Reframing the Domestic with Irrepressible Betty Woodman

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Betty’s Room, 2011© Betty Woodman, Courtesy Galleria Lorcan O'Neill

“I was just an American. A woman. A potter. And a foreigner.” As an exhibition of her recent work opens in Rome, ceramic artist Betty Woodman talks acceptance and obsession

In 2006, Betty Woodman became the first living female artist to be honoured with a career retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But for Woodman, who has spent the last 50 years living between New York and the small Italian town of Antella, true success took another decade to arrive.

“I only sold in New York,” she says. “People in Italy were not the least bit interested. I was just an American. A woman. A potter. And a foreigner.”

But this changed last year, when Woodman was given her first Italian solo show at Museo Marino Marini in Florence. “That was very satisfying,” she recalls. “I had a review in La Nazione calling me ‘L’Americana di Antella’. The town was very pleased about that too.”

So at last Italy has caught on. Today Woodman is speaking ahead of the opening of her latest show at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill in Rome. One of the city’s foremost contemporary art destinations, the space has the lofty ceilings and stark white walls that typify modern art galleries the world over, but this being Rome, the space occupies the converted 17th-century stables of Palazzo Santacroce and is entered via a statue lined courtyard. 

For Woodman, this ubiquity of heritage and hierarchy has informed her adopted country’s perception of her work. “I think Italy is a wonderful place to make art,” she says, “but not to be an artist, particularly a woman working in clay. Italy is still very sexist – every group show is all men. America has had a long commitment to clay as art, but, in Italy, ceramics have a different resonance. They are a necessity, not a treasure.” She smiles. “I don’t know if it’s changing in general, but it is for me, which is so nice.”

Today, Woodman’s latest works sprawl joyfully across the walls at Lorcan O’Neill, their domestic scenes recalling Pierre Bonnard, their exuberant colours recalling Matisse, their unruly blend of ceramic, paint and canvas all the artist’s own. Richly patterned domestic interiors, most centre around a table, with a 3D ceramic element – a vase, an amphora, a painted pottery sliver – springing from the surface. “I became obsessed with the table,” Woodman says, half puzzled. “I’m still obsessed with the table and I don’t really know what to do with that obsession.”

It is striking is that while many female artists fear an overt association with the domestic sphere, it is something Woodman wholeheartedly embraces. “It’s been an interesting revelation to me that the domestic is what my work has been about. It’s what I’m interested in. All these pieces in the show are about interior space. I stopped making functional pots, but the idea of function became what the art was about.”

A shift away from a long career making functional pots to focus on more abstract creations happened at the same time as the Woodman family – all artists, including Betty’s husband George, and her daughter Francesca, today celebrated as one of the greatest American photographers – moved from Boulder, Colorado to New York in 1980. 

The move crystallised Woodman’s ambition. “I wanted to take my place within the context of other artists,” she says. “I didn’t want to be consigned to the ghetto of the ceramic world. It was hard. Ceramics was a boys club, and to be accepted as a woman, you were going to be busy doing male art. But over time things changed for me. It’s unclear how. People got used to my name. People decided clay isn’t just craft. Being an older woman probably helped things. Part of it is my work, but part of it is the moment. Just being seen and being known.”

Today, at 87, despite a recent illness and the loss of her husband of 54 years in March, Betty Woodman is a palpable creative force, a testament to the rejuvenating power of creative fulfilment. Musing on her day-to-day work in the studio, she talks about her reluctance to change her pieces, preferring rather to make something new. “And the new one will never be like it,” she says. “Of course there will be a relationship, but I’m just not interested in repeating myself.”

Betty Woodman: Recent Works is at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill until November 18, 2017.