SAVanVleck on sun 15 mar 98
Beatrice Wood, 105, Potter and 'Mama of Dada'
By ROBERTA SMITH
Beatrice Wood, a ceramic artist who was known as much for her irreverent
quips, beauty, bohemian lifestyle and famous lovers as for her luminous
luster-glaze chalices, and who inspired at least two movie characters, died on
Thursday at her home in Ojai, Calif. She had celebrated her 105th birthday on
An independent woman inclined to say whatever was on her mind, Ms. Wood
famously attributed her longevity to "chocolate and young men" and just as
memorably titled her 1985 autobiography "I Shock Myself." In fact she was a
lifelong vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank and who remained clear-minded
enough to take up the computer at the age of 90.
Until two years ago, she worked at the potter's wheel every day, following a
strict daily regimen in a studio that was listed under "Places of Interest" in
Ojai. A member of the Theosophy movement since 1923, she had moved to Ojai in
1948 to be near its leader, the Indian sage Krishnamurti.
For the last four decades of her life, she dressed exclusively in bright
Indian saris and wore large amounts of silver-and-turquoise jewelry, even when
throwing pots, with her thick, hip-length gray hair twisted into braids or a
She was born in San Francisco and reared in New York, and demonstrated an
early affinity for art and nonconformity, much to the dismay of her wealthy
parents. She once said that she was 23 before she got free of her mother and
her lady's maid, but she was allowed to go, chaperoned, to Paris when she was
18, where she studied painting at the Academie Julien and acting at the
Comedie Francaise. Back in New York she fell in with some of the most
adventurous artistic characters in town.
Her friends included Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Charles Sheeler, Walter and
Louise Arensberg, Edgard Varese and Mina Loy. She was closest to Marcel
Duchamp and his friend the diplomat and writer Henri-Pierre Roche.
The three founded Blind Man, a magazine that was one of the earliest
manifestations of the dada art movement in New York. (In the second and last
issue, Ms. Wood defended Duchamp's infamous urinal, rejected by the jury of
the 1917 Independents exhibition, with a sentence usually attributed to
Duchamp himself: "The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and
Duchamp encouraged her to draw; the results were fey, often autobiographical
Her life was already the stuff of movies. Roche's novel about a menage a
trois, "Jules et Jim," would inspire Francois Truffaut's 1961 movie of the
same name, with the character played by Jeanne Moreau based in part on Ms.
In 1993, she was the subject of a documentary, "Beatrice Wood, the Mama of
Dada," directed by Diandra Douglas. And more recently, she inspired the
101-year-old character of Rose in the movie "Titanic," directed by James
Cameron, a neighbor in Ojai.
Ms. Wood liked to say that she had loved seven men she didn't marry and
married two men she didn't love, saying that neither marriage was consummated.
Her first, in 1919, to a theater manager from Montreal, resulted from family
pressure and soon ended in annulment when it was discovered that the man
already had a wife in Belgium.
In 1938, while living in Los Angeles, she married Steve Hoag, an engineer,
after a house they owned together in North Hollywood was swept away in a
flood, on the correct theory that married people were likely to get Red Cross
relief more easily. He lived with her until his death in 1960.
She was a late bloomer as an artist and did not encounter ceramics until the
1930s, when she failed to find a teapot to match some neo-rococo luster-glaze
plates she had bought in Holland.
She enrolled in a pottery course at Hollywood High School, and began to
research the luster-glaze process in a local library.
She never made that teapot, but became fascinated with the process. Her
first works -- small glazed figures whose whimsy echoed her drawings -- sold
easily, helping her make it through the Depression. It was not until 1940,
when she studied briefly with the Austrian ceramists Gertrud and Otto Natzler,
that she began to appreciate the beauty and possibilities of ceramics as an
After settling in Ojai in 1948, she began to develop her own version of the
unpredictable luster-glaze technique, extending a process that embedded the
metallic iridescence in the glaze itself, rather than painting it on. While
she didn't invent the technique, she did create a unique palette in an
extraordinary range of metallic pinks, golds and greens.
At first Ms. Wood supported herself by turning out large quantities of
dinner sets, but after the mid 1970s, she was able to concentrate exclusively
on more ambitious decorative vessels: chalices, bowls and vases.
Her most complex pieces, which had elaborately decorated surfaces, came only
after the mid-1980s, when she was in her 90s. These elaborate, radiant works
dominate her most recent retrospective, held last year at the American Craft
Museum in New York. The show opens in Florida at the Lake Worth Museum of
Contemporary Art on March 27.
Ms. Wood had her first exhibition in 1949 at America House in New York. Her
museum exhibitions included a retrospective at the Phoenix Art Museum in 1973.
Since 1981, she has had repeated exhibitions at the Garth Clark Gallery, first
in Los Angeles and then in New York, where an exhibition of her work will
close on April 4.
In 1994, the Smithsonian Institution named Ms. Wood an Esteemed American
Artist and Pete Wilson, governor of California, declared her a "California
Saturday, March 14, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times