One of the greatest little-known icons of the 20th century, Beatrice Wood created original crafts with a distinct brilliance and beauty.
Beatrice Wood turned the ancient art of pottery into a modern medium filled with irreverence, sass and sophistication. At a time when her designs are generating record sales, NY gallery Garth Clark pays homage to this timeless original with a dazzling survey of her work.
"Water poured from one of her jars will taste like wine," wrote Anaïs Nin of Beatrice Wood's outstanding hand-thrown pottery. As remarkable for her longevity (she died at age 105) as for her charisma, style, eccentricity and humor, Beatrice Wood produced artwork that is infused with her distinctive brilliance and beauty. Born in California in 1893 (where an Arts Center is now named in her honor), at age 18 the precocious Wood started her illustrious art-filled life by skipping off to Paris to study at the Académie Julian, before moving to New York to act with the French Repertory Theater. It was there that she became a part of the recherché cultural clique that included Marcel Duchamp and writer Henri-Pierre Roché (whose famous novel, Jules and Jim, is reputedly based on their triangular love affair), as well as many other avant-garde talents such as Francis Picabia and Man Ray. Co-founder of Blind Man, a New York-based Dada journal, she earned the affectionate title "mama of Dada."
But it wasn't until Wood's early forties that a fortuitous peek inside an antique shop sparked a passion for ceramics. "I saw six luster plates, rococo, Victorian Period. They charmed me. I had never noticed pottery before. I brought the plates back to America, thinking to find a tea set to match," she wrote in 1937. Luckily, she never did, and instead enrolled in a local pottery class to learn how to throw her own. The part-time hobby turned into a creative adventure that would last more than 60 years. Through inexhaustible experimentation and zeal, the artist developed sophisticated lusterware techniques to embellish her unconventional forms, turning the ancient art of pottery into a majestic, modern medium. "The pursuit of rare and beautiful glazes is like the chase at the foot of the rainbow," she admitted. "One is always tantalized into finding lovelier and lovelier glazes." But character-filled color and vibrant sheen reflect only a part of the artist's flamboyant spirit and biting wit. Provocatively humorous and politically charged, her "sophisticated primitive" figurative work is sassy and wistfully wise.
Celebrating its 25-year anniversary, New York's Garth Clark gallery pays homage to this timeless original — and to its inaugural exhibition — with a rare survey of Wood's creative output. Here Garth Clark, who opened his gallery with partner Marc Del Vecchio in 1981, takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of this dazzlingly diverse retrospective.
How closely does this anniversary exhibition mirror the inaugural exhibition held for Beatrice Wood in 1981?
It does not mirror the original exhibition in that is not made up of the same objects. I doubt that recreating that event can be achieved. The objects have homes across the globe. We have lost contact with some of the collectors. Some works have been resold. In addition, we have a history of nearly two decades of subsequent exhibitions with Beato and we wanted to show the growth of her work, particularly the later chalices, which are the stars of the show.
Before representing Ms. Woods work you were first very close friends.
No, I would not characterize it that way. We were friends and growing closer. I had known her since 1978, when I visited her to include work in the exhibition A Century of Ceramics in the United States 1878-1979. I visited several times afterwards and in 1980 was working with her again for a book entitled American Potters: 20 Modern Masters.
How did the idea first arise to bring her work into the spotlight?
It was while working on this book. My then recent partner Mark Del Vecchio (26 years now and counting) and I were visiting and Beatrice was, uncharacteristically, pessimistic. She had not sold a piece in two years and she felt that her life as an artist was wasted, that she was not valued. We argued that this was not true, just that she had been poorly managed by her gallery. Mark and I took home some pieces to sell privately but disliked selling from home. Driving by the LA County Museum of Art I saw a space available across the street on Wilshire Boulevard and, goaded by Beatrice's need for representation, took the space. In the fall of 1981 we opened our first show, Beatrice Wood A Very Private View. It sold extremely well and when Beatrice was told of her success she responded, "That causes a dilemma. I have never had more money coming in than I needed, so I will have decide how to spend it. I will either get a gigolo or a vacuum cleaner." Yes, she was a romantic but also a pragmatist so the vacuum cleaner won out!
What do you admire most about Ms. Wood's work?
Its humanity, its lack of self-consciousness, its indifference to craft-based concepts of perfection, its liquid surfaces. Essentially, Beatrice sculpted with light.
Which are some of the most important/rare pieces in the show? What makes them so unique?
The most important pieces in the show are her large chalices, which she made in her nineties. They are her largest works and her most ambitious. We encouraged her to make vessels that were as expressive as possible and assured her that we could sell them. So, feeling free, she began to create these wonderful "holy grails" with exceptional surfaces, multiple handles and complex volumes. They are the most sophisticated pieces of her career.
Where did the pieces come from? Are they from a private collection?
Yes, all work now comes from the secondary market. The gallery owns a few pieces but not many. Interestingly, her prices are suddenly jumping. Major chalices, her most sought after objects, are selling from $40,000 to $60,000.
How difficult is it to find Beatrice Wood's work on the market? Are many of the models part of a series, or are they one of a kind?
The high prices are the result of low supply, particularly of good, major luster pieces, and all her work is unique and made by hand. The works are signed, but even if they were not, she had another signature; a wonderfully wobbly style of throwing that is as distinctive in its eccentric rhythms as a fingerprint.
Garth Clark Gallery
Beatrice Wood: A Very Private View
24 West 57th Street, NYC
Through November 6, 2006