Smithsonian American Art Museum

formerly named

National Museum of American Art

Washington, D.C.



Star-Spangled Presidents: Portraits by Liza Lou

November 18, 2000 - February 19, 2001


"Star-Spangled Presidents: Portraits by Liza Lou" remains on view through President's Day, Feb. 19, 2001. The museum presents this installation to complement the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's new permanent exhibition "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden."

"The upcoming presidential election and inaugural festivities provide us with a perfect opportunity to feature these unusual beaded portraits at our Renwick Gallery, just steps from the White House," said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the museum. (left: Abraham Lincoln, from American Presidents, 1996, glass beads on wood, 14 1/4 x 17 inches, courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects, New York and Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Using beads, Liza Lou creates a likeness of each of the 42 American presidents that resembles historic black and white photographs. Each portrait is bordered with a wide band of gold beads, creating the illusion of a gilded frame. To complete the installation, finished in 1996, Lou includes ceremonial objects that suggest the trappings of the office, including a draped American flag, a chandelier, a fancy table and a cigar. "The zillions of beads I used to create American Presidents symbolize grand campaign promises of a sparkling future for America and the fulfillment of the American Dream," said Lou. (left: John F. Kennedy, from American Presidents, 1996, glass beads on wood, 14 1/4 x 17 inches, courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects, New York and Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Lou is best known for her monumental beaded environments, including "Kitchen" (1995) and "Back Yard" (1997). Her installations combine the shimmering beauty and glamour of beads with insightful and subtle comments on suburban American culture and a woman's role in this society.

Born in 1969, Liza Lou attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where she was briefly enrolled as a painting student. A trip to a local bead store changed her artistic course completely. Excited by the colors, textures and luminosity beads offered, Lou began to feel that paint was dull by comparison. Although she did not abandon acrylics and oils altogether, beads became a large part of her paintings from then on, and she began to consider them as three-dimensional paint.

Her decision to work outside the boundaries of traditional painting media brought ridicule from her professors and peers. "People would ask me 'how's the life of a jeweler?'," said Lou in a 1998 interview with Anita Amirrezvani of The New York Times. Despite the general lack of support for her ideas, Lou continued to create beaded objects, emboldened by the thought that she must be onto something new. To achieve the freedom necessary to realizing her own aesthetic goals, she dropped out of school and began work on one of her first beaded installations entitled Socks and Underwear. The installation was later exhibited at New York's Franklin Furnace in 1994.

The twenty-year-old Lou worked as a waitress and sold prom dresses in Hollywood to support herself. Driven by her desire to create an environment completely of beads, in 1991 Lou embarked on yet another project, entitled Kitchen, which would take five years to complete. For the installation, she bought household appliances and applied strings of beads in lively patterns directly onto their surfaces. For the cereal boxes and cherry pie, Lou first built the form out of papier-måché and then began the painstaking process of bead application.

Once seen by the public, the 168-square-foot Kitchen, completed in December 1995, brought Lou fame almost overnight and was eventually acquired by the art collector and computer software entrepreneur Peter Norton and his wife Eileen. From the dish-laden, overflowing turquoise-colored sink, to the shimmering cherry pie cooling on the oven rack just below it, to the glittering dust balls beneath the refrigerator, Lou beaded every detail by hand.

For her next project, Back Yard (1997), Lou enlisted the help of several hundred volunteers. In just two years, Lou and her assistants completed the environment, which now covers 600 square feet, contains 250,000 blades of beaded grass and consists of more than 30 million glass beads.

In 1996, Lou embarked on yet another mammoth undertaking with American Presidents, which will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery through February 19, 2001. The installation features portraits of all 42 American leaders and will include the 43rd, following the current election. Lou's newest edition will have its debut at the Renwick Gallery on January 20, 2001. Hung as a portrait gallery, the works are positioned above an elaborate table on which rests a beaded vase of flowers and a pedestal bowl of fruit; a cigar is hidden in a drawer of the table and an American flag stands alongside. A golden chandelier of beads hangs from above and beaded wall sconces flank both sides of the gallery.

Critics such as Art in America's Leah Ollman locate Lou's work within the context of feminist discourse begun as early as 1972 by artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro with their work Womanhouse, a Hollywood residence converted into an installation site. It contains, among other things, a room webbed with crochet work and a lipstick-pink kitchen plastered with sunny-side-up eggs. Lou's own Kitchen references the feminist movement both through her exploration and elevation of the mundane details of a woman's daily experience and through the beaded inscriptions of poems by Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts found on the sides of the cabinets and the refrigerator.

As with Chicago and Shapiro's work, the conceptual force behind Lou's installations lies in the materials employed. A medium traditionally associated with the 'feminine' practice of craft, beads have critical import for Lou's message. She exploits their conventional classification, thereby urging the viewer to reconsider the notion of feminine archetypes, gender roles and ultimately American culture. Together with critic Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, Lou places her work squarely within the realm of Pop art and stresses the element of fun inherent in her beaded environments. Her vision of America is one in which material culture has reached its apex, a view that is simultaneously witty and slightly satirical, much like her newest installation. With American Presidents beads also call into question the concept of power. "It is humorous to see men in beads," Lou states in an interview with Leah Ollman. "Herbert Hoover is not someone you associate with glitter."


About Elizabeth Broun:

Dr. Elizabeth Broun has served as director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum since 1989. As director, she is responsible for the nation's premier collection of American art, as well as major exhibition, research, publication, education, and new media programs. During her tenure, the museum has become a leader in providing electronic resources to schools and the public. (left: Elizabeth Broun, photography by Richard Basch, courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Dr. Broun's 1989 exhibition catalogue on Albert Pinkham Ryder won the prestigious Alfred H. Barr Award for Distinguished Scholarship. She has also curated exhibitions and published on the art of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Stuart Davis, Thomas Hart Benton Pat Steir, and Patrick Ireland. In 1972, she co-curated one of the first exhibitions of women artists for the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.

Dr. Broun serves on several advisory boards, including the Vice-President's Residence Foundation, the National First Ladies' Library, the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies, and the Consortium for the Computerized Interchange of Museum Information.

At the University of Kansas, she majored in French and art history, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a Ph.D. in 1976 for her work on American art exhibited at the 1893 Chicago's World's Fair. She holds a Certificate of Advanced Study from the University of Bordeaux, France.

rev. 5/4/04

Read more about Smithsonian American Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.