Betty Woodman. Il Giardino Dipinto, 1993. Glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, paint. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and the Woodman Family Foundation. © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Betty Woodman. Roman Girls, 2008. Glazed earthenware, resin, lacquer, and paint. Jeff McLane/Thomas Müller, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and the Woodman Family Foundation. © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Betty Woodman

by Billie Muraben

Betty Woodman’s first foray into ceramics was a high school pottery class, which set off a career-long relationship with clay, moving from the potential of functional pottery—“the cup you drink from . . . can change your life!”—to the abstracted vessels of her later work.

Woodman studied ceramics at the School for American Craftsman at Alfred University, where she produced a custard cup as her graduating project; it was a post-graduation summer in Italy that would form her idiosyncratic outlook on and approach to making ceramics. She was excited by how frescoes and Etruscan pottery overlapped with and stood among everyday life: how a room could be brought to life by painting scenes over the walls, or how ceramics can be “a marriage of painting and form.” She saw pots depicted in Roman and Egyptian wall paintings, and worlds portrayed on pots; in Woodman’s eyes, “the vessel is always there, throughout the history of man.” She understood functional pottery as a practice that could idealistically serve society—what we use and handle in our day-to-day lives impacting our quality of life. But, in addition to embracing pottery’s potential to transform the everyday, Woodman fought for the recognition of ceramics as a legitimate art form through a balance of commitment to and transformation of her medium.

While these two impulses—of embracing tradition and transformation—may seem to be at odds, they share a motivation for ceramics to be understood. Woodman challenged herself with clay throughout her career, from early tableware collections to winged vases and ceramic mosaic “wallpapers,” where offcuts of vessels are mounted on walls or over painted papers. A 2006 review in the New York Times listed Woodman’s creative output as including: “Vessels in the shapes of pillows, bodies (human and animal), flowers and plants; vessels that range in form from Greek to Chinese to Aztec; vessels as baskets, cups, soup tureens and letter holders; vessels inspired by architecture and clothing; vessels that cast ceramic shadows of themselves; vessels that hug a wall or sit on a shelf; ceremonial vessels; even one in the form of an erotic burrito.”

For all their variety, Woodman’s vessels held an interest in domesticity, and—as with her desire to mold clay into new forms and scenes—she played with the physical setting and historical context of the home itself. It was important for Woodman to move domesticity, ceramics, and women’s labor out of the perceived sphere of hobby-craft without compromising on their artistic integrity. She maintained her material focus while continuing to challenge herself and her audience: “For me, as an artist, what’s important is not necessarily the piece I made yesterday, it’s the piece I’m going to make tomorrow.”

One constant throughout Woodman’s life and work was her home in Antella, south of Florence, which allowed her to return to the frescoes and pottery that excited her. The stone farmhouse that she bought with her husband, George Woodman, became a refuge for them—“an artist residency for two”—where they would spend a few months each year, experimenting with ideas and techniques for pottery and domesticity and enjoying a slower pace of life.

While she moved away from making traditional pots, Woodman continued to use the visual vocabulary of vases and vessels as figure, woman, and container. She was interested in how far she could push the form of the pot or vessel while still providing “an implied function, a central ‘piece’ holding it together.” In her 2016 exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, titled Theatre of the Domestic, Woodman painted a series of backdrops or settings to demarcate “rooms” for her painted vessels to sit within. Her work sat on tables in heavily patterned, abstracted domestic spaces—where walls extrude 3D forms—or stood in front of rooms, where painted clouds filtered in through windows, and vessels took on the wobbling form of their own shadow. “I do like extravagance,” Woodman once said. “I usually err in the direction of too much, rather than too little.”

Billie Muraben is a London-based arts and culture writer and editor who teaches graphic communication design at Central Saint Martins.