TIME FRAGMENTS: Pieces and Parts


105: i do not know
When groping and stretching as I find myself doing so often lately, desperately probing and grasping for the untenable comprehension of the mysterious conditions of time, (this impalpable, slippery characteristic of the universe seems to move forward without encumbrance -- or does it?); when seeking to understand the qualities of age/aging and of its’ relation to authenticity, to art, to inspiration which is timely yet timeless, perhaps a an examination of this remarkable artist and female archetype of the 20/21st centuries is worthy of consideration.

Having always venerated Dada and all of the artists associated with the movement, I find myself captivated with the one remarkable female in the group who possessed the ability to successfully romance all of my idols in that period. Imagine the very idea that Marcel Duchamp might have found you to be an attractive and mesmerizing female in his day, in his circle. Simply imagine. Who and what sort of person would you have been, as a woman, as an artist, to possess the qualities that would have attracted and intrigued such a man? How would you have gained his respect?

You, my dear lady, would have been the lovely and incredible Beatrice Wood. And what a beautiful creature she was; her work and life are equally absorbing and deserve commemoration, examination and perhaps emulation as well.

Have a look; take some time to peruse the life of this illustrious human being as I have assembled it in the blurb that follows. If, as I am, you are currently seeking the nectar of ever shrinking resources of genuine inspiration, this illustration of a life lived in genuine authenticity and unending creativity may perhaps bring you great pleasure and satisfaction. In any case, the story itself is quite interesting, in its’ own right.

From NPR’s Weekend Edition…
Weekend Edition Sunday
March 22, 1998 · Ceramicist Beatrice Wood passed away recently. She was 105 years old. The "Mama of Dada" cut a wide swath through the art world, creating sculpture and associating with some of this century's most notable artisans. Essayist Lester Sloan was one of the last people to interview Wood, and he found her to be as feisty and relevant as ever.

