Liza Lou has constructed a career out of beads — millions upon millions of bright tiny crumbs, tweezered into position. Inspired by her herculean feats of patience and fine motor skills, the Whitney in New York has built an entire show around the full-scale, obsessively detailed, rainbow-hued “Kitchen” that she spent five years assembling in the 1990s.
First, she fashioned every appliance, cereal box, dirty dish and gloppy spoon out of papier-mâché, then coated them with tiny glass globules. Dustpans glitter; so does a cherry pie just out of the oven, a plate of buttered toast, the linoleum floor, and the curtains, all of them encrusted with beadwork. Lou’s magnum opus is a laborious meditation on women’s work, at once celebratory and gruelling.
Installed at the Whitney in all its finger-cramping glory, “Kitchen” reads as a reproach to a contemporary art world besotted with Duchampian gestures and outsourced toil. A banana taped to a wall generates reams of prose and sells for $120,000. Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit” goes for a record $91m, three decades after it was fabricated by a German metal company.
So it’s an apt time for the Whitney to pay homage to artists such as Lou, who rely on their own hands. Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950-2019 focuses on creators who manipulate thread, clay and other humble materials. This Rumpelstiltskinian tale of spinning craft into art compensates for its occasional inconsistencies with fantabulous highlights.
The show starts out straightforwardly enough at Black Mountain College, where Anni Albers exhorted students to embark upon “the adventure of being close to the stuff the world is made of”. Albers, who specialised in woven abstractions, inspired Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Voulkos to rework traditionally functional materials into things of beautiful uselessness. Voulkos channelled Expressionism into clay, repurposing the earthenware pot as a hulking, explosive abstraction. This was not a sentimental enterprise. When another ceramicist proclaimed that the ideal vessel aspired towards “lift and life”, Voulkos disagreed: a pot’s true destiny, he said, was “dump and death”.
On a 1947 visit to Toluca, Mexico, Asawa observed how local artisans crocheted wire into baskets for holding eggs. She used the technique to weave “drawings in space”, organic filigrees that seem spun from the sky. The establishment dismissed her dangling luminosities. “They thought it was craft, or something else, but not art,” she recalled. Or, as an Artnews critic phrased a biting put-down in 1956: “These are ‘domestic’ sculptures in a feminine, handiwork mode.”
Feminist ferment bubbles through the historical portions of this show. Women led the way in repurposing techniques that had long been disdained for their associations with hearth and family. In 1974, Lenore Tawney wove a grand funereal wall hanging, “Four Petaled Flower II”, that resembles both a flag and a cruciform shroud, its dour blackness broken by lines of light shining through.
Sheila Hicks, who also studied with Anni and Joseph Albers, produced fabrics on an improvised handloom; she intentionally spurned both flawlessness and function. “Untitled” (1969) looks sort of like a sock, or the beginnings of a scarf knitted for a friend, but it frustrates expectations with uneven edges and lumpy stitches. Hicks rejects the tradition of refined workmanship (or workwomanship, to be precise) to remake craft as art — spontaneous, open-ended and doggedly impractical.
Betty Woodman, too, plays around with questions of usefulness. Her cheerful ceramic constructions converse with Greek pottery, Etruscan sculpture, Minoan statues, Egyptian figurines, Tang Dynasty vases, majolica, Sèvres porcelain, Italian baroque architecture and the paintings of Picasso, Matisse and the Abstract Expressionists — sources that range from the functional to the majestically decorative.
Early in her career, she made whimsical but serviceable bowls, jars and teapots. Even sculptures that wouldn’t reliably keep liquid inside evoke amphoras and vases. But after seeing Frank Stella’s wall reliefs in 1958, Woodman experienced an epiphany: that painting could spring out of the frame and assert itself in three dimensions.
Over time, her work grew more conceptual. “Hydrangea” (1987) is a vase, in that you could theoretically stuff a bouquet inside, but it’s really a meditation on the idea of containers. “I start to think of myself as an artist,” she wrote. “Vases are now about vases.” A few years later, in the exuberant “Still Life #11” (1990), a vessel becomes a three-dimensional canvas, sprouting anthropoid protuberances splashed with saffron, gold and green.
Eva Hesse, who began her career as a textile designer, shook up the cool, factory-made face of minimalism with her manual approach. One of her finest works, conceived just weeks before her death in 1970, consists of rope, string and wire twisted into what looks like a giant’s game of cat’s cradle gone awry, or a web constructed by a deranged spider. The piece hangs from the ceiling in a messy tangle, yet somehow makes ravishing sense of entropy.
Women were the first to reclaim and raise up the female arts, but sympathetic men joined in, too. As a boy growing up on a Kansas farm, Alan Shields observed his mother and grandmother piecing together scraps of fabric into heirlooms that inscribed their own history. “It was viewed as women’s work as opposed to men’s work,” Shields told an interviewer in 1999. “I think that’s one of the things that people find remarkable even today — me, this big hulk of a person with hands the size of hams, trying to do delicate things on a sewing machine.”
Shields sewed bolts of cloth and reels of industrial ribbon into objects that dance with daintiness. They are big but not pretentious, strong yet literally soft. In “J + K” (1972) he festooned a frame with circus stripes of pastel greens, blues, pinks and yellows. The empty rectangle becomes a giant stage for an acrobatic fishing line, decked out in sparking beads, to swoop and loop in grand arabesques.
As Making Knowing hopscotches towards the present, the political narrative fragments, its feminist drive dissipating into cloudy identity politics. The New York-based Jordan Nasser, who has Palestinian and Polish heritage and is married to an Israeli, designed — but only partly crafted — the embroidery “A Lost Key”. Nasser elaborates on the Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery tradition called tatreez, a composition of interlocking patterns, but rather than executing all the labour himself, he sends his designs off to teams of women in Palestinian villages, who do much of the embroidery for him. The craft movement has come full circle, it seems, with men once again out in the world making statements and relying on nameless women to stay home and stitch.
Photo by Tom Powell