Memories Of Marcel Potter Beatrice Wood, 94, Talks About Her Life With, And Without, Artist Marcel Duchamp

Posted: November 01, 1987

Beatrice Wood, who is closing fast on her 95th birthday, reminisced not long ago about the twin passions of her life, pottery and men. "I'm the kind of woman who likes to fall in love," she admitted. "I always fall like a ripe olive."

Wood has been throwing pots for more than 50 years, but she has been falling in love far longer. She has learned, she said, that in love as in pottery, one never knows how things are going to turn out. "My kiln treats me the way men have treated me," she quipped, "but I still keep trying at my age, even with the men."

One of her loves was Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the only one who didn't leave her emotions in tatters. Duchamp was an avuncular friend and mentor as well as a lover, Wood recalled. "He told me that sex and love were different things. I didn't agree then, but I do now."

Although she doesn't travel much anymore "if I can possibly help it," she flew to Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago to participate in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's celebration of the centennial of Duchamp's birth. Her brief appearance brought the affair to life. Not only is Wood an extraordinary personality, but she may be the last living witness to the cultural ferment that gripped New York during the years around World War I.

She met Duchamp in New York in 1916, when he was a celebrated artist and she was a young woman trying to escape the strictures of her Victorian upbringing. Duchamp proved to be the ideal cicerone. "The chemistry was right when I first met him," she said. "I'm still sentimental about him."

She last saw Duchamp in 1963, five years before he died. By then she was an accomplished ceramic artist, although she wasn't widely known outside California, where she has lived since 1928. Today, however, she's regarded as an American master, particularly for her delicate vessels glazed in opalescent colors.

Through Duchamp, Wood met Louise and Walter Arensberg, the art collectors whose apartment on West 67th Street became a lively salon for artists and poets. The Arensbergs, who gave their collection to the Art Museum, remained Wood's close friends until they died in the early 1950s.

Wood's recollections of Duchamp, elicited by art historian Francis Naumann through an open interview at the Art Museum, were delightfully candid. Not too many minutes into their dialogue, Wood recalled that she had been in love with Duchamp and his friend, Henri-Pierre Roche, simultaneously. "But I only slept with one at a time."

(Roche later wrote a novel believed to have been based on this amour a trois, as Wood described it, that French director Francois Truffaut turned into the 1961 film Jules et Jim, shifting the locale of the triangle to Paris.)

As Wood relates in her autobiography, I Shock Myself, Roche, a diplomat, writer and art collector, was the first great love of her life. There would be five in all, she wrote, and two husbands.

She characterizes her marriages, one of which lasted 22 years, as unions of convenience. As she writes in the book's concluding paragraph: "I never made love to the men I married, and I did not marry the men I loved."

Wood's life has described more twists and turns than a road through the Alps, more peaks and valleys than last week's stock market.

Born in San Francisco, she grew up in New York and was sent by her well- to-do parents to a succession of private schools, including Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. Even as a young girl she found the insularity of her circumscribed existence confining: She longed to know what the real world was like.

MEETING DUCHAMP

At first she tried to be an artist, studying drawing at the Academie Julian in Paris. Eventually, however, she became an actress; and after learning the craft in Paris, she acted for two years with the French Repertory Company in New York. She met Duchamp while visiting one of his friends, the French composer Edgard Varese, in a New York hospital. At about the same time she met Roche, and the three soon became constant companions.

During her years in New York, Wood was an artist manque. She didn't turn to ceramics until 1933, when she was 40 years old and living in Los Angeles. In a conversation after her Art Museum appearance, she said she became involved in pottery because she needed a teapot to match six luster plates, which she had picked up in a Dutch antique shop during a European trip several years earlier.

She enrolled in a ceramics class in the adult education program at Hollywood High School - thinking, she said, "that I would make a teapot in 24 hours. Well, I discovered that you can't."

She did discover that she loved working with clay. "There's an intoxication when your hands are there" - she placed her fingers around an imaginary bowl, spinning on a potter's wheel - "and the clay comes up. It beats almost anything else."

ESCHEWED GALLERY TIES

Study with such professionals as Glen Lukens and the husband-wife team of Gertrud and Otto Natzler sharpened her technique. For years she sold her work

from her studio; it wasn't until 1970 that she hooked up with a commercial gallery.

In 1948 she moved to Ojai, a small town between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and she has lived there since. Her house includes an exhibition room in which she displays work for sale - vessels, glazed in the luster finishes for which she has become famous, and figurative pieces.

"My bowls are very simple and elegant," she said. "My figures are more humorous; they're about men and women. I enjoy keeping them as primitive as possible. Some people don't like my figures, but some think they're better than my bowls. They say the real Beatrice Wood comes out through them."

Wood will be 95 years old on March 3, yet she says she still works in her studio every day, often till 11 p.m. or midnight. Her one concession to age has been to use clays that require less time in the kiln. "That way I can shut the kiln off earlier," she said.

She can be charmingly ingenuous when talking about her work. "I've had a degree of success, but I don't consider myself too fine a potter," she said. ''It's more because of my business practices - museums have told me I do the best invoices they have ever received."

SPEAKING OUT FOR PEACE

Wood's Philadelphia audience doubtless noticed two things about her that also come out in conversation. She has been deeply influenced by the culture of India, particularly by the teachings of the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and she never passes up a chance to proselytize for world peace.

At the museum, she was dressed in her customary sari, a magenta number with a golden yellow border accented by a massive silver pectoral and two wide silver bracelets. With her gray hair pulled back Indian style, she looked impressively Brahman.

"The genius of the human race is an extraordinary thing; look at what we do," she said. "But a man from Mars would see that most of our economy goes to killing each other. That's why I think it's wonderful that so many people are going into the arts, and trying to make things of beauty instead of bombs to kill people they haven't met."

Wood said she recently wrote to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, sending the letter and a small vase through a friend who was traveling to Moscow.

"I said I wanted to meet him. I told him I wanted him to come here and see how the other half lives. And if he did, I'd give him chocolate eclairs and chocolate eclairs and chocolate eclairs. But he must not like them because he didn't answer."

Gorbachev may have been forewarned that Beatrice Wood is an irresistible charmer. "I'm alone at night with my pussycat," she reported, "but I'm looking for an old man with a wooden leg to marry and build me a new studio."

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