Longevity's Paradoxes and Rewards
Beatrice Wood and George Rickey

by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy

Call it synchronicity. When Bill Bace published his list of current shows by American artists who had been working for 40 years or more in the last issue of Review, I already had been brooding about the neglect that creative longevity may bring to artists who persevere. It started last year when Leon Polk Smith died at the very moment of his long-overdue exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum. (For years before he died it was next to impossible to place an article about the career of this interesting American artist since his individualized brand of romantic neo-constructivism was dismissed as passé.) All too often, our novelty- addicted culture displays minimal respect for artistic perseverance or seniority. How many artists who have passed into and out of the celebrity spotlight are working today despite relative critical neglect? Think of Kenneth Noland; of George Sugarman; of Deborah Remington; of Isaac Witkin. While their names are known, their current work is rarely exhibited or discussed. They are prematurely consigned to the amber of history. The list of such cases is a long one. Wasn't it F. Scott Fitzgerald who observed that in American life there are no second acts?

But sometimes, if you live long enough, you get a second act. Or what one might call a deferred opportunity. You may even become a cult figure. This is what has happened to Beatrice Wood, who has just celebrated her one-hundred-and-fourth birthday (visitors to The American Craft Museum can even write in a special birthday register which Ms. Wood will receive when her exhibition closes there on June 8). Long a celebrity in the more rarefied circles of art pottery, Wood has just begun to garner the critical attention from the art world that her ceramics should have received twenty years ago. This belated attention is very much like what has happened to Lenore Tawney, another fine American artist whose choice of media (weaving, though she also constructs highly refined, mixed-media collages) has undercut the recognition of her overall achievements. It's no accident that both these women have had late-in-life retrospectives at the American Craft Museum and not at the Modern or the Whitney. The hierarchy of materials remains very much in force here. Fiber and clay are low on the scale and that old, tedious argument over art versus craft is the unresolved subtext.

Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute, the exhibition at the American Craft Museum that will travel to the Santa Barbara Museum in the fall, is the most comprehensive exhibition of her work ever assembled. Guest Curator Francis Nauman has put together an overview 70 years of work by this ebullient bohemian, who at age 100 was still working in her pottery studio in Ojai, California. The space of the Craft Museum is an awkward one in which to install this material; these intimately scaled objects seem a little marooned under the cavernous ceiling. Yet this is an eloquent survey which encapsulates an extraordinary career and a fascinating life. The exhibition even includes a selection of the slight, witty drawings and watercolors Wood was making in the 1920s., after she had returned from her studies in art, theater, and dance in Paris. Though the drawings retain an insouciant period charm, they serve to emphasize what a fortuitous leap this artist made when she took up working in clay in the late 1930s.

Her earthenware, luster-glazed vessels, which are the major focus of the show, are classically simple yet anything but slight. Anchored in the ancient traditions of containers and iridescent glazes, they are nevertheless unmistakable products of a sophisticated modernist sensibility that is strictly twentieth-century. They take clay close to the aristocratic thinness of porcelain without giving up the immediacy of the hand. The exhibition makes clear that Beatrice Wood is a genuine phenomenon; a real "late-bloomer." She has done her very best work during the last fifteen to twenty years, after she turned eighty. The elegant luster dinner service for eight (1982-1992) commissioned by Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, (Wood's dealers), is an amazing thing; a tour de force of surface opulence and subtle, hand-thrown rhymed forms. Her over-sized chalices, created in the 1980s and early 1990s, combine bold sculptural scale and glazes as rich as molten metal. They embody great artistic authority and skill, exhibiting complexity within simplicity. Nauman has also included a generous sample of Wood's lesser-known figurative ceramic sculptures and figurative reliefs. These witty pieces display Wood's delightfully bawdy side. (Never forget that this is the woman who attributes her long life to the beneficial effects of "chocolate and young men.") They are clever bits of social satire and social narrative which predate, and may upstage, Viola Frey,. Nevertheless, a few of these neo-primitive tableaux go a long way. The artists' vessels are the works with the longest shelf-life.

