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Beatrice Wood: Of Pots and People

3rd July 2020

Caroline Knighton, Independent

A scientist once said there is no such thing as time. So perhaps we do not exist in time as we know it. We cannot hold on to the past or grab onto the future, and the present is ever gone.[1]

– Beatrice Wood

In the acknowledgments of her aptly titled memoir I Shock Myself (1985), the celebrated ‘Mamma of Dada’ and internationally renowned ceramist Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) draws a compelling comparison between the forms and functions of autobiography and the processes of pottery, both of which she embarked on later in life, and remained preoccupied by until her death at 105. While the substance of ceramics is ‘clay and chemicals’, she muses that the ‘stuff of life is most certainly people’, the autobiographic document reimaged as ‘a big pot, shaped, designed, and filled by the people one has known and loved’.[2] Pushing Wood’s analogy further than functionality, we can see that both practices also involve the crafting of raw material into recognisable forms, and the compression of complex temporalities.

As a record of a life from beginning to end, autobiographic time might, initially, seem pretty straightforward. However, the interlacing of narrative and identity fundamental to autobiography continually confounds this sense of chronological time and teleological development.[3] In a sequence of more complex superimpositions, autobiographic writing instead involves the non-linear interplay of past, present and future as the writing-self revisits and revises a personal history intersected by other familial, socio-political and cultural histories.

The pot, similarly, is an object that ‘has taken shape in time’.[4] Throwing on the wheel or hand-building takes time: shaping the wedged, wet clay involves the body in an intensely physical, durational action as the potter adjusts the pressure and shape of her hands on the clay, the speed of the wheel, or the angle of her body to it. There are rest periods as the clay dries leather-hard, reflective moments where the clay shrinks, changes; maybe it cracks. New, unexpected forms might emerge, and repairs or alterations can be made before the newly shaped body of malleable clay is chemically and materially transformed in the kiln, glazed, and fired again.

Beatrice Wood at the wheel. From the Beatrice Wood Papers held by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Beneath this sense of measurable ‘clock-time’ involved in working with clay, other temporal patterns are also at play. Important objects of archaeological record, earthenware bowls, vessels and decorative or figurative objects are amongst the earliest examples of human invention. Uniting East and West and Neolithic to Modern, the fundamentals of pottery have remained unchanged across millennia, emphasised in Wood’s own practice by her encompassing of the figurative and the functional, and her experimentation with the metallic and optical qualities of lusterware glazes. Rooted in techniques employed in ancient Islamic ceramics, the luminous colours and surface qualities associated with lusterware glaze are created by specific reduction firing techniques where metallic pigments react with the clay body as the oxygen is absorbed. Inherently unpredictable, the Dadaist element of chance involved with lusterware glazing certainly appealed to Wood, whose delight at tossing other elements such as straw or mothballs into the kiln is palpable in Tom Neff’s 1993 film, ‘Beatrice Wood: Mamma of Dada’.

Beatrice Wood, Luster Urn, 1987, earthenware. From the collection of Lenny and Jerry Berkowitz.

In shimmering golds, brilliant flashes of turquoise, radiant coppers, greens and opalescent pinks, Wood’s beaded vessels, luminous chalices and decorative platters are inviting, tactile objects whose liquid surfaces appear to bend and change with the light. Anaïs Nin famously commented that ‘water poured from one of her jars will taste like wine’, and certainly there is something of the alchemist to Wood as she stands surround by dusty shelves of pigments and powders, absorbed in her transformation of the shape and state of her materials that seem to come to life in these shifting colour rhythms.[5]

Blending science and magic, this sense of the alchemic links Wood to a vein of modernist experiment interested in automatism, chance and the occult. As Leigh Wilson has suggested, contemporary occultism understood magic as ‘a discourse of the material world rather than necessarily related to the metaphysical or transcendent’.[6] As Wilson goes on to describe, the infamous occultist and co-founder of the Theosophical Society Madame Blavatsky called the movement a ‘synthesis between religion and science’, a belief system that engaged directly with the materiality of the world through ‘the methodical gathering of the results of empirical observation’.[7]With titles such as ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Red Crystalline’ and ‘Crackle 7’ and combinations of ‘flint’ with the more categorical ‘F. 3191’, Wood’s detailed glazing notes capture this blend of magic and science. It is significant that Wood remained a member of the Theosophical society from 1923 until her death, bequeathing her home and studio to Annie Besant’s Happy Valley Foundation in Ojai, where she had moved in 1947 to be a part of this burgeoning spiritual and artistic community, and to learn from the sage Jiddu Krishnamurti who was based there.

Emanating from the Absolute and without beginning or end, Blavatsky’s writings on time as duration must have struck a chord with Wood, whose autobiographic self, like her pots, echoes the sentiment that:

The real person or thing does not consist solely of what is seen at any particular moment, but is composed of the sum of all its various and changing conditions from its appearance in the material form to its disappearance from the earth.[8]

While her lusterware clearly plays on making ‘the ancient art of pottery a modern art’, her decorative tiles and witty ‘sophisticated primitives’ at once invoke those ancient experiments with figuration in clay, and pick up themes and motifs from her own early Dada drawings.[9]

Beatrice Wood, Un peut d’eau dans du savon, 1977. Glazed Earthenware, heart-shaped bar of soap, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.

In 1977, around the time that Wood was beginning to experiment with forms of life-writing, she returned to the 1917 multi-media composition that she is probably best known for, Un peut [sic]d’eau dans du savon. Ridiculed by the press and attracting throngs of visitors daily, Wood’s submission to the 1917 Independents Exhibition proved to be the most controversial exhibit after the rejection of ‘R. Mutt’s’ Fountain. Collapsing the distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’, by re-modelling this composition in clay Wood reclaims her role as a central artist in the New York Dada movement, countering the tendencies to render accounts of the women of the historical avant-garde as passive muses and love-objects from the outside, instead reshaping the account on her own terms.

For Wood, the relationship between the autobiographic and the ceramic was finally fused with the instructions left upon her death to mix half of her ashes into a lustre glaze to be bonded to the clay bodies of three vessels.[10]As the renowned Dada scholar, collector and close friend of Wood, Francis Naumann (who, rather appropriately is in possession of one of these objects) wrote: ‘the concepts of infinity still confound me, but it is evident that Beatrice Wood embodies the quality of timelessness – right here on earth’.[11]


Sources:

[1]Marlene Wallace, Playing Chess With the Heart: Beatrice Wood at 100, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994), p. 68.

[2]Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself: Beatrice Wood, Career Woman of Art(Atglen, PN: Schiffer Publishing  Ltd, 2018)

[3]James Olney, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

[4]Jens Brockmeier, ‘From the end to the beginning: Retrospective teleology in autobiography’, Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self and Culture, ed. Jens Brockmeier, Donal A. Carbaugh (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001) pp. 247-218, p. 247.

[5]Anaïs Nin, ‘Beatrice Wood’, Artforum, January 1965

[6]Leigh Wilson, Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015 ), p. 4.

[7]Ibid., p. 6

[8]Helena Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy, vol 1, (1888) (Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 2019), p.37.

[9]From the press release of Wood’s 1961-62 exhibition at the Sir Visweswaraiah Industrial Museum, Bangalore, reprinted in I Shock Myself, p. 189.

[10]See Alexxa Gotthardt, ‘The Forgotten Legacy of Beatrice Wood’, Artsy, August 1, 2016.

[11]Francis Naumann, in Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself, p. 13.

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