Betty Woodman at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Betty Woodman, Floral Vase and Shadow (1983); courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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You’ve got to hand it to an artist who could even conceive of an erotic burrito, and then muster up the talent to create a sculpture fulfilling the idea’s absurdist promise. There it is, at the beginning of The Art of Betty Woodman, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring more than 50 years’ worth of Ms. Woodman’s ceramics. Erotic Burrito (1971) consists of a saddle-like orifice set upon a flaccid pillow of stoneware, and it suggests that sexual relations pose a burden that a burrito should never have to bear.

A similar impishness informs Lidded Jar (1951), with its tiny sprig-like form ascending perkily from a bulbous base. An homage to antiquity is offered with a series of “Etruscan” vases shaped with gentle, if roughly articulated, irony. Joined Vases (1972), four pot-bellied vessels juxtaposed and connected with pinched porcelain “hinges,” undercuts the traditional utilitarian aim of ceramics with quiet perversity. A good sense of humor is a welcome commodity in contemporary art. Too bad Ms. Woodman’s flew the coop sometime in the mid-1970’s.

At least that’s the way it seems at the Met. Not that the work became dour or expressionistic. If anything, The Art of Betty Woodman displays a buoyant and generous esprit. Certainly that’s the case with Ms. Woodman’s mature work. The artist takes the vase as a recurring foundation and affixes jutting, irregularly shaped “wings.” Elaborate wall installations position vessels alongside sprawling arrays of flattened architectural and plant-like forms. Clearly, Ms. Woodman wants to push ceramics beyond the scope of craft into something open, independent and less defined.

Painting is an integral part of Ms. Woodman’s vision. You could narrow down her pictorial style to “Matissean” if it didn’t promiscuously quote so many sources. Figures from Japanese painting provide literal reference points, while the School of Paris lends a decorative élan. The brusque, play-it-where-it-lays brushwork recalls the New York School, though Ms. Woodman is probably nodding toward the 16th-century Japanese warlord Furuta Oribe’s artisans, who got there first and did it better. The arts of Islam, Baroque Italy, the Maya and ancient Egypt—try not to find an influence; Ms. Woodman’s taste is all encompassing and appreciative.

There’s much to applaud in her art—its unapologetic embrace of the decorative, its playfulness and consistency. It might seem churlish, then, to note how ill formed and static it is. You know something’s awry when swooning feels more like an option than a reflex. Ms. Woodman sets out to create a bedazzling experience, yet her material attractions—rich patinas, idiosyncratic shapes and free-flowing calligraphy—are distractions from her defining limitation: a basic inability to enliven form.

The goal of mixed media is a grand synthesis, but the usual outcome is that the distinctness of opposing art forms is simply diluted, producing an overall loss of tone. Ms. Woodman combines pottery, painting, sculpture and architecture, but she doesn’t discover odd or unexpected ways their inherent characteristics might connect or reverberate. Aiming to be the Queen of All Media, she ends up giving short shrift to the media she’s mixing. We get a lot of events slapped on top of one another. There’s a willfulness to Ms. Woodman’s efforts. The wall installations are especially overdetermined; their ambition never translates directly into joy. That’s another reason the work can’t be called “Matissean.”

Yet several ceramics toward the end of the exhibition, particularly The Bathers Revisited Triptych (2004), stunningly synthesize a lot of things (if not everything) Ms. Woodman puts her hand to. Perhaps it’s the dark and gritty palette, or the fact that the amphora shapes painted upon the surface echo and amplify its underlying ceramic support. Whatever: The Bathers offers a magnificent bookend to go along with Erotic Burrito. It’s enough to make you suspect that all the stuff in between could have been better selected.

Perhaps there’s a more convincing, seductive and—yes—funny case to be made for Ms. Woodman’s ceramics. In the meantime, the Met show has enough going for it to warrant a visit.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 25, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.


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