Beatrice Wood: One of America’s Greatest Potters & an American Original
Wood at 105 with jewel bedecked hands (credit: Robert Hale)
One of the most exciting things about writing this blog is that I get to do what’s called in the Jewish liturgy, a chesbon nefesh (“personal accounting”), of the most important and meaningful events in my life. Then I can choose to write about them here in hopes that what moved me might move someone else as well.
In 1997, I decided to visit The American Craft Museum (now known as the Museum of Arts & Design). I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the museum as I find some of the exhibits to be riveting and others to be dry as toast. But on this day, I happened upon its exhibition, Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute. This was my introduction to the amazing pottery and even more amazing life of Beatrice Wood.
Wood, who died the next year in 1998 at the venerable age of 105, led a life that many of us would envy, full of great friendships with the intellectual and artistic giants of her era (including affairs with Duchamp and many others). She lived her life with grace and beauty right up to the end. Even more importantly, Wood produced some of her most important artistic work AFTER the age of 90. We should all be able to boast of such an achievement in our own lives!
Though Wood practiced many artistic forms, she will probably be best known for her ceramics. She perfected a style of pottery called lustre, which involved a gorgeous lustrous finish on her pieces that lent them a luminous, almost spiritual quality.
Besides being an extraordinary artist, she was a giving and devoted friend. Part of her charm and allure was her infallible and profound interest in everyone (especially attractive men!) who entered her orbit. She was an inveterate coquette and shameless flirt. One of her best known sayings was that “chocolate and young men” enabled her to reach her advanced age. If one wished to visit her, the ultimate passport was chocolate. No chocolate, no visit (perhaps a slight exagerration).
Alexandra Anderson-Spivy in Longevity’s Paradoxes and Rewards: Beatrice Wood attempted to place Wood, her art and her life into their social context (this was written while Wood was alive):
Wood is a fascinating cultural hybrid whose art reflects the her immersion in classic European and American modernism. She first studied painting at the Academie Julien, and was a handmaiden to Dada. Another part of the mix included the high intellectual bohemianism of New York in the twenties (when Duchamp was her lover and mentor), the theosophists of Southern California, the influence of India, and her studies with the pioneering California potters Glen Lukens and the great Otto and Gertrude Natzler. Wood is a reigning art pottery star. But Wood’s artistic achievement must never again be segregated within the world of craft alone. It now belongs to, and enriches the larger story of twentieth century modern art.
On the occasion of the American Craft Museum’s tribute, Craft Report wrote Tribute Honors Beatrice Wood at Age 104 the following appreciation which also provides further background on Wood’s life and artistic career:
Wood broke rank with social and familial expectations and opted for a career as an actress in pre-World War I Paris. Her career as a visual artist began in Paris when she enrolled in drawing classes in 1910, at age 17. At the outbreak of World War I, she left Paris for New York, where, in 1916, she met Marcel Duchamp.
She was a well-known member of the New York Dada Circle, which included such figures as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Many believe that the love triangle that developed among Wood, Duchamp and French Diplomat Henri-Pierre Roché formed the basis of Roché’s novel, Jules and Jim, which was later made into the celebrated film by François Truffaut.
Wood did not begin her career in ceramics until 1933, at the age of 40. By fusing experimental glazes with simple, universal forms, Wood’s iridescent luster vessels soon established her international reputation. Wood’s ceramics differ from most of the luster tradition that preceded her. Earlier, luster had primarily been used for surface decoration of forms that had already been glazed. Wood on the other hand, worked chiefly with in-glaze luster, produced during a single glaze firing, bringing to it her own sensibility of theatricality and adventurousness.
Wood was perhaps one of the earliest feminists and led a liberated and invigorating sex life. Frances Naumann, who curated the Craft Museum’s tribute to Wood, included this amazing Wood comment on her love life with Duchamp in Enough Is Enough Is Enough:
When I once asked Beatrice Wood how Marcel was in bed, fearing that I would never forgive myself in the future for not having asked that question (impertinent though it certainly was), she responded with a tribute that would be the envy of any sensitive and caring man: “All I can remember is that he was as gentle in bed,” she said, “as he was out of it.”
One of her other pithy comments was: “I loved seven men I didn’t marry and married two men I never loved.”
James Cameron came to know Wood and asked her if he could interview her because he wanted to write a character in his film, Titanic, that would be based on her life. The result was the memorable Gloria Stuart charcter, Rose.
No one who knew her seemed to feel anything less than outright admiration for her. One fan who knew Wood wrote this about her: “Beato’ welcomed everyone through the door to her studio, her heart was always open.” Another admirer wrote:
Beatrice Wood’s home, life and heart were filled to the brim with love and art. Not a space was left without adornment and laughter. Each moment was expressed in creative and mischievous joy tweaking the nose of anyone who might be the least bit conservative or without humor; she enjoyed telling people
her two primary loves were young men and chocolate.
This artistic appraisal by Bernadette Finnerty captures her technique and style succinctly:
Wood was noted for pioneering exquisite “luster” glazes in luminous colors including dark green, gold, pink and blue. Her work was noted for its social commentary, often poking fun at political hypocrisy and the battle of the sexes.
The Garth Clark Gallery, which represented Wood, maintains some great archival material and articles about Wood, including an excerpt from Frances Nauman’s introduction in Gilded Vessels.
The Smithsonian Archives of American Art offers a Beatrice Wood oral history recorded in 1976.
Beatrice Wood’s Studio is maintained by an educational foundation she established. The website offers many of her pieces for sale and provides some interesting links and resources about the artist.
Here is a gallery of some of the finest Wood ceramics, jewelry and sculpture I could find on the web. The images are from Garth Clark Gallery/Beatrice Wood: Gilded Vessels, Beatrice Wood’s Studio, and Guild.com.