Sense of Humor Shines Through at Beatrice Wood’s Retrospective

From Associated Press

Beatrice Wood’s renowned luster-glazed ceramics hold shimmering pride of place in the retrospective of her work at the American Craft Museum.

But don’t be surprised to find much more, including evidence of the artist’s sense of fun. The show’s 4 opening last month coincided with her 104th birthday, and that long life has been adventurous as well as creative.

The traveling exhibition’s title is “Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute,” and its 180 works, including drawings, prints and paintings, sum up eight decades of a spirited career. It will remain at the museum through June 8.


This is an exhibition where you hear people laugh as they walk around--provoked by the comic, even bawdy, scenes in figurative ceramic pieces, or by the sly wit of drawings evoking the irreverent New York Dada art circle to which she belonged in the 1920s.

Still, the ceramic vessels outshine the other works. A tall, gold luster chalice, for example, has a classical simplicity. But it gleams subtly with iridescent lavender, rose and turquoise, like some heavenly wash of sunset-hued pearl. The piece is a recent one, from 1993.

“It’s not just her longevity that is remarkable for itself,” said art historian Francis M. Naumann, the show’s curator. “The greatest thing is to see this longevity that’s still creative and still great.”

Wood said she is not consciously going in any one direction. “I’m interested in ideas. I get an idea and I go with it.”

The artist, who lives in California, has been designated a state Living Treasure. She did not attend the New York opening but is likely to be at the one in September at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Naumann said.

Wood had already lived through several dashing phases of her life by the time she took up ceramic art in 1933 at age 40.


“I was happily out of an adolescent period before I came to the wheel, and I still cannot get over the wonder of it,” she writes, in a previously unpublished 1937 essay in the show’s catalog.

Luster had been used mostly as surface decoration on already glazed forms. Wood began to experiment with an unconventional use of luster in a single-glaze firing on simple shapes, and the results established her international reputation.

In her early life she had explored very different fields: Born in San Francisco in 1893, she took off as a teenager to try an acting career in Paris, enrolling in art school there in 1910.

When World War I broke out, she returned. In New York she met avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp and took an active role in the Dada group he led, along with Francis Picabia and Man Ray. She moved to Los Angeles in the late 1920s.

The exhibition has a sampling of early drawings, watercolors and prints--ranging from a stylized, doe-eyed self-portrait to affectionate studies based on her social circle.

The ceramics, including a rainbow of variations of the rich-surfaced luster vessels, form the bulk of the show. But there are also figurative sculptures, and decorated tiles and plates, featuring narrative reliefs, playful scenes cast with racy characters or mischievous portrayals of staid characters.


The 1971 piece titled “Is My Hat on Straight?” features a young woman seated on an elaborate garden seat, wearing a large formal hat, gloves, boots--and blue paint. A 1980 gold and silver luster teapot has a spout set at an angle that makes it look like a dancer doing a high kick.

Naumann said he sees change in the work Wood has been doing in the past 10 years or so.

“Through putting together this show, seeing as much work as this all together, I realized that the most recent work is getting bigger--and better, an amazing thing.”

Wood’s comment on this assessment was modest but bracing:

“Occasionally, I think my work is good. But I’m often disappointed--which is OK, because it keeps me on my toes.”