Betty Woodman's spirited vessels enter the sanctum of high art
September 1996
Photo Editor: Deborah Needleman

WILD SYMMETRY Woodman's balustrade shapes remind us that the vase is as central to Western art as the teapot is to the East.

Objects of what we would today call craft play important roles in Henry James's great novel The Golden Bowl, including, of course, the flawed golden bowl itself, which, offered as a wedding present, becomes the emblem of one of the book's two marriages. The other marriage is proposed by an aging art collector to a young and beautiful woman, whom he has taken with him to see some rare tiles from Damascus. The action of the book is set about a century ago, when the great American museums were being built, and James's hero means to establish a great museum ‑a "museum of museums"‑ in what James calls American City, and to fill it with the treasures he has accumulated, including, ironically, his hand­some wife, destined to become a docent. 'What is interesting is that neither James nor his characters draws any special distinction. between the bowl and the tiles, on the one hand; and works of art on the other. The tiles will have a place in the Museum of Museums, along with the Renaissance portraits and the Florentine bronzes and landscapes from the Low Countries.

Perhaps it is because virtually everything that involves craft has ceased playing a role in the making of art in recent years, and because beauty, which was a common denominator between art and craft, has had decreasing relevance in the critical assessment of art, that a distinction of rank has developed that assigns to the crafts a decidedly inferior status. How it should have happened that works in which a culture's highest values should have been embodied‑Damascene tiles, golden bowls‑have somehow been excluded from the high status of art requires a complex historical explanation. The good news is that transformations no less complex have been taking place in the art world that make it increasingly arbitrary to reject something as art because it is craft. This has opened space for something to be art because it is craft, and certain figures from the craft worlds of clay, wood, fiber, and glass have been producing work so exuberantly splendid that James's choosy aesthetes, transported into the present era, might say that if these are not art, they have no interest in art. By any criterion, these works are among the artistic splendors of our own era.

What is especially ingratiating about these works is that they have not forsworn their association with use, which had doubtless been a factor in the aesthetic disenfranchise­ment of craft. The great meaning of craftwork comes precisely from the relationships it implies with human use, with eating and drinking, with sitting and sleeping‑or with honoring through the presentation of cups and bowls, as in The Golden Bowl's giving of ceremonial gifts. The great artist‑craftspersons of our time have exploited and celebrated these profound meanings, so that their works, while admired as art, can in principle be used as vessels or furniture or covering, underscoring through their forms and in their materials the essential humanity these uses reveal.

BEAUTIFUL USERS. The design of the pitchers suggests their historical function and the shape of the women we imagine carried them.

Few craftspersons have been more successful in the crossover into art than ceramist Betty Woodman, whose central pieces improvise on the basic anatomy of the vase‑neck, mouth, belly, lips, handles‑which has enabled it down the millennia to be filled, lifted, and emptied in the crucial patterns of interaction with water carriers and libation bearers, milkmaids and barmaids, Electras and Rebeccas. The vase has come to be segregated in the modern interior as an ornament, primarily for the display of flowers, but its form is as old as settled human life, for it facilitated the transportation of water from well to household, or, made larger and fatter, the conveyance of oil and grain in the holds of ships and the storing and preserving of vital goods for lean seasons. And the rituals in which vaselike vessels figure are as extensive as culture itself. Think of the tremendous sight of mourning women in the Oresteia, pouring libations on the tomb of Agamemnon, symbolically washing away the spilled blood. Or the "jar with double handles" Achilles bestows on Nestor in the funeral games for Patroclus.

The vase's various forms are the memories of its momentous functions in human life at its most basic and most symbolic levels, and it would be difficult to imagine a subject more dense with meaning and more universal than it. The vase has nevertheless rarely been a subject for art, except marginally, in depictions of women at the well or as items in still lifes or in flower studies. Yet in Woodman's view, the vase defines Western art the way the teapot defines the East. And she has made the vase the star of her art, giving it glories of shape and surface, as if preparing pagan brides for colorful matrimonial rituals.

Ceramics in modern times has tended to live by an aesthetic of Zen spareness, but Woodman's work is barbarian in dimension and energy, and in its wild irregular patterning. A typical vase by her is made in three sections, with extravagant handles like sleeved arms, crooked back to rest, provocatively, on hips, or flung outward and upward, in the gesture of a dance. And it would be a rare bouquet that rivaled in the intensity and variety of its hues and shapes the swags and petals, the dots and splotches, the brush stabs and sweeps, the endless array of juxtaposed colors and patterns with which the vases holding it are covered. Woodman's surfaces have a fauve opulence that might support the description that they are paintings on eccentric surfaces if it were not for the luminance and reflectance of the glazes, with which paintings could scarcely compete, and the openings that remind us that these are working vessels, sisters to the countless vases carried on the heads, the shoulders, the hips of graceful women down the centuries, wearing splashy skirts, blouses, and kerchiefs.

Right: Woodman at work.

Betty Woodman's most famous vessels are her so‑called Pillow Pitchers, in which two vases are joined, mouth to mouth, so to speak, to form a plump lateral container, strapped together and made functional by a longish neck, a lip, and a handle. This, so far as I know, is a form original with her, but it feels as if it is a form rediscovered from some distant ceramic culture. With their thick, dripped glazes and odd strength, the Pillow Pitchers evoke the heavy‑footed ceramic horses of Tang China, and one imagines an hypothesis for their shape‑that whatever they contained (fermented mares' milk?) was poured into bowls by rolling the pitcher forward, the "straps" serving as rockers, and the shape itself a transform of saddlebags, in memory of a nomadic form of life. Their heaviness implies a strength in the original users that modern users no longer command, so that, like weapons we can barely lift, the tremendous pitchers stand as a critique of modern effeteness. Of course these are resolutely modern‑or even postmodern‑works, but there is something so ageless, so deeply human in the medium that Woodman has made her own, that even the most innovative of forms, the Pillow Pitchers being a case in point, awaken thoughts of primitive forms of life, and project images of how things must have been used and what metaphors they continue to evoke. Woodman's Pillow Pitchers are displayed in vitrines or on pedestals in wings of contemporary art in major museums, but they look as if they would be at home in museums of anthropology, testimony to human touch and fantasy in cultures whose only forms of art are their remarkably expressive vessels.

The author of these singular visions is a short intense woman, who wears overalls and the sort of severe hairdo one sees on women in Victorian photographs. She and her husband, George Woodman, himself an artist, divide their time between New York and Florence. She has a profound and active knowledge of the history of her chosen art, and her works are filled with references to and celebrations of the great ceramic traditions, whether in her own vessels, or in the elaborate architectural arrays she constructs as homages to the vase and the pitcher, or in the frescolike drawings she has been making in colored clays. She has recently completed a balustrade in the new Denver International Airport, and an exhibition of recent work is being mounted at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from September 21 to November 10 (she shows regularly at the Max Protetch gallery in New York City, where her prices range from $13,500 to $25,000). Woodman has achieved all this by breaking boundaries when it has suited her, and has transformed the art world by making objects of undeniable craft whose claim to the status of art is irresistible.

'Art and Craft" will appear regularly. Arthur C. Danto is the author of Beyond the Brilo Box, among other books. He is the art critic of The Nation.