “Napkin Holder.” The vase/cup is sandwiched between two plates/saucers, all wheel-thrown. The plates/saucers are cut into vase shapes and are bigger than the real vase/cup, thus playing out an illusion and reality of vases on vases.

NAPKIN HOLDER—Glazed earthenware 1978
H. 14-3/4, W. 25-5/8, D. 10-3/4 inches (37.5 x 65.1 x 27.3 cm.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, 1985

On the 1983 “Frivolous Vase” the handles are an expansion of the vase and repeat the shape in a very frivolous way though still functional as handles and, believe it or not, wheel thrown. On the wall is a relief like a colorful shadow of the original vase, also a wheel-thrown shape flattened. Whereas in the 1978 “Napkin Holder” the flat plates on each side of the vase form are hiding the actual vase, in “Tropical Vase” of 1993 one slab is still in place, but the other has been bisected, and one half is now where one would expect a handle, giving the “real” vase more prominence.

The decoration on much of Betty Woodman’s work is seemingly childlike (or sometimes like an early Matisse). These are the hasty spatters of an adult who thinks that spatters are more inept, therefore more childish, therefore more pure – a viewpoint characteristic of post-WWII French artists such as the paintings of Dubuffet, among others. The theme of Woodman’s decoration often deals with the Italian stair balustrades, with their positive and negative vase shapes and the different shadows they make, which she uses on the surface of the flat upright platter. The lush technique of glazing reminds the viewer of old Italian majolica or Chinese Tang dynasty glazes with their bleeding of colors. Art history made into a new history of artwork created by Betty Woodman, an amazing blend.

TANG PILLOW PITCHER—Glazed earthenware, 1981
19 x 22 x 13 in. (50.2 x 55.9 x 33 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of Inge Peters

”Autumn Beauty,” created in 1998, is two vases in relation to each other as if they were persons spreading their arms while talking. The whole composition becomes one big canvas for a painted scene. The colors flow, lines travel, images move, it all makes the viewer forget that function is still there. Like a cup, which is empty most of the time, the composition of the work should still please the eye, even when not being put to its functional use.

In “River Viewing Studio Screen,” from 2004, the front and back are surprisingly different. Although most of the pieces in the exhibition have a distinct double face or double front in the way they are decorated, in “River Viewing Studio Screen” this is even more emphatically the case. On one side the viewer sees a charming scene of a Japanese woman in a garden at a river; the other side depicts a sort of palette of the colors used by the artist, each with their specific name carefully noted. And while the two ostensible “fronts” seem to have little in common, there is a great relationship between the two sides of the work. The theme would be the “artist’s notebook” and the “finished art work.” Also there is a great relationship between the two vases of the piece with the negative space making new shapes. The play of shapes -- flat, round, volume, and illusion of volume, negative shapes -- they all in their flow return into themselves. “River Viewing Studio Screen” is not a work easy to forget.


DECO LAKE SHORE—Terra sigillata, wax, acrylic, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 2002
23 7/8 x 50 1/4 in. (60.6 x 127.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase,
Gift of The A.L. Levine Family Foundation, by exchange, 2003

The relief “House of the South” from 1996 is too overwhelming and badly placed to give a true sense of the work. It is exhibited on a long wall, which it dominates, and due to the scale of the gallery, the viewer has no possibility of backing up to see it from a meaningful vantage point; further, one has to turn one’s back to it to be able to see all the other work. On the other hand, the smaller relief shapes high up on the wall and the paintings with relief on them are very pleasing and do not intrude upon the work exhibited on pedestals.

At the end of the exhibition there is a short wall dividing the space. On one side is the installation “Aeolian Pyramid” from 2001. This work is like a family tree or a family gathering. At the top of the installation are two vases in close relation to each other, and from them down comes a multiplying system of vases, each row one more vase than the row before. There is a hierarchy in place, but not in importance of size.

Even though function is a major part of Woodman’s work, it is not her primary concern. Rather, it is the joy of making, of working big, or big installations, the effect of repetition, of researching new possibilities, of combining existing ones, borrowing from art history all over the world and remaking it, that engages Woodman and makes viewing her work so exciting. Her virtuosity and creative energy make a practicing artist jealous, and yet gives a joyous energy at the same time. To think that all this work is done by one person, small in posture, not so young in age, a frontier person in the arts, pushing her way into new territories of clay/painting/sculpture, makes one filled with awe and glad to have visited this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

BALUSTRADE RELIEF VASE 97-15 Earthenware, 1997
60 x 82 x 10in. (152.4 x 208.3 x 25.4cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of Maxine and Stuart Frank

Nel Bannier is a ceramic artist formerly associated with the European Ceramic Work Center, The Netherlands, and currently a member of the faculty at the University of Evansville (Indiana). She recently curated “Bodies of Clay: Am I Weird?” with Atsumi Fujita for NCECA 2006, and was guest curator for “Bodies of Clay” at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science in 2005.

Betty Woodman at the Met



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