A Queen of All Media Misses Grand Synthesis

You’ve got to hand it to an artist who could even conceive of an erotic burrito, and then muster up the talent to create a sculpture fulfilling the idea’s absurdist promise. There it is, at the beginning of The Art of Betty Woodman, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring more than 50 years’ worth of Ms. Woodman’s ceramics. Erotic Burrito (1971) consists of a saddle-like orifice set upon a flaccid pillow of stoneware, and it suggests that sexual relations pose a burden that a burrito should never have to bear.

A similar impishness informs Lidded Jar (1951), with its tiny sprig-like form ascending perkily from a bulbous base. An homage to antiquity is offered with a series of “Etruscan” vases shaped with gentle, if roughly articulated, irony. Joined Vases (1972), four pot-bellied vessels juxtaposed and connected with pinched porcelain “hinges,” undercuts the traditional utilitarian aim of ceramics with quiet perversity. A good sense of humor is a welcome commodity in contemporary art. Too bad Ms. Woodman’s flew the coop sometime in the mid-1970’s.

At least that’s the way it seems at the Met. Not that the work became dour or expressionistic. If anything, The Art of Betty Woodman displays a buoyant and generous esprit. Certainly that’s the case with Ms. Woodman’s mature work. The artist takes the vase as a recurring foundation and affixes jutting, irregularly shaped “wings.” Elaborate wall installations position vessels alongside sprawling arrays of flattened architectural and plant-like forms. Clearly, Ms. Woodman wants to push ceramics beyond the scope of craft into something open, independent and less defined.

Painting is an integral part of Ms. Woodman’s vision. You could narrow down her pictorial style to “Matissean” if it didn’t promiscuously quote so many sources. Figures from Japanese painting provide literal reference points, while the School of Paris lends a decorative élan. The brusque, play-it-where-it-lays brushwork recalls the New York School, though Ms. Woodman is probably nodding toward the 16th-century Japanese warlord Furuta Oribe’s artisans, who got there first and did it better. The arts of Islam, Baroque Italy, the Maya and ancient Egypt—try not to find an influence; Ms. Woodman’s taste is all encompassing and appreciative.

There’s much to applaud in her art—its unapologetic embrace of the decorative, its playfulness and consistency. It might seem churlish, then, to note how ill formed and static it is. You know something’s awry when swooning feels more like an option than a reflex. Ms. Woodman sets out to create a bedazzling experience, yet her material attractions—rich patinas, idiosyncratic shapes and free-flowing calligraphy—are distractions from her defining limitation: a basic inability to enliven form.

The goal of mixed media is a grand synthesis, but the usual outcome is that the distinctness of opposing art forms is simply diluted, producing an overall loss of tone. Ms. Woodman combines pottery, painting, sculpture and architecture, but she doesn’t discover odd or unexpected ways their inherent characteristics might connect or reverberate. Aiming to be the Queen of All Media, she ends up giving short shrift to the media she’s mixing. We get a lot of events slapped on top of one another. There’s a willfulness to Ms. Woodman’s efforts. The wall installations are especially overdetermined; their ambition never translates directly into joy. That’s another reason the work can’t be called “Matissean.”

Yet several ceramics toward the end of the exhibition, particularly The Bathers Revisited Triptych (2004), stunningly synthesize a lot of things (if not everything) Ms. Woodman puts her hand to. Perhaps it’s the dark and gritty palette, or the fact that the amphora shapes painted upon the surface echo and amplify its underlying ceramic support. Whatever: The Bathers offers a magnificent bookend to go along with Erotic Burrito. It’s enough to make you suspect that all the stuff in between could have been better selected.

Perhaps there’s a more convincing, seductive and—yes—funny case to be made for Ms. Woodman’s ceramics. In the meantime, the Met show has enough going for it to warrant a visit.

The Art of Betty Woodman is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until July 30.

Cremaster Precursor

Vaseline being slathered upon the august walls of our greatest cultural institution—the image leapt to mind upon being told that painter Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824), whose art is the subject of a big retrospective at the Met, was the Matthew Barney of his time. But your hands and feet won’t be slipping on anything oily at Girodet: Romantic Rebel; the greasy stuff is relegated solely to the paintings themselves.

And what awful paintings they are. “I prefer the bizarre to the insipid … ,” Girodet declared, as if the two were mutually exclusive. They aren’t—a point that the Met inadvertently underlines by placing the aforementioned quote directly above Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (1801).

As far as tours de force go, Girodet’s otherworldly tribute to “Peace and Friendship” almost qualifies as so-bad-it’s-good. Almost. Combining a technical finesse gleaned from his teacher, Jacques-Louis David, with a stilted theatricality that is all his own, Girodet packs the canvas with narrative incident. The legendary Celtic poet Ossian greets a phalanx of French generals. Surrounding them are a winged Victory, grotesque warriors, an eagle, a rooster and a floating bevy of shapely nymphs, one of whom arches her back in the throes of ecstasy. A cloying and antiseptic light bathes the afterlife, it would appear. It’s enough to make one plan for other accommodations.

Ossian was all the rage in 18th-century Europe. Napoleon is said to have kept a volume of Ossian’s poetry in his pocket. That “the Homer of the North” was later pegged as the invention of James Macpherson, a Scottish poet and contemporary of Girodet’s, provides the perfect footnote to Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes. One man’s elaborate ruse leads to another man’s hokum. Baloney begets baloney.

David considered the paintings of his student to be that of a “lunatic.” At this historical juncture, we have a more certain appraisal of Girodet’s accomplishment: He’s a pornographer, and a kitschy one at that. The work isn’t pornographic because the Virgin Mary is endowed with an anti-gravitational bosom, or because the dead Christ looks like a cousin of Tom of Finland, or because Jean-Baptiste Belley—a former slave who struggled against the racial politics of Revolutionary France—wears tight yellow trousers that leave little to the imagination.

Discussions about whether the sexuality coursing through the paintings is homo- or hetero- are beside the point. The sexuality is exaggerated and stylized far beyond human intimacy; fetishism trumps eroticism. This is where the Barney comparison comes into play. It’s Girodet’s soulless technique, all sickly surfaces and manipulative effects, that qualifies him as a pornographer. Spectacle and finish can’t camouflage an overriding lack of empathy.

Mr. Barney and Girodet are narcissistic showmen. Admittedly, there are moments when Girodet drops the unctuous veneer: Portrait of Doctor Trioson in a White Frock Coat (circa 1803) provides a rare moment of understanding and introspection. The drawings are less prone to affectation—a drapery study done in black crayon and white chalk is sexy, supple and just plain amazing in a way the paintings never are. The old Frenchman’s the more tolerable artist, for sure. Still, that doesn’t mean you won’t want to take a shower after seeing the show.

Girodet: Romantic Rebel is at the Met until Aug. 27.

A Queen of All Media  Misses Grand Synthesis