Art review: ‘Beatrice Wood’ at the Santa Monica Museum of Art
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In the annals of understatement, to say that Beatrice Wood was a late bloomer ranks right up there with saying Bill Gates is rich and Lady Gaga likes clothes. She was well into her 60s when her luxurious, luster-glazed earthenware vessels made Wood a potter to reckon with -- one of the most distinctive and compelling of the last half-century. A lovely exhibition, part of Pacific Standard Time, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art does a good job of putting her work into the context of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Southern California artists working with clay shook up complacent expectations.
Wood’s luster ware is frankly bizarre -- strange, whimsical, serious, gorgeous, preposterous, technically astute and several other deep-seated contradictions. All happily coexist in functional objects that would turn an ordinary dinner table into a charged landscape of almost carnal desire, if not a cartoon banquet. The show’s roughly 70 examples survey a variety of ceramic forms, including platters, bottles, tea sets and, the weakest, figurative clay sculptures.
However, Wood’s signature form is the chalice, which might be called a drinking cup with pretensions. The configuration of a cupped vessel raised aloft on its own built-in pedestal yields an inescapably sacramental edge, whether she deemed it a chalice or a footed bowl, urn or goblet. Sometimes looped handles -- a pair, four loops, even 10 of them on a single pot -- connect the cup to its pedestal. Like bent elbows, they stabilize the construction while lending a slight figurative cast to the ritualistically tinged object.
Notably, Wood was by no means interested in perfecting these forms. She did throw them on a potter’s wheel, but the chalices are always irregular, organic, often wobbly and sometimes downright lumpy.
It isn’t that she didn’t know what she was doing. She learned to throw pots in the 1940s from arguably the best technician in the country -- Gertrud Natzler, who, with her glazing-wizard husband Otto produced exquisitely refined, perfectly proportioned vessels whose forms were cloaked in a seamless skin of carefully fired glaze. By contrast, the clay body that Wood plainly wanted was more like her own sixtysomething flesh and blood -- settled and mature, not idealized and ethereal.
She sanctified this surrogate human body with thick, often pitted luster glaze -- a base of gold, silver or copper swarming with scarab-like highlights flickering in violet, peacock blue and aquamarine. The complicated luster technique dates from 9th century Persia, with metal glazing compounds pulled to the surface by forcing oxygen out of a low-fire kiln. (Iridescence in glass vessels arises from salts naturally oxidizing over time.) Modern manufacturers employ lusters that amount to cheaply applied china paints, but Wood did it the old-fashioned way, firing up the oven to court accident and chance.
One result was assertively modern ceramic vessels that nonetheless appeared pleased to connect with ancient sources. Who in fast-forward ‘60s L.A. (and beyond) would expect significant work to emerge as iridescent goblets fit for a fantasy banquet scene in ‘Camelot’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’? The vivacious tension between the ordinary and the marvelous characterizes Wood’s best vessels. Her chalices, plus a magnificent dinner service of 10 plates and matching cups, thrum with an unmistakably Pop undercurrent.
It was certainly not something one might have expected from Wood -- and not just because she was the daughter of a prim, Victorian-era San Francisco society couple with old New York roots. Born in 1893 (she died in Ojai at 105), Wood went bohemian as soon as she was able, abandoning genteel painting instruction in Paris at age 19 to become an actress and dancer. (Scandalous!) Settling in New York in 1914, she met writer Henri Pierre Roché, 14 years her senior and with whom she began a long affair, and French expatriate artist Marcel Duchamp. His Dada iconoclasm had a lot to do with developing her innate disinterest in button-down propriety, and he introduced her to the adventurous salon around Modern art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg.
The exhibition includes 18 drawings in ink, pencil, watercolor and collage, plus two little oil paintings, mostly dating from the late teens to the mid-1930s. Rudimentary, even primitive in style, they partly serve to demonstrate how nearly talent-free Wood was as a conventional draftsman. The sketches are like childish notations.
But most are also defined by the fluid, ephemeral, vaguely mystical tendencies of 19th century Symbolist art -- a common source for early 20th century Americans disenchanted with the tight restrictions of Realist painting. An avid interest in theosophy and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti were instrumental in Wood’s 1923 decision to move back to California -- not to her old upbringing in San Francisco, but to a new life in Hollywood, then North Hollywood, and finally Ojai.
Two events, both catastrophic, seem to have had at least an indirect influence on Wood’s fortunes. One was the grim outbreak of World War I, which sent her back from Paris to the United States. The other was the deepening Great Depression. (A textured catalog essay by ceramics historian Garth Clark is very good at articulating Wood’s working life in Los Angeles.) Following an adult education class in ceramics at Hollywood High, she got a perhaps quixotic idea to supplement her income by making and selling clay objects.
First the war and then the economic collapse caused unspeakable suffering for many; yet those brutal horrors weren’t the engine driving the Dada strain in American art, as the war had in Zurich and Berlin. Rather, as Wood’s long-standing bohemian affinities attest, more pertinent was the repeated failure of established social norms, which led to massive calamity. Why conform when conformity had brought untold pain? Given the war-weary and economically battered situation in the United States today, a certain unexpected resonance accompanies the show.
Wood titled her cheeky 1986 autobiography ‘I Shock Myself’ -- surely the best title of any artist’s memoir I know. She wasn’t playing the stereotypical role of Dali-like provocateur, out to scare the horses. Instead, it was herself she was bent on keeping surprised and engaged.
Her work invites us to do the same. At its best, it does. ‘Beatrice Wood: Career Woman -- Drawings, Paintings, Vessels, and Objects,’ Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., (310) 586-6488, through March 3. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.smmoa.org
PST: Barbara T. Smith’s life in the avant-garde shadows
Pacific Standard Time: Exhibitions to keep an eye on
Pacific Standard Time makes a bid for L.A. in art history
-- Christopher Knight