A taste for provocation was a character trait that Wood owned up to. In 1985, she wrote an absorbing autobiography called I Shock Myself, which tracks the many turns of her life, propelled by an inexhaustible joie de vivre. “She wanted to publish her diaries, too, and give them the title Diary of a Red Hot Mama,” says Naumann, laughing. “She thought that would really draw attention.”
An Uncertain Legacy
In the last 20 years of her life, between the late 1970s and her death in 1998, Wood’s work did receive attention, thanks to support from several influential dealers—namely Naumann, who was based in New York, and Garth Clark, in L.A. Her prices rose, and for the first time since relinquishing her family’s fortune, she was making a healthy income. “In her diary, up through her 70s, she worries about infrequent sales, even having enough money for groceries,” explains Kevin Wallace, the Director of Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, a small museum run lovingly out of Wood’s former Ojai home and studio. “But, by the time she passed away, her estate had about $3 million in it.” It was during this period of prosperity that Midler paid her visit, and that Jasper Johns bought one of Wood’s works.
But the momentum wouldn’t survive the artist’s death. After her passing, the prices of her work plummeted. “The success was great for Beatrice, but it also encouraged speculation,” explains Naumann. “Amateur speculators realized that she would soon die, so they just kept buying her work. Then of course, they flooded the market as soon as she died, and the prices went down staggeringly. In fact, I bought one of her chalices at auction for less than $10,000—the same type that were sold for over $100,000 during her lifetime.”
The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, which Wood envisioned as a museum and residency based in her home, was also starved of funds. Wood left her $3 million to the struggling Besant Hill School, a progressive high school next door to her studio. The Center’s “Hail Mary” was meant to be a cache of Wood’s works that would be sold strategically to support the museum. But because of the artist’s unstable posthumous market, by 2005—the year Wallace came on board to manage the museum—the profits were all but spent and the works gone, save for 20 pieces kept as part of its permanent collection.