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Beatrice Wood: Career Woman

A retrospective on the life and work of Dada's Mama

by Julie Wolfson in Culture on 29 November 2011

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Beatrice Wood's "Career Woman" exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art celebrates more than her prolific ouevre of gorgeous ceramics, whimsical drawings and colorful paintings. As part of Pacific Standard Time, the show tells the story of Wood's intimate friendships with Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roche, the discovery of her love of clay, her exploration of complicated relationships between men and women and her search for spirituality.

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I came to know the "mama of Dada" during my time in Ojai, California with the Virginia Avenue Project (VAP) after-school program, whose artistic director, Leigh Curran, was lifelong friends with Wood. I met the artist on weekly studio trips with the VAP students, and began visiting the artist several times throughout the year toward the end of her life. Now, when I am asked to describe Wood, the first words that come to mind are beautiful and mischievous. From her artwork to her personality, she was feminine, strong-willed, talented and colorful. Her eyes literally sparkled, and she attributed her longevity to chocolate and young men.

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I particularly treasure a note Wood sent to thank me for sending a copy of "The Last Flower" by James Thurber, with a picture of the VAP children, that sums up her pacifist views. "I am glad to have the photograph of you and some of your project girls," she wrote. "The children look intelligent and happy. The book about the bomb and the general is much in time with what is going on in the world. I recently read that the military has thousands of aeroplanes, I mean thousands of tankers, shells, bandages, thermometers to kill and to heal the wounded that they do not know what to do with all the surplus stuff. I hope all of us that feel about bombing the way we do with make some impact on this crazy world. Love to you and the children, Beatrice."

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Recently I reread her memoir I Shock Myself that chronicles her posh childhood, bohemian coming of age, affairs with Pierre Roche and Marcel Duchamp, and unique journey to find herself living in Ojai, CA.

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The details of her life transcend the typical: artistic successes and passionate affairs, her strange loyalty to two complicated men in unconsummated marriages and a new career at the age of 40, when she discovered ceramics at Hollywood High School. She had enrolled in the class to learn how to make a teapot to go with luster plates, and went on to create within the genre for more than 60 years.

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Beatrice lived to the age of 105. Her adventurous story reminds us all that living can be messy, complicated, beautiful and joyful. Much like her quickly drawn stick figure thumbing his nose at the world—that Duchamp later put on the cover of his Blindman's Ball poster—Wood lived by her own rules and lived to the fullest.

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Curated by Elsa Longhauser and Lisa Melandri with exhibition design by Adam Silverman of Heath Ceramics, "Beatrice Wood: Career Woman—Drawings, Painting, Vessels, and Objects" is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through 25 February 2012. A 144-page illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition documenting her contributions to the canon of 20th century art.

All images courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Wood photographed in her studio and with tiger by Bill Dow; Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Beatrice Wood, photographed in 1917.

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