You have fully seduced me. Not by your beauty and feminine wiles, your demurely raunchy wit and famed naughtiness, your bohemianism, nor your extraordinary sense of personal style. What did it was the sheer, overwhelming beauty of the objects you have created.
Gazing into one of your lustrous, opulent ceramic vessels, I find myself shifting from foot to foot in order to savor the minute changes in the glaze's reflections and its miraculous spectrum of unnameable colors. I become transfixed by light itself, which leaves me with mind stilled, heart filled and soul satisfied.
The public is reminded continually that you and Duchamp were lovers (what a choice for a paramour -- a perfectly matched blend of the intellectual and the sensual), that you tie-dyed scarves for Isadora Duncan (I hope a scarf of yours was not her last fateful wardrobe selection) and that you knew virtually all the card-carrying members of the Paris/New York avant-garde. You must have been a hot ticket in those years. And then you became a disciple of Krishnamurti. All this early history distracts us from the important thing: you were 40 when you first took up ceramics, you became a true artist in your 80s, and now, as a centenarian, you are still going strong. The flood of creativity, assurance, confidence and innovation your work displays confounds our stereotyped view of old age. It is as if you no longer needed to be the belle of the ball and could concentrate on the uncharted pleasures of being the empowered "crone" -- to use the term in its revamped feminist sense -- the possessor and dispenser of female sagacity and artistic alchemy.
"Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute," your traveling retrospective originating at the American Craft Museum, examines your entire career, taking us from the soigne drawings and collages -- both diaristic and Dada -- of the 1910s to the early ceramic platters sporting images of abstracted women and haughty British queens; from the numerous figurative tableaux with their surprising matte, rough glazes -- scenes that could be New Yorker cartoons transformed into rubbery 3-D -- to, of course, your justly famous luster vessels. Tons of wonderful photos fill out the picture.
As I look at your work, two themes come to mind -- nature and history. There is a Romantic (in the historical sense) displacement that you enjoy evoking. The vessels' reflective surfaces conjure iridescent Roman glass buried for centuries. But you offer us a wilder carpet ride of ceramic history, careening deftly from Japanese tea ware to 16th-century Nishapur bowls, with long stops in the Middle Ages (of particular resonance for you) to sip from ritual vessels. Every now and then you throw in a form from nowhere (Double-Handled, Double-Bodied Vessel, 1988), and I smile at your pleasure in having discovered and perfected it. But as we look at the work, we recollect our individual experiences of nature: the ocean's bioluminescence. the metallic reflection of a beetle's shell, the lazy crawl of an oil slick on a wet sidewalk, the flash of a hummingbird's throat, the restless shift of light on an abalone shell. Who else has captured these ephemera? And more to the point, you have succeeded not by mimesis but by concocting their ceramic equivalents. Usually ceramists utilize luster as an overglaze; your formulas incorporate the lustrous elements and qualities right into the body of the glaze. Although not your own invention, this method is carried to new heights in your work. To my knowledge there is simply no one else on a par with you in handling this most difficult glazing technique. In one bowl the glaze shifts from turquoise to shell pink to sky blue, with an ethereal golden mist diffused over all. No wonder you prefer diaphanous, shifting, light-shot saris to mere dresses.
Your thrown forms have been criticized as mundane, and there have been complaints about your self-admitted bad craftsmanship. Those critics have missed the point: the forms are meant to be foils for the glazes. They are intentionally modest -- simplicity itself -- but with an extremely playful twist. The shapes of the vessels hug the earth. Defiantly handmade, they celebrate the force of gravity and the innate reluctance of clay to take flight. But then you allow the glaze surfaces to merge with the air. You give us a frisson of both the earthbound and the heaven-sent, and it is here that we, your viewers, either join you or diverge. Your enthusiasm for the union of opposites is offered freely and extravagantly.
I consider the extended series of chalices to be your most ambitious work. They function as a summation, demonstrating the complex formal juxtaposition and harmonization of foot, stem and bowl. To these essential elements of the chalice you add numerous handles, functional and otherwise; bas-relief decorative motifs and your characteristic rows of bumbles on the edges of things (see Bottle with Balls, 1989, for great bumbles and a piquant title). Because of their exaggerated scale, these cups cannot easily be used. Instead, the chalice becomes subject matter for those totemic sculptural compositions. structural support for the liquefactions of the luster glazes. Silver mist over copper, lime-green luster with a rosy bloom and magenta flecks: what a palette! And to think you were in your ninth decade when you began this major ongoing series of works.
Your Dinner Service for Eight (1982-92) is an uncontested masterpiece of late 20th-century art. I looked at it for so long, so longingly. Plates, footed soup bowls, goblet, wine glass, teacup and saucer, each with its own family of luster hues, visual symphonic chords. I love to compare the different goblets with their individual variations within their own color family, wondering where the reddish glints inside the soup bowls come from. Would tea dare remain in those devilishly skinny cups?
Despite my admiration, I have tried and failed to love your numerous figures and tableaux. I know they are important to you and constitute a significant proportion of your production, but I cannot get there yet. The recurring school girls, prostitutes and priests seem rooted in a prissy 1920s sentimentality, like coy, off-color spinster's jokes. I miss the full-bodied enjoyment of the sexual that your interviews and pots reveal.
The installation at the American Craft Museum did your work a certain disservice. It was unfortunate not to be able to view all the pieces in chronological order. A historical integration of the luster vessels, decorative polychrome platters and figurative sculpture, both in the galleries and the catalogue, might have offered horizontal links among what seemed to be unrelated bodies of work.
Many admirers saw your retrospective, but I want everyone to see it. Let's drop the artificial and outdated hierarchy of art and craft. Your vessels stand on their own against any contemporary production. And your joy in living, your sagacity in looking back on a long life well lived, is much more important to me than all the narcissistic self-doubt and chic cynicism so ubiquitous in contemporary art. My hat is off to you, still working, in this, your 105th year. Beatrice Wood, long may you wave.
~Robert Kushner

From a letter to Beatrice Wood, "Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute," organized by Frances M. Naumann, was seen at the American Craft Museum, New York [Mar. 4-June 15, 1997] and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, Calif. [Sept. 13, 1997-Jan. 4, 1998]. Its last stop will be at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio [June 7-Aug. 23].

History of La Mama
Beatrice Wood was born in San Francisco in 1893 and passed away in Ojai, California nine days after her 105th birthday on March 12, 1998. As an artist, always searching for ideas and vision, she was known to have desired that her epitaph read, “I do not know”.

