It’s not every day that you get to help a famous artist make a work of art. So, I jumped at the chance to lend a hand when the Neuberger Museum of Art put out a call for volunteers.
By Margot Clark-Junkins
It’s not every day that you get to help a famous artist make a work of art. So, I jumped at the chance to lend a hand when the Neuberger Museum of Art put out a call for volunteers. I was one of 500 willing victims who showed up to help over the course of two weeks. We sat side by side, friends and strangers, at long tables in the cavernous gallery, carefully forcing wires strung with cylindrical glass beads of vivid hues into white plastic tiles pierced with a grid of holes. We were assembling Liza Lou’s largest beaded sculpture to date: no higher than your ankle, it stretches across 1,400 square-feet and consists of thousands of stainless steel wires and 2 million glass beads.
It takes a village to make a work of art by Liza Lou, who is widely known for her life-size figurative sculptures made entirely of tiny glass beads glued by hand to armatures or, in some cases, to actual objects like a stove. Lou first made a name for herself in the 1990s with Kitchen, exhibited at the New Museum in 1996, and now in the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection. Her 600 square-foot beaded Backyard, 1999, was exhibited in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. The backyard, which I was lucky enough to have seen with my own eyes, was replete with picnic table, tablecloth, grill, a beer can, and 1 million blades of grass. It was nothing short of astounding.
At first, some dismissed Lou’s work as obsessional or diminished it by calling it craft. Luckily, the artist was unfazed, especially after winning a $500,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2002. She had been using volunteers to help her produce her sculptures and eventually decided to outsource the considerable amount of beading; she wanted to do so in a socially responsible way, which led her to Durban, in South Africa’s coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, known for its bead artisans. Lou fell in love with the people there and divided her time between studios in Durban and Los Angeles between 2005 and 2014.
One of the artist’s assistants handed me a tile and a plastic bag filled with beaded wires, all of them yellow, my least favorite color. The wires were made in China, the beads were manufactured Japan, and the beading was done in South Africa. After a quick lesson, I set to work, hurrying a bit to match the pace of those around me. At first, I felt chatty and wanted to know more about my fellow volunteers, but eventually I grew quieter, soothed by the repetitive motions. I focused intently on making each beaded wire fit into its assigned hole without bending the wire or breaking one of the beads.
I found myself picturing those Buddhist monks, who bend over an intricate drawing of a mandala, patiently pouring paper funnels full of fine sand in various colors onto the lines of the mandala. The monks blow all the sand away once they have completed their task, to remind themselves of the futility of growing attached to material things, and to underscore the fleeting beauty of life itself.
I kept my head down and pressed firmly so that each wire stood straight in its perch. My neck started to ache and my fingertips felt sore. There, one tile of chrome yellow spikes done reasonably well. I handed it to an assistant proudly and was rewarded with another empty tile and a second bag of beaded wires, this time all dark red. Exhaling, I got back to work; I had so been hoping for blue. Someone at my table looked up from her work with a smile and said, “This is like Lite-Brite,” referring to that wonderful childhood toy where you pressed translucent plastic capsules into a pegboard backlit by a light bulb. Someone else said it reminded her of Legos. An art conservator next to me remarked wisely, “I like the idea of contemplative art…it’s making, not fixing.” We were happy.
Chief Curator Helaine Posner kept us company for a while and Lou came over to say hello. When I asked her why she chose to enlist volunteers to assemble her work, she explained, “It is a way of extending the studio. People can have a ‘felt’ experience that adds a layer of depth and meaning.”
After turning in my second tile, I looked across the room at all the finished tiles, which were spreading across the floor. I noticed that the brightly colored tiles shimmered, the glass surface of the beads catching the light in subtle ways. I watched as my tiles were added to this carpet of glass filaments. It was a satisfying moment, knowing that your effort, however small, contributed to this beautiful and surprisingly ethereal field of colors. It was a humbling moment, too: the entire sculpture, representing so many hours of labor by so many hands, will be taken apart when the exhibit is over, tile by tile, wire by wire. Poof.
“Liza Lou: Color Field and Solid Grey” is at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase from November 8 through February 21.