“We are here on account of sex, though we do not understand its force. There is glory when the sexual force is used creatively, when it is open to the magic of the universe”
The above quote and photo were taken from Playing Chess with the Heart, a book of photographs by Marlene Wood taken of Beatrice Wood in her 100th year. Wood, born in 1893 and living until 1998, was a participant in some of the most interesting and radical shifts in the whole of art history, but didn’t find her own true medium until rather later in life than most artists that rise to the prominence that she achieved.
Born into an affluent New York family, at a time that the city’s prominence as an important center for art was immerging, Wood was well placed to intersect with the Avant-Garde of the early twentieth century. It was chance that introduced her to Marcel Duchamp shortly after his great success at the Armory show with Nude Descending a Staircase. In the hospital room of Edgard Varese, the two were introduced and it was Duchamp that encouraged Wood to pursue art, as her first passion was theater. She and Duchamp became fast friends and she was soon often at the great artists studio. Through Duchamp she met Walter and Louise Arensberg, important and influential collectors of the Avant-Garde at the time, and it was through this connection that the young wood developed her artistic sensibilities. Though the famous quote surrounding the Readymade Fountain is often attributed to Duchamp, Wood claims to have been the author, a claim that has been backed up by others in their circle.
“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view, creating a new thought for that object”
This great idea has ben central to the development of so many facets of art in the 20th century, especially ceramic, and while undoubtedly the idea for fountain was Duchamp’s alone, her presence at this critical juncture for art stayed with and influenced her long career.
Many years past between Dada and her finding clay, which included theater, theosophy, love and a move to California. She began with clay in 1933 at Hollywood High School Adult Education Department with the intention of making a luster teapot to go with some plates she had purchased in an antique shop in Harlem. From this humble beginning she developed a love of the art and science of ceramic. It was this growing passion that shaped her life after. Her pursuit of independence and a studio for work and developing her craft was her focus for many years. She had the good fortune to study with Gertrude and Otto Natzler. It was from Gertrude that she learned to throw and Otto taught her glaze technique. She also studied with Otto and Vivika Heino.
As a ceramist, Beato (as she was known in Ojai CA, her home for the last half of her life) is best known for her luster glazes and her appreciation and depiction of the changing relationships between men and women.
This piece is titled Bride and Groom and is glazed earthenware, standing at 27” in height.
My interest in Wood began as an interest in her life and person. She met the challenges of living a life in the arts with a tremendous amount of courage and heart and no small amount of luck. At one point she completely lost her studio to flood, rather than drowning in her loss, she turned the situation to her advantage and built a better studio.
I also love her frank attitude toward sex and sexuality. In the book noted earlier some of my favorite photographs are of Beato pulling the shoulder off her blouse, flirting with the camera and the viewer. To still think of oneself as a sexual being at 100 years of age is incredibly inspirational to me as I solidly enter middle age as a single woman. She also serves an inspiration to my students who come to art and ceramic at an older age, if Beatrice could do it, why not them? And then of course my favorite anecdote, that she worked in the studio the day she died at 105 years of age.