Betty Woodman, the sculptor who has, for the past six decades, created ceramics that draw on and combine various art-historical styles, often with a feminist slant, has died at 87. Salon 94, which represents Woodman in New York, confirmed the news.
Woodman is often associated with the beginning of a trend in the mid-1970s toward raising traditionally low forms of art-making—ones that were not painting, sculpture, drawing, and printing—to the higher status of those other mediums. For Woodman, this was accomplished by radically experimenting with ceramics, in the process alluding to Italian Renaissance, ancient Etruscan, and Chinese styles.
Around this same time, the Pattern & Decoration movement—for which artists, many of them female, began relying on design elements and ready-made patterning in reaction to modernist abstraction—had begun. (Woodman’s husband, the painter George Woodman, was a member of the movement. Their daughter was Francesca Woodman, the feminist photographer who died in 1981 at the age of 22.) Many of the artists involved claimed their use of fabrics, wallpapers, and quilts as a feminist strategy, an elevation of domestic items to the status of fine art.
For Woodman, her ceramics, though not explicitly feminist, were indeed a reaction to the male-dominated art world of the 1960s and ’70s. During the ’50s, Peter Voulkos and a group of male artists started creating lumpy-looking, cracked ceramic objects that were decidedly imperfect. These experiments with chance—Voulkos and other artists accepted mistakes that happened during the firing process—appealed to Woodman, but, in her view, they had too much bravado. “It was macho,” Woodman said of Voulkos’s sphere in a 2016 Huffington Post profile. “It was a man’s world. Being a woman was not easy to achieve some kind of recognition.”
And yet, during the ’70s and early ’80s, Woodman’s work received attention from critics. Among her most celebrated works were her “Pillow Pitchers,” for which she fitted together two cylindrical pots, with their bottoms touching, pinched closed their tops, and added a spout and handle. Reference points for the series include Tang Chinese pots, Islamic ceramics, and Persian decorative works. With their abstracted patterns and their curvaceous forms, these works literally mash together elements of art history and create something new in the process.
The “Pillow Pitchers” were included in a 2006 Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective—the institution’s first for a living woman and for an artist working with ceramics. Her work was also the subject of a U.K. retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 2016.
Woodman was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1930. She often recalled her parents as having been “open-minded”—they were socialist, and her mother, who worked in an office, didn’t believe in women staying home to mother children. When she was 16, Woodman took a pottery class, and she knew immediately that clay would be her chosen medium. She went on to study craft at the Society for American Craftsmen in Alfred, New York.
After producing ceramics as a job starting in the ’50s, Woodman traveled, which moved her work into a more experimental vein. She was enamored of Italy, which she first visited in 1951, and where she and her husband, George, whom she married in 1953, later went to annually. She found herself enraptured by the Baroque staircases and Majolica pottery she saw, and she worked their stylistic quirks into her work.
In the later part of her career, Woodman made tough-to-classify pieces that walk the line between painting, sculpture, and design. They often include ceramics that are partly affixed to the wall or are part of larger rectangular compositions, and sometimes meditate on how ceramics get displayed. It is not difficult to imagine these works, as well as many of Woodman’s best early pieces, inspiring a multitude of artists working today, from Arlene Schechet to Simone Leigh.
Woodman spent the majority of her life working out of her Chelsea studio, which also doubled as her home, imbuing her art with a decidedly personal quality. In 2016, she described managing her artworks and her family life simultaneously, and enjoying the interplay between the two. “We had breakfast, the kids went to school, I went into my studio,” she said. “Ceramics is time-based work. When a piece [is] the right thickness you put the handle on, turn on the kiln, walk out of the studio, put the stew in the oven, give it a stir. It’s a personal taste, but it’s how I like to work.”