make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend


Betty Woodman and George Woodman showcase works at Charleston Gallery

The exhibition celebrates the work of American artists Betty Woodman and George Woodman with ceramics, abstract paintings, assemblages and photographs.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 26, 2023

Charleston Gallery is gearing up for a two-person show of American artists, Betty Woodman and George Woodman. Conceived in partnership with the Woodman Family Foundation, this exhibition is the first combined presentation of the artists' work in the UK. Featuring paintings and photographs by George, and ceramic sculpture, paintings, and bronze benches by Betty, the show focuses on the couple's prolific time in Italy where for nearly five decades they lived and worked at their farmhouse in Antella. Antella had an enduring effect on their practices and this exhibition explores the artists' mutual influences, their rich dialogue in a variety of media, and their shared life immersed in art, culture, travel and experimentation.

Betty Woodman and George Woodman, Antella Italy C 1973 | Woodman Show | STIRworld
Betty Woodman and George Woodman, Antella, Italy C 1973 Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation Archive

In 1965, George was granted a University of Colorado Faculty Fellowship and Betty won a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in Florence. Both artists felt the profound influence of Italian art history, incorporating elements of classical sculpture, Italian architectural features, and Renaissance floor tiles into their works. It was during this early time in Florence that Betty became inspired by the voluptuous forms of early Etruscan folk pottery, using French stoneware to develop her Etruscan Vases (1965-66) series, four of which are on view at Charleston. Meanwhile, George left behind the abstract landscape paintings begun on the couple's earlier Tuscan sojourn and began a series of paintings based on patterns in 13th century floor mosaics.

Still Life With Chair, 2000, George Woodman | Woodman Show | STIRworld
Still life with Chair, 2000, George Woodman Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation, DACS, London

Woodmans encouraged each other to push the boundaries of the materials and forms they worked with. When George stopped painting the vases Betty was producing, she began applying paint herself, the process of which opened her eyes to the idea of the vessel itself as a canvas and carrier for colour and pattern. This departure paved the way for further experimentation in the technique of painting with ceramics for which Betty is renowned, culminating in large-scale ceramic wall art installations. George too was influenced by Betty and her work. In 1982, she persuaded him to reinterpret the immersive paper tile installations he had been exhibiting in art galleries and museums in the US into ceramic and to tile the walls and floor of the bathroom at the house in Antella. This body of work sparked a series of major public commissions in ceramic tile for George, in cities across the United States of America.

I speak with the curator of the show, Emily Hill.

Sea Gull Pillow Pitcher, 1978| Woodman Show | STIRworld
Sea Gull Pillow Pitcher, 1978 Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation, DACS, London

Rahul Kumar: Please talk about the migration Woodmans made from the USA to Italy. What are some of the significant influences they had in their respective practices with this shift?

Emily Hill: Betty Woodman and George Woodman moved to Italy for the first time between 1965-1966, when both American artists were awarded fellowships, allowing them to live and work in Europe. In this year Betty explored the traditions and techniques of Italian ceramics through a series of vases inspired by Etruscan pottery (a pre-Roman pottery that was common in Italy over 2500 years ago). At the same time George began a series of paintings based on patterns in 13th century floor mosaics while working from a studio in a 16th century building, surrounded by casts of the Parthenon.

In this formative year, they rented a guest house filled with mosaic tiles and Arabic decor on the grounds of the Villa Fioravanti outside Florence, where the eccentric owner raised exotic birds that roamed the grounds. They visited museums together and spent the year immersed in Italian culture, art and cooking. The move to Italy proved to be a turning point for both artists, which was critical to their interests and approaches going forward. Just two years later in 1968 they returned to Italy to buy Antella, a beautiful, yet run-down farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, not far from Florence. This house would become a focal point for their family and their sculptural art over the next five decades, a place of congregation, experimentation, and rich inspiration, where they returned to live and work each year.

Betty describes the moving back and forth from the US to Italy one of the great fortunes of her life. Stopping in one place and starting again in another offered her a chance to separate herself from the work already done and start over. Antella represented a blank page, full of possibility. 

Bronze Bench #3, 2003 | Woodman Show | STIRworld
Bronze Bench #3, 2003 Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation, DACS, London

Rahul: Further, what are some of the influences they had on each other in how they approached their art? Did they collaborate to make co-authored works?

Emily: Betty Woodman and George Woodman certainly began their artistic careers in completely different places. In the 1950s when they met, functional pottery and fine art painting were miles apart as art disciplines, with little to no crossover-especially in terms of status in the arts, education, and contemporary gallery representation and interest. Yet over the artists’ lifetimes both turn in towards each other in really varied and interesting ways.

Betty begins to paint her ceramic vessels like canvases, with still lives, figures and scenes, undoubtedly a result of living in partnership with a painter, and George, explores painting beyond his canvas, onto ceramic and paper ‘tiles’, and later, photographs.

There are several examples of direct collaboration between the artists. Their series of Estruscan inspired vases in 1966 are instances of pieces both Betty and George worked on together. Betty threw these, and George painted them. The end of this collaboration—George wanted to stop what could sometimes feel like an assembly line of production—encouraged Betty to begin painting her own vessels, which opened the material up to a range of fresh possibilities. This was a line of enquiry she explored for the rest of her life.

The collaboration between both artists ultimately extends beyond single works. Both looked to the past, were studious, thoughtful and curious, but wanted to create something brand new. They celebrated colour, pattern, and form. They had a shared philosophy that art be accessible and beautiful and interesting. That complex ideas could be told simply and effectively through art.

