Met’s Betty Woodman exhibition traverses the career of visionary artist

NEW YORK — “Conventional” is not a word that has ever been part of Betty Woodman’s vocabulary. Nor has it ever been a word to describe the artist’s remarkable ceramic designs, now featured in a retrospective of her work running through July 30 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Art of Betty Woodman includes early works of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the artist’s more recent mixed-media pieces of 2005-2006. Through the panorama of this exhibition, the viewer clearly identifies Woodman’s contributions to contemporary ceramic sculpture and her importance among post-World War II artists.

Woodman began her career with clay as her chosen medium. The vase was her earliest — and over time, has become her most salient — subject. For Woodman, the vase can be a vessel, a metaphor or an art-historical reference. Her work alludes to and infuses numerous sources, including Minoan and Egyptian art, Greek and Etruscan sculpture, Tang Dynasty works, majolica and Sevres porcelain, Italian Baroque architecture and the paintings of Picasso and Matisse. Woodman’s conceptual boldness and her ambitious experimentation — in which she combines such unlikely materials as lacquer paint on earthenware and terra sigilatta, a slip glaze often used on ancient ceramics, on paper — have produced a unique and significant series of innovations.

The exhibition includes wall reliefs such as Balustrade Relief Vase 97-15, a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum. Works in this series especially highlight Woodman’s interest in the Baroque architecture of Italy, where she has spent part of each year working since the mid-1960s. There is also a variety of works from her acclaimed “Pillow Pitcher” series. One of her most successful forms, it is loosely based on Cretan pitchers and is made by joining two cylinders end to end with the remaining ends pinched to closure — the form now connoting the kind of volume in an overstuffed pillow while retaining a sense of the utilitarian.

The Ming Sisters, a monumental triptych, is one of a number of recent works inspired by Woodman’s longstanding investigation of the arts and crafts of the East. Its bold color palette reflects her impression of motifs seen on trips to Japan and Korea.

The exhibition, which is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation Inc., is accompanied by a fully illustrated book. For additional information, call (212) 535-7710 or log on to www.metmuseum.org.

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