An American artist and
ceramist, she was was dubbed the "Mama of Dada" later in life and served as a partial inspiration for the character of Rose DeWitt Bukater in James Cameron's 1997 film, Titanic. Beatrice Beatrice Wood came into the world as the daughter of wealthy socialites. Despite her parents' strong opposition, Wood rebelliously insisted on pursuing a career in the arts.

She remembers being "the most interested student in [Lukens's] class and certainly the least gifted...." "I was not a born craftsman. Many with natural talent do not have to struggle; they ride on easy talent and never soar. But I worked and worked, obsessed with learning."

From that time on, Wood developed a personal and uniquely expressive art form with her lusterwares. Her sense of theater is still vividly alive in these works, with their exotic palette of colors and unconventional form. In 1983 the Art Galleries of California State University at Fullerton organized a large retrospective of the artist's sixty-six years of activity as an artist. Remarkably, it was during the artist's nineties that Wood produced some of her finest work including her now signature works, tall complex, multi-volumed chalices in glittering golds, greens, pinks and bronzes. Until shortly before her death she was producing at least two one-woman exhibitions a year and the older she became, the more daring and experimental her work was.

Wood spent time in Paris during her late teens. Eventually her parents agreed to let her study painting and because she was fluent in French, they sent her to the prestigious
Académie Julian in Paris, France. Studying art briefly at the Academie Julian, she was soon attracted to the stage and moved to the Comedie Francaise.

The onset of
World War I forced Beatrice Wood to return to the United States in 1914 and she joined the French Repertory Theater in New York.

Soon she became an actress with a French Repertory Company in
New York City and would spend a number of years on the stage. This led to her involvement with a group of individuals who had a profound effect on her and on the artistic community.

While visiting the French composer Edgar Varese in a New York hospital in 1916, she was introduced to Marcel Duchamp. She soon became an intimate friend of the painter and a member of his recherche culturelle clique, which included Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Albert Gleizes, Walt Kuhn, and others. As a contributor to Duchamp's avant-garde magazines, Rogue and the Blindman, she produced drawings and shared editorial space with such luminaries of the day as Gertrude Stein.

During this time period, Wood was introduced to
Marcel Duchamp, who in turn introduced her to her first great love interest, Henri-Pierre Roché, a man twice her age. She worked with Duchamp and Roché in the 1910s to create The Blind Man, a magazine that was one of the earliest manifestations of the Dada art movement in New York City.

Though she was involved with Roché, the two would often spend time with Duchamp, creating a love triangle. Biographies of Wood traditionally link Roché's novel (and the consequent film),
Jules et Jim, with the relationship between Duchamp, Wood, and himself. Other sources link their triangle to Roché's unfinished novel, Victor, and Jules et Jim with the triangle between Roché, Franz Hessel and Helen Hessel. Beatrice Wood commented on this topic on p. 136 of her 1985 autobiography, I Shock Myself:

Roché lived in Paris with his wife Denise, and had by now written Jules et Jim...Because the story concerns two young men who are close friends and a woman who loves them both, people have wondered how much was based on Roché, Marcel, and me. I cannot say what memories or episodes inspired Roché, but the characters bare only passing resemblance to those of us in real life!

Around this time that she bought a pair of baroque plates with a luster glaze. She wanted to find a matching teapot to go along with it, but was unsuccesful. Deciding to make the teapot herself, she enrolled in a ceramic class at
Hollywood High School. This hobby turned into a passion that would last over the next sixty years, as she developed a unique form of luster-glaze technique that proved successful.

In 1933, after she purchased a set of six luster plates in Europe, she returned to America and wanted to produce a matching teapot. It was suggested that she make one at the pottery classes of the Hollywood High School. Of course, she would later laugh about that weekend and reminisce about how foolish she was in thinking she could produce a lustre teapot in one weekend. But she was hooked. She began to read everything she could get her hands on concerning ceramics. Around 1938 she studied with Glen Lukens at the USC, and in 1940 with the Austrian potters Gertrud and Otto Natzler.