Wallpaper 19, 2017 | Woodman Show | STIRworld
Wallpaper 19, 2017 Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation, DACS, London

Rahul: George Woodman was inspired by the patterns in 13th century floor mosaic of the region and yet had an "academic interest into colour field theory, minimalism, and geometry." How did these two come together in his works?

Emily: George had begun his career as an abstract painter, but became best known for his formally inventive tessellations and complex understanding of colour. This work evolved directly from his summers spent working in his Antella studio and from the rich culture, art and architecture in museums and churches he visited across Italy.

George Woodman's early paintings made in the 1960s built upon a dialogue with modernists like Cézanne (who was an early and important influence). Over this time his technique evolved from expressionist representations to abstracted views of the landscape which were topographic, sometimes resembling maps. These were informed by the Italian farming landscape around him, man-made rectangles of varying colour set across rolling valleys. After a year spent in Italy he notes, 'I had been living in New Mexico, and then came to Colorado, and I had tried to paint the landscape, but I was never satisfied', 'the landscape in Italy is not the same. Italy is not a natural object. The earth is shaped. The hillsides are Terraced..'

Italian architecture also left a lasting impression, in the mid 1960s he began a series of paintings based on patterns in 13th century floor mosaics. The modernist painting Piazza San Francesco di Paola (1965) exemplifies this interest. In many ways the floor mosaics he was moved by were a perfect confluence of many enduring influences—geometry in art, classical techniques, pattern and repetition, colour, and use of ceramic materials. Mosaics were a form of both painted tiles, but also in a larger sense painting with tiles. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this attention to pattern that is characteristic of his paintings found new form in paper tile installations. Like the ceramic floor mosaics these were intricate, geometrical and complex. George wryly notes that his first real tile commission came from Betty in 1982, when she persuaded him to tile the walls and floor of their bathroom in Antella.

Later in the mid-1980s, George's paintings turned toward classical figuration, and he began making black and white photographs of nudes in classical architectural and sculptural settings, articulating the influences of Italy upon his work in new ways. This typifies the continuing role of experimentation with new forms which ties the work of Betty and George Woodman together so fervently.

Piazza San Francesco di Paola, 1965, George Woodman| Woodman Show | STIRworld
Piazza San Francesco di Paola, 1965, George Woodman Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation, DACS, London

Rahul: Betty Woodman made a shift from functional ceramics to conceptual works. What triggered her to create the playful and exaggerated pieces? For instance, her iconic Pillow Pitcher was radical in form and technique. How did she source inspiration for her sculptural art?

Emily: Betty started her almost 70-year engagement with clay in the 1950s, creating functional ceramics as part of a craft tradition, these were beautiful objects used to enhance everyday life, such as vases for flowers and plates and vessels for the table. As her artistic vision developed, Betty’s sensibility became more sculptural and conceptual, often referencing functionality in her work but playfully exaggerating these elements.

It was at Antella that Betty developed her Pillow Pitchers (1970s-2000s), highly technical and radical ceramic forms—partly inspired by Etruscan vases and partly by Chinese ceramic pillows—that, as in the case of Sea Gull Pillow Pitcher (1978), allude to functionality but are purely conceptual, being too heavy for use, wide bottomed, featuring intricate and delicate handles.

These themes were to continually develop, Betty later created what she called paintings; assemblages of painted surfaces and ceramic sculptures which, in the case of Kitchen Table (2014), resulted in pots, vessels and tableware bursting from the painting in sculptural, ceramic forms. Engaging with domestic objects and challenging perceptions of what may be considered 'art' and what was 'craft' would become defining characteristics of Betty's career.

Betty found inspiration everywhere, she had a keen eye and continually grew her knowledge of ceramics and painting, historical references, and traditional ceramic techniques used all over the world. She was endlessly curious and exploratory. Certainly, her partnership with George introduced her to the idea of treating her ceramic vessels as canvases for colour, pattern and form and seems to have direct linage, to her collaboration and conversations with a painter and lecturer in art. Her radicality was her own though, she was playful, overthrew boundaries and grew the possibilities of her ceramic works.

Betty Woodman at Antella c 1970s. | Woodman Show | STIRworld
Betty Woodman at Antella c 1970s Image: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation, DACS, London

Rahul: What is the vision of the Woodman Family Foundation? How does it aim to preserve and archive the extensive works of Betty, George, and their daughter Francesca Woodman?

Emily: The exhibition was conceived in partnership with the Woodman Family Foundation, and we are excited to present the first combined presentation of the artists' work in the UK.

The Woodman Family Foundation is an amazing team, they work to protect, conserve, share and celebrate works by Betty Woodman, George Woodman and Francesca Woodman—a family of artists with extraordinary talent. In some ways this is similar to the work we do at Charleston, with Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, at their home and studio in Sussex in the UK.

The organisation, which is based in New York, maintains an impressive collection of artworks by each artist, which is available to museums, cultural institutions, researchers and artists to further the appreciation and understanding of their work. It has been great fun delving into the artwork collection, photography archive and video footage available as part of their holdings. Many pieces in the show will be on display in the UK for the first time, and we are excited to share these with visitors to the exhibition at Charleston.

Betty Woodman and George Woodman will be open to public viewing at Charleston, East Sussex, UK from March 25–September 10, 2023.

What do you think?

About Author


see more articles

make your fridays matter

This site uses cookies to offer you an improved and personalised experience. If you continue to browse, we will assume your consent for the same.