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Betty Woodman, Pathbreaking Ceramicist, Dies at 87

Though she trained as a craftsperson, Woodman quickly outgrew the conventions of craft and began making powerful, unclassifiable work.

Portrait of Betty Woodman (photo by Stefano Porcinai, courtesy Salon 94)
Portrait of Betty Woodman (photo by Stefano Porcinai, courtesy Salon 94)

Betty Woodman, a ceramicist known for helping to spur the contemporary art world’s renewed interest in clay, died today at age 87. Her New York gallery, Salon 94, confirmed her death.

Betty Woodman, "Silk Pillow Pitcher" (1985), hand-thrown and assembled white earthenware with majolica glazes, 24 x 22 x 17 in (courtesy Salon 94)
Betty Woodman, “Silk Pillow Pitcher” (1985), hand-thrown and assembled white earthenware with majolica glazes, 24 x 22 x 17 in (photo by John Polak photography, courtesy Ferrin Contemporary)

“It is with great sadness that we announce the death of artist and friend, Betty Woodman,” Salon 94 said in a statement. “Our heartfelt condolences go out to her son Charles Woodman, her daughter-in-law, Andrea Torrice, her grandson, Alexander Woodman.”

Though widely celebrated in her own right — Woodman was the first living female artist to have a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 2006 — she was also famous for being the matriarch of a family of famous artists, along with her husband George Woodman (who died last year), their daughter Francesca Woodman (who committed suicide at age 22 in 1981), and son Charles Woodman. The family was the subject of the 2010 documentary The Woodmans.

Betty Woodman, "Balustrade Relief Vase" (1995–99), bronze, patina, 105 x 125 x 9 in (courtesy Salon 94, New York)
Betty Woodman, “Balustrade Relief Vase” (1995–99), bronze, patina, 105 x 125 x 9 in (courtesy Salon 94, New York)

Woodman, who was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1930, enrolled at the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University in 1948.

“I started off wanting to be a production potter, wanting to make functional pieces, and wanting in some way to serve society by making beautiful things for people to use; I felt that this was very, very important,” Woodman told the American Craft Council in an interview in 2014, the same year she received its Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship. “I still feel it’s important, but somehow my work sort of moved along, and I moved away from that.”

Betty Woodman, "Balustrade Relief Vase 91" (1995), glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, laquer, 46 x 50 x 10 in (courtesy Salon 94, New York)
Betty Woodman, “Balustrade Relief Vase 91” (1995), glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, laquer, 46 x 50 x 10 in (courtesy Salon 94, New York)

After graduating, she primarily made functional pottery and decorative objects. In 1953, she married George Woodman. As the decade wore on, she began to make ceramic sculptures that departed radically from the conventions of craft, and met resistance because of it.

“I think it’s partly because people sometimes don’t know how to define my work, or where it fits into art history,” Woodman told the Guardian in 2016, on the occasion of her solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. “When I started out, ceramics was not even a material you made art out of. People might have liked what I was doing, responded to it, bought it, eaten off of it, but it had nothing to do with being an artist — it was about being a craftsman.”

Betty Woodman's installation “Balustrade” (1993) at Denver International Airport (courtesy Denver International Airport)
Betty Woodman’s installation “Balustrade” (1993) at Denver International Airport (courtesy Denver International Airport)

Though she started to gain recognition and have solo exhibitions in the 1970s, they were often at institutions and galleries showcasing craft art, including the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Portland, Oregon (1975), and the Clay and Fiber Gallery in Taos, New Mexico (in 1976). In the ’80s and ’90s, her work achieved more widespread recognition, thanks in part to her New York gallery of the time, Max Protetch, resulting in major exhibitions at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia (in 1985), the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (in 1992), and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (in 1996).

“The centrality of the vase in my work is certainly a reference to a global perspective on art history and production,” she said on the occasion of an exhibition of her work at the Montclair Art Museum in 2002. “The vase motif connects what I do to all aspects of art. I can mix the motifs of a classic Greek vase on one side of a triptych with the details of a Japanese print on the other all conveyed with a palette based on the hues of a recollected Hindu temple.”

Betty Woodman, "Ceramic Pictures of Korean Paintings" (2001/02), glazed earthenware, clay, canvas 37 1/2 x 10 x 1 feet (courtesy Salon 94)
Betty Woodman, “Ceramic Pictures of Korean Paintings” (2001/02), glazed earthenware, clay, canvas 37 1/2 x 10 x 1 feet (courtesy Salon 94)

Over the decades, her work expanded beyond ceramic sculptures to incorporate textiles, installations, paintings, and more. In recent years she also blurred distinctions between media, from ceramic wall installations meant to evoke wallpaper to still life paintings incorporating bas relief clay sculpture. No matter her choice of material or format, though, she always engaged with the histories of art and decorative arts, reinterpreting and transforming traditional motifs and symbols to create playful and colorful reinterpretations.

“I was always interested in my work being seen in a broader context, to be displayed in museums, not shut away in cluttered cupboards,” Woodman told the Guardian in 2016. “And though it’s taken me a long time, with these recent works, these paintings, I’m really putting it out there.”

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