In 1947, Beatrice felt that her career was established enough for her to build a home. She settled in
Ojai, California in 1948 to be near the Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti and became a life long member of the Theosophical Society - Adyar, events which would greatly influence her artistic philosophies. She also taught at the Happy Valley School.

Wood was next introduced to the art patrons,
Walter and Louise Arensberg (who would become her lifelong friends). They held regular gatherings in which artists, writers, and poets were invited for intellectual discussion. Besides herself, Duchamp, and Roché, the group included Man Ray and Francis Picabia. Beatrice Wood's relationship with them and others associated with the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, earned her the designation "Mama of Dada."

In her early forties, after a succession of failed artistic careers (most notably as an actress) and an annulled marriage, Beatrice moved back to
Los Angeles, California.

Beatrice Wood continued to throw on the wheel until June, 1997. She achieved some of her best lustre works in the 90s. Her last figurative work, "Men With Their Wives" was completed in December 1996 and is currently in a private collection in California.

Wood died nine days after her 105th birthday in Ojai, California.

Ever the comedienne, when asked the secret to her incredible longevity, she would respond, "I owe it all to chocolate and young men."

Honors and Achievements
In 1994, the
Smithsonian Institution named Wood an "Esteemed American Artist." In keeping with the vibrant and rebellious spirit of the Dada movement, Beatrice Wood wrote a autobiography in 1985 entiteld I Shock Myself: The autobiography of Beatrice Wood.

Films inspired by Wood include significant works such as
Beatrice Wood: Mama of Dada: This documentary was released as a 16 mm film in Los Angeles, California on March 3, 1993, to coincide with Wood's 100th birthday.
Titanic: Wood found a new audience when she was 104. She served as a partial inspiration for the 101-year-old character of "Rose" in James Cameron's epic 1997 film, Titanic. In Titanic: James Cameron's Illustrated Screenplay, Cameron notes that Bill Paxton's wife loaned a copy of I Shock Myself to him. He realized upon reading it that "the first chapter describes almost literally the character I was already writing for 'Old Rose'...When I met her she was charming, creative and devastatingly funny...Of course, the film's Rose is only a refraction of Beatrice, combined with many fictional elements" (overleaf for page 7). According to her obituary in the Ojai Valley News, six days before her death on March 12, 1998, Wood awarded the Fifth Annual Beatrice Wood Film Award to Cameron.

Beatrice Wood Wood received numerous honors. She was given the Ceramics Symposium Award of the Institute for Ceramic History in 1983 and the outstanding-achievement award of the Women's Caucus for Art in 1987, the year she was made a fellow of both the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts and the American Craft Council which also gave her the gold medal on her 100th birthday. She also received the Governor's Award for Art in 1994, and was made a "living treasure of California" by the state in 1984. Wood took part in hundreds of exhibitions both solo and group since the 1930's ranging from small craft shows, to showing on the Venice Biennale. From 1981 until her death, the Garth Clark Gallery represented her. In 1990, her close friend and art historian Francis Naumann organized a major retrospective of her figurative work, which appeared at the Oakland Museum and The Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. In 1997 the American Craft Museum organized "Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute," a touring exhibition. In 1985 Wood published her autobiography, I Shock Myself. She continued to write, publishing many books. In 1993 she was the subject of an award winning film Beatrice Wood: Mama of Dada by Lone Wolf Productions.

Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York
Centre d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris
Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, Racine, Wisconsin
Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York
Crocker Museum of Art, Sacramento, California
Detroit Institute for the Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York
Happy Valley Foundation Permanent Collection, Ojai, CA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Mint Museum of Craft & Design, Charlotte, North Carolina
Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
Museum of Arts and Design, New York
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
Newark Museum of Art, Newark, N.J.
Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA
Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, CA

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, CA
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
Staatliche Museen Pressischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin
Ventura County Museum of History & Art, Ventura, California
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Smithsonian Archives of American Art An oral history: interview with Beatrice Wood in 1976


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sfmichel said...

wonderful as usual... how's the book coming along?

andrea said...

awesome info!
love the blog...

sophia said...

Wood was fabulous. Thank you for reminding us of her incredible life.

amanda said...

Wordsmith saved my life.
Beatrice saved my soul.
Good work!