Wood is a fascinating cultural hybrid whose art reflects the her immersion in classic European and American modernism. She first studied painting at the Academie Julien, and was a handmaiden to Dada. Another part of the mix included the high intellectual bohemianism of New York in the twenties (when Duchamp was her lover and mentor), the theosophists of Southern California, the influence of India, and her studies with the pioneering California potters Glen Lukens and the great Otto and Gertrude Natzler — the couple who transported the legacy of Adele Alsop Robineau to the west coast. Wood is a reigning art pottery star and the show's contributing collectors represent many of the leading collectors of contemporary art ceramics. (The gold-glazed cup owned by Jasper Johns is a spectacular piece, and a reminder that Johns, who is also an admirer of the inimitable George Ohr, is an artist who has always demonstrated a special appreciation for clay.) But Wood's artistic achievement must never again be segregated within the world of craft alone. It now belongs to and enriches the larger story of twentieth century modern art.


Like Beatrice Wood, George Rickey is one of an increasingly rare species — the true cosmopolite. He is, of course, one of the pioneering figures of twentieth-century abstract sculpture whose monumental works enliven museums, city plazas, corporate gardens, and airports from New York and Amsterdam to Auckland and Tokyo. Now, in honor of his ninetieth birthday, George Rickey: Important Early Sculptures, 1951- 1965, the exhibition of small-scale works at Maxwell Davidson Gallery serves as an essential reminder of the historic position occupied by this major artist. Yet the noble mobile work that was formerly outside the Guggenheim has been removed ever since the museum's renovation, and I bet few art students from the class of 1997 are familiar with his long and productive artistic career. Rickey, who was born in Indiana, also spans the twentieth century. He grew up in Helensburgh, (the Scottish village where Macintosh built Hill House) on the River Clyde outside of Glasgow. He graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1929, on the eve of the Depression, and then studied painting in Paris at the Academie Lhote. From 1929 until 1966, he held academic posts, interrupted by his three years in the United States Air Force during World War II. By 1949, he began to concentrate on making sculpture. This highly educated artist has lived a productive and remarkable life all over the world. His kinetic sculpture and its almost musical interaction with natural movements of wind and shifts of light express a chronic fascination with mechanics and engineering principles.

Works such as the red, black, and white mobile, Construction, 1951/52 and Sun and Moon, 1951 in the Maxwell Davidson exhibition reveal Calder's influence on the artist's early sculpture. But Rickey's deepest intellectual roots lie in constructivism and not surrealism. His work developed over more than forty years as an exploration of the movement of abstract forms in space, driven by his abiding curiosity about the effects of chance.

Though portable fans create currents which move the sculpture, nothing can replace the sensation of seeing Rickey's large-scale works operating in nature. His work requires time spent watching it closely, even in the gallery, and in small scale. Outdoors, where light and weather change so radically, the monumental works are startlingly different at different times; fugues of lyrical or intense motion and reflection in changing seasons, in day light or at night under moonlight.

This intimate show gives us twenty-one of Rickey's different investigations of shape, color, and motion, jewel- like in their precision. These now-historic sculptures are more resolved than maquettes, but they are always studies for the effects of larger forces on kinetic structures. One good example is the 1960 Ship, an delightful abstraction of Hofmannesque rectangles that illuminates the movement of a sailboat on ocean waves.

Rickey's work is also filled with a signature wit. Don't miss such very funny pieces as Cocktail Party, 1954, the artist's delicate satire of bow-tied academics as nodding flowers at some requisite event.

What the exhibition doesn't reveal is the artist's current creative dedication and unabated engagement with sculpture. His work firmly anchored in the ideas and ideals of classical modernism, Rickey continues to work daily in his upstate New York studio, his great, agile, ever-curious mind and spirit undimmed by age. Such artists create the fabric of civilization. We owe them all the gratitude and respect we can muster.

George Rickey at Maxwell Davidson Gallery through May 31, and Beatrice Wood at American Craft Museum through June 8.

Copyright ©1997 Alexandra Anderson-Spivy & REVIEW All Rights Reserved