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At gatherings, guests tend to gravitate towards the glow and buzz of the kitchen. Similarly, ever since its first exhibition in 1996, Liza Lou’s “Kitchen,” a shimmering sculptural installation depicting a life-sized kitchen completely coated in millions of tiny, shiny, color-saturated glass beads, has drawn viewers into its particular glimmer and gravity.
The seductive beaded surfaces glitter under the gallery lights of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Museum-goers pause and murmur to each other, wondering how it was made (by meticulously glueing beads by hand, one-by-one, to found and fabricated kitchen elements), how long it took Lou to make it (five years), and pointing out favorite details: a beaded grocery list, a beaded dustpan full of beaded detritus, swirls of beaded water streaming out of a beaded faucet.
The 168-square-foot installation, a monument to unrecognized women’s labor, started off as a riff on Pop Art, as seen in the razzle-dazzle brand-name cereal boxes and cleaning products scattered throughout the scene. But over the years of making the work, Lou became increasingly activated around feminism and started to see beads as a metaphor for the female experience: “small, pretty, diminutive, decorative — those sorts of things that are kind of pejorative that we have around femininity, around women,” she said.
After about a decade spent in the Whitney’s storage facility, “Kitchen” is on view in an exhibit titled Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019. “One of the most pleasurable and surprising discoveries for us was discovering that Lou had included details she knew would never be seen,” wrote the show’s curators Jennie Goldstein and Elisabeth Sherman in an email to Hyperallergic. One such hidden element is the inside of the cereal bowl, buried under beaded frosted flakes, where Lou beaded the word “yum.”
The idea for this work struck Lou while she was talking to her grandmother in her mother’s kitchen in San Diego. Lou had recently dropped out of San Francisco Art Institute after one semester and moved in with her mom. She remembers her grandmother asking, “Well, honey, what are you going to do now?”
“I was rummaging through the cupboards and I just said, ‘Well, I’m going to bead a kitchen,’” Lou told Hyperallergic over the phone. The young artist had recently started making beaded sculptures. “And as I said it, it was like the idea gained momentum. It was a real light bulb moment.”
The project, Lou figured, would take about three months. This turned out to be a vast underestimation. She started building her beaded kitchen in 1991 at her mother’s house, as a 20-year-old, and finished in 1996 in her own space, at age 25, totally transformed as a person and as an artist. During the intervening years she waitressed and sold prom dresses to support her monumental solo artistic undertaking. While following her singular vision, her life grew increasingly solitary. “Even if I was at a party, I’d bring the oven rack and be weaving it in the corner,” she said. “I became very internal over those years.”
As the kitchen grew in size, Lou moved frequently to accommodate it, which meant, as she put it, “dragging this huge behemoth around.” She says she lost at least one security deposit from globs of glue dripped on linoleum apartment floors. And she had to abruptly vacate another place after an earthquake rendered it condemned. Eventually she landed at a spacious, affordable loft apartment in downtown San Diego, where she could set up the kitchen in its entirety and stay put for a couple years.
During these years of upheaval and budding artistry, Lou was learning as she went, building the ship as she sailed it, to adapt a phrase from a Kay Ryan poem she likes. The central materials and questions that drive her art — How can art serve society? What is her responsibility as an artist? — were taking root as she gripped her tweezers, peered through a magnifying glass, and slowly enveloped her kitchen with beads, like tiny seeds. “I kept wishing that there was a book, like How to Bead a Kitchen,” she said. “But it was clearly one that I was writing as I was living, you know?”
After completing the kitchen, Lou hosted a small gathering at her loft in celebration. “By then, I was totally anti-social. I didn’t have some big swath of friendships because all I had ever been doing was working.” Even so, over the course of the evening, the gathering multiplied to hundreds. People kept leaving and returning with more people, surrounding the piece. “That’s when I knew that something kind of special was happening here,” Lou said.
The magnetic tug “Kitchen” had on viewers sparked critical acclaim and took the “behemoth,” and Lou, around the world. After showing “Kitchenette,” a smaller version of the work at the art gallery at California State University, Fullerton, Lou sent postcards with photos of the installation to curators she admired, including to Marcia Tucker, founder of the New Museum in New York City. This led to “Kitchen” being exhibited for the first time in its entirety in A Labor of Love, a group show that Tucker curated at the museum in 1996. After that, the work, made of 284 components packed into 16 crates for storage, embarked on a decade or so of exhibitions across the US, as well as Japan, Norway, Germany, Israel, and beyond.
