One Artist, Eight Decades Of Work, Joy, and Mischief

'Living treasure' Beatrice Wood makes her pottery every day and holds court for a swarm of admirers

The Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry said in 1912 that the most important element in an object is discernible "joy in the making." A retrospective at the American Craft Museum of more than 180 ceramic vessels, sculptures, drawings, and paintings by Beatrice Wood is so joyous, it virtually whoops.

The work, produced over eight decades, shines with the wit and theatricality that characterize the potter. But, significantly, Wood qualifies Fry's statement, saying art is born of "the drudgery of the hand and the ecstasy of the spirit."

In her studio in California's Ojai Valley, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, Wood still works every day and holds court for a swarm of admirers. Not one to shirk, when she was in her 90s, she began turning out some of her largest and most innovative vessels. "I would not say I had great gifts as a potter, but I organized myself to become one," Wood recalls in her autobiography, "I Shock Myself."

Designated a "living treasure" by the state of California, Wood is in danger of being praised for her colorful life as much as for her flamboyant pots. But the life and work are indissoluble, for the spirit of the maker infuses the work. Through assiduous experimentation, Wood developed the gold standard of lusterware.

Wood spent her youth rebelling against a stuffy Victorian upbringing that sought to stifle her curiosity. At age 17, she fled to Paris to study art, then acting. In 1913 she attended the premire of Stravinsky's groundbreaking "Rite of Spring," danced by Nijinsky and the Ballet Russe. While the conservative audience jeered, Wood shouted, "Bravo!"

As an actress, Wood appeared on stage with Sarah Bernhardt, toured with the French Repertory Company, then with a vaudeville troupe. She shared a dressing room with Edna St. Vincent Millay, made a tie-dye costume for Isadora Duncan, and went to dinner cooked by Constantin Brancusi. Although she made her high-society debut with President Grover Cleveland's daughter, she was not cut out for idle chitchat. "I was impatient," Wood said, "if one could not discuss world starvation in the first sentence."

Grounded in the States during World War I, Wood was an integral part of New York's avant-garde scene that included Dada artists Man Ray and Francis Picabia. She traded quips with painters Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella. (The latter fought a duel to defend her honor.) Her first love, the diplomat Henri-Pierre Roch, wrote about the love triangle between himself, Wood, and Marcel Duchamp in his novel "Jules and Jim." A documentary released on Wood's 100th birthday calls her the "Mama of Dada."

Wood credits Duchamp with awakening her interest in the plastic arts. "Never do the commonplace," he told her. "Rules are fatal to the progress of art."

It is this contrary spirit that animates her work. Although she did not begin ceramics until age 40, Wood made up for a late start with more than six decades of devotion to clay. The last living link to past glories of American art at the dawn of the century, she's still an evolving artist as the sun sets on the millennium. Dressed in colorful saris and jingly silver jewelry, Wood still throws vessels by hand. The forms are fairly standard, except she incorporates linear elements like curled handles, which reflect her drawing sensibility.

It is the surface of the vessels that exhibits fireworks, for the luster glaze refracts and reflects light in a rainbow of colors. In textures from pitted to smooth, the gold and coppery glazes are iridescent as a peacock's tail.

"Green Luster Footed Bowl" (c.1979) glows like the inside of an oyster shell, as if coated with mother of pearl. The interior of "Gold Luster Shallow Bowl" (c.1972-73) seems even more radiant than gold, yet with subtle undertones of blue and pink. As Wood's friend, the writer Anas Nin, said, "Beatrice Wood combines her colors like a painter, makes them vibrate like a musician."

A knockout in the show is an entire table laid with a luster place setting for eight, made 1982-92. Each plate, chalice, cup, or saucer is slightly different in shape and patina, but all sparkle like a banquet for King Midas. A spirit of contradiction and risk-taking are evident in the juxtaposition of understated forms with an aurora borealis glaze.

A lifelong vegetarian and teetotaler who also avoids tobacco, Wood is indulgent when it comes to chocolate and romance. Her mischievous humor is evident in the figurative ceramic sculpture she makes to spoof the absurdity of male-female relations. "It's the way I get the naughtiness out of my system," she says of her cartoonish sculptures. "The Last Dessert" (c.1977) is an earthenware relief frieze of 12 friends enjoying Wood's favorite part of a meal - dessert.

As a girl, Wood peeked through the leaves at Monet's home at Giverny, France, and spied the artist's "glorious head with its white hair as he painted in his flowerbeds." In 1917 at the famous Blindman's Ball organized by the New York Dadaists, she performed a Russian folk dance while Duchamp swung from a chandelier. At age 80, she learned belly-dancing and recently taught herself to use a computer for answering her mail.

She embodies the motto of the progressive Happy Valley School, where she taught pottery: "I am still learning." And when her mirror tells her she's old, Wood wrote in her autobiography, "I walk away from it and dance on the hilltops."

* The Beatrice Wood exhibit remains at the American Craft Museum through June 8. It will travel to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California in the fall and two other national venues.

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