Before she died in 1998 at the age of 105, artist Beatrice Wood liked to say that she owed her longevity to "chocolate and young men."
A Santa Monica Museum of Art retrospective of her work does include a campy ceramic sculpture she made on that theme, which shows a regal woman flanked by a phalanx of tiny adoring male figures. But the show promises to go beyond the sensational, sari-wearing persona that Wood cultivated to find an artist of contradictions and complexities. Called the Mama of Dada in New York during World War I, Wood went on to become a serious ceramicist in Ojai in her later years.
FOR THE RECORD:
Beatrice Wood: An article in the Aug. 31 Calendar section about a Beatrice Wood exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art said Wood was called the Mama of Dada in New York during World War I. In fact, she earned the nickname later. —
The show is part of Pacific Standard Time, a region-wide celebration of Southern California's postwar art history, largely funded by the Getty. Most of the museum shows will open the first week of October. "Beatrice Wood: Career Woman" is one of a handful to open earlier (see box for others), on Sept. 10, for what museum director Elsa Longhauser describes as standard scheduling reasons.
Wood was born to a wealthy San Francisco family but made her home in bohemian art circles. The earliest works in the show include Dada drawings and ephemera from her time in New York when she was an intimate (some say lover) of artist Marcel Duchamp. Some works, like her wry poster design for the 1917 avant-garde bash Blind Man's Ball, come from the personal collection of Dada dealer/scholar Francis Naumann, who has also contributed to the catalog.
Later selections show Wood as a versatile ceramic artist who specialized in lusterware, coating chalices and teapots with glazes that make them look like precious metals. She didn't start making ceramics until she was settled in L.A. at age 40, taking an extension course at Hollywood High to make a teapot and cups to match some neo-rococo luster plates she had bought in the Netherlands. She continued to make ceramics until a few years before her death.
Along the way she apprenticed with masters such as Glen Lukens and Gertrud and Otto Natzler. The Natzlers taught her how to use a potter's wheel, very rare in California at the time. But according to Longhauser, Wood was never a by-the-book student.
"She was never interested in perfection of the form but the glory of the luster surface," says Longhauser, who co-curated the show. "Our exhibition will show the very interesting evolution of somebody who started her artistic career on the highest possible level with the giants of 20th century modernism and ultimately found her particular voice in lusterware pottery — luminescent, shimmering surfaces that she invented herself through experimentation."