When art collectors Peter and Eileen Norton purchased “Kitchen” in 1996, this meant a new sort of stability for Lou. (Later, in 2008, Peter Norton gifted the work to the Whitney’s collection.) She could quit her day job and fund her next epic beaded work: “Back Yard,” a 528-square-foot installation, featuring individually beaded blades of grass and the trappings of middle-class suburbia — the sort of scene you might see from the window of “Kitchen.” As much of a boost to her career as it was to show and sell her kitchen, when it was physically gone from her studio, and this thing that had anchored her life didn’t belong to her any more, Lou was blindsided by grief. “The feeling of being so totally bereft and […] emptied out was something that I was not prepared for,” she recalled.
Garnering a high level of attention wasn’t always easy for the young artist either. Sometimes people dismissed her use of beads — part of an ongoing debate about art versus craft that was still prevalent in the ’90s, but has since largely evaporated as so-called craft materials and concepts are more readily accepted as art. Lou cites the work of ’70s feminist artists, like Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, who reclaimed women’s labor, experiences, and crafts as legitimate sources and materials for fine art, as seen in the monumental installation Womanhouse, for one example. Despite the work of these artists, when Lou was working with craft materials 20 years later, she was told she’d never be considered a serious artist.
Lou found that her work was often viewed as “goofy” when people didn’t bother to look beyond the delightful, surface-level visuals to locate the driving concepts and critiques at the heart of her art. “It seems so patently obvious to me that this was a really deliberate work of art about smashing through the kind of stereotypes and misunderstandings about what it is to be a woman,” Lou said. “It was also talking about racism and sexism. I used popular cliché images of women, from Aunt Jemima to Barbie to the woman on the mud flaps, [because] I realized at some point […] that if I just beaded the kitchen without any kind of imagery showing that I knew what I was doing, no one was going to grant me the full dignity of my intelligence.”
Despite feelings of frustration and being intellectually underestimated at the time, Lou’s kitchen has been a source of inspiration for many viewers, from the time of its first public showing. In the comments of a series of photos of Lou working on “Kitchen” in circa 1994 that she posted on Instagram, people chimed in to share how this artwork impacted them. “This piece changed the direction of my life,” one person wrote. Another added, “This is the reason I started beading. […] It helped me find my voice and my medium.” Others described how seeing “Kitchen” for the first time — whether in the ’90s or at the Whitney today — made them feel: amazed, awestruck, mesmerized, moved.
Now, 25 years after finishing this first major work, Lou has built a life and art career from the foundation that her searching 20-year-old self started with “Kitchen.” Beads have continued to hold fascination for her. “I have a completely different relationship to the material than I did then, a much richer, much deeper, much more profound relationship,” Lou said. “But those earlier days set in motion this connection to labor, to craft, to women’s work that would end up opening up outward into working with other people, working with women, working and thinking about community.”
The physical demands of making such labor-intensive work by herself proved physically unsustainable. To make her subsequent work, she’s gotten help from others. For “Back Yard,” for example, she hosted weekly public grass-making workshops called “lawn parties” to create a quarter million beaded pieces of grass, and in 2005, she founded a beadwork collective in Durban, South Africa. This shift to a communal approach “was the biggest change that happened after the kitchen,” Lou noted.
Today, “Kitchen” and its themes of women’s work and thankless labor are as sharp and fresh as ever. Swathes of the world stayed home during pandemic lockdowns, pulled into repetitive loops of domestic tasks, including washing endless piles of dishes — similar to the ones in the sink of “Kitchen,” which are beaded with the shapes of germs. The idea of women’s labor has been pulled into sharp contrast over the past year, as women leave the workplace at accelerating rates. The sense of “entrapment,” as Lou put it, that permeates “Kitchen” was also a common quarantine feeling. “I think it’s so interesting how you can never look at a work of art outside of the history and time you’re living in,” Lou noted. “It’s always, always, always informed by what’s happening around you.”
As for the next chapters in the history of “Kitchen,” time will tell. “I’m curious what it will be like in another 25 years,” Lou said. “That’s what’s so lovely about having that work at the Whitney: just knowing that, hopefully, if the world keeps on turning, that the work will still be around.”
Liza Lou’s “Kitchen” is currently on view in Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 2022.