National News

Betty Woodman, Who Spun Pottery Into Multimedia Art, Dies at 87

Posted January 6, 2018 12:36 a.m. EST

Betty Woodman, a sculptor who took an audacious turn when she began to transform traditional pottery, her usual medium, into innovative multimedia art, moving her work from kitchen cupboard shelves to museum walls, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 87.

Her son, Charles, said the cause was pneumonia.

Woodman’s evolution from artisan to fine artist culminated in a retrospective in 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its first for a living female artist.

“I am coming out of left field,” she told The New York Times when the exhibition opened. “They don’t know what they’ve got hold of.”

One of the 70 works in the show, “The Ming Sisters,” is a nearly 3-foot-high triptych of cylindrical vases arranged side by side — each with irregular, winged cutouts — that depict Asian women in gowns on one side and brightly colored paintings of vases on the other.

Reviewing the show for The Times, Grace Glueck wrote that the “sharply outlined spaces between the figures, ghostly gray intrusions, play an important part in the presentation of the figures.”

Another work in the retrospective was “Aeolian Pyramid,” which reflects Woodman’s late-in-life shift to very large installations of ceramics, some of them fused with paintings. “Aeolian,” which comprises 44 pedestal-mounted vase shapes, gradually tiers upward in a dramatic, pyramidal design.

“The composite keeps squeezing out real space, which keeps muscling back in,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his review in The New Yorker. “The result is a visual ‘Hallelujah Chorus.'”

He added: “At the age of 76, she is beyond original, all the way to sui generis.”

Using clay as her primary medium, Woodman’s vividly colored ceramics drew on innumerable influences, including Greek and Etruscan sculpture, Italian Baroque architecture, Tang dynasty glaze techniques, Egyptian art and Islamic tiles.

They also evoked paintings by Picasso, Bonnard and Matisse. “You should be able to think of Matisse,” she told the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in 2011, “but hopefully you don’t stop there; you realize that it makes a reference, but it goes beyond.”

Woodman — usually attired in a kerchief, a boldly striped dress and wildly patterned stockings — worked at her potter’s wheels and kilns at her studios in Boulder, Colorado, the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and Antella, Italy.

Her husband, George, a painter and photographer, died last March; her son is an electronic artist, and her daughter, Francesca, was a photographer whose erotic and melancholy pictures won her acclaim before she committed suicide in 1981, when she was 22.

“She just emotionally fell apart,” Woodman said in Scott Willis’ documentary film “The Woodmans” (2010), which explored George and Betty Woodman’s fierce devotion to art. “I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve been an absolutely horrible mother. I can’t go back and rewrite it, and I don’t really think it’s true.”

In the months after her daughter’s death, Woodman said, she began to shift from making functional pottery to creating the idiosyncratic vessels — like pillow-shaped pitchers — that altered her career.

She was born Elizabeth Abrahams on May 14, 1930, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and moved frequently with her family around New England. Her father, Henry, was a supermarket worker and woodworker who built bookcases and cabinets; her mother, the former Minnie Koffman, was a secretary.

In seventh grade, fed up with the sewing and cooking classes that girls were relegated to, Betty successfully petitioned her junior high school principal to let her take wood shop, where she learned to turn wooden bowls on a lathe.

While still in school, during World War II, she also made model airplanes, including a Messerschmitt, for air-raid wardens to use to identify German aircraft, she told the Archives of American Art in an interview in 2003.

As a high school student in Newton, Massachusetts, she was seduced by clay, fascinated by its versatility. A pitcher was her first creation.

After graduating from the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University, then located in southwestern New York state (it later moved to the Rochester Institute of Technology), she began her pottery career in earnest, making things for people to use.

“Functional ware was everything,” Charles Woodman said in a telephone interview. “Cups, plates, saucers, bowls, large salad bowls, bowls to eat cereal out of. You could get an entire table setting of Betty’s.”

He added, “When I was a child, we’d have pottery sales twice a year in the front of our house in Boulder.”

But making pottery that landed in cupboards and not museums was not enough for her.

“I was always interested in my work being seen in a broader context,” Betty Woodman told The Guardian in 2016, when an exhibition of her work, “Theatre of the Domestic,” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.

That show focused on what she had done since the Met retrospective. One piece, “The Summer House,” a four-panel, 28-foot-long still life, demonstrated how far she had come from making functional pottery. In pink, green, gray, blue and yellow hues, Woodman depicted a cheerful room with ceramics, or shards of them, and a wooden shelf attached to the canvas. Three small vases sit on the shelf, and a diptych of vases rests on the floor in front of the painting.

“With their ear-like handles and dark peripheries, they might be items of Etruscan pottery,” Rob Sharp wrote in his review of the show on the website Artsy. “But they are flattened and distorted, their properties bent out of shape, lending the impression of a theatrical set or frieze.”

Besides her son, she is survived by a grandson. The time-honored vase remained central to the work of Woodman, who, Glueck wrote in 2006, “brought it to spectacular new life in contemporary art.”

For Woodman, “the vase is the archetypal ceramic object,” she told the curator of the London show during an interview. She added: “The vase is also a symbol for a figure, a woman. Metaphorically, it’s a container; it has that connection for everyone.”