Art Made in Kitchens
“There’s always time to do what you really want. When I had children, I worked when everybody went to bed, after 11pm. I would set up at the kitchen table and clean it very well before I would start.”
Remember in the darkest, most locked down days of the pandemic, when all of us were stuck within our own walls, and many of us had kids at home too? And we found ourselves having to resort to making work at the kitchen table in between the cracks of work and school. Well, it got me thinking that this was nothing new to the history of making art: a history that wants us to think that its entire timeline is full of swaggering guys in big New York City lofts, hands-on-chins, undistracted by life’s mundanity. But, in fact, the reality of being an artist is rife with personal stories of people who had to make it work. They, like us, squeezed making art in between the oven timer and the kids’ nap, or in between the hours of a demoralizing 9-5. And quite frankly, those artists that find a way to eke through those tough years of limited space and time are the artists that have the swagger that impresses me the most.
Back in the day, it was my honor to digitally animate a painted marching figure by the artist, Ida Applebroog. And I seem to remember her saying once that she made her first small cinematic artist’s books in her kitchen while cooking dinner for her family of six. But alas, I can’t remember for sure. At any rate, she would make these little handmade books at home and send them to people she didn’t know in the art world. Unknown as an artist at the time, she received an avalanche of huffy “unsubscribe” responses in return. Now, of course, these books are all in museums (Ha ha ha. Take that, dummies).
I recently rewatched her feature in the Power episode of the TV program, Art 21, and was struck by something she said: “Anybody that creates…they’re going to find a way to create, it doesn’t matter how.” In this quote, she was specifically referring to how health problems and arthritis had led her to transition away from painting and focus more on soft clay sculpture. But for me, I like to think of it like a gift of permission: permission to make art where we’re at physically, in whatever space is at hand, and during the amount of time that we have (instead of waiting for perfect conditions that might never come). And, while we’re still on the subject of the fantastic Ida Applebroog, let’s remember how her own kitchen was a bit like the Cedar Tavern of kitchens during the 1970s. Many feminist artists visited over the years. Amy Sillman even immortalized it in a sketch (which you can see in the book Ida Applebroog: Are You Bleeding Yet?)
In Generational Objects: Ida Applebroog’s History of Feminism, Jo Applin writes about how the one-and-only Eleanor Anton introduced Ida to artist, Martha Rosler, and suggested that she use Ida’s Crosby Street kitchen as a set for a performance she was developing. Ida’s kitchen was bare bones and “provided an ideal stage for a kitchen cooking show.” This look mimicked the style of Julia Child’s TV show The French Chef, which had just started airing around that time. Rosler’s 1974 performance, Semiotics of the Kitchen, satirized TV cooking shows aimed at women and stay-at-home parents. She begins with a deadpan cataloging of bowls and utensils, getting angrier and angrier until, in a rage, the camera finds her cutting a Zoro-like “Z” in the air with a knife. And then suddenly, the fight drains out of her, and she ends the film with a shrug. She spoke about her role in the piece as trying to portray an “Anti-Julia Child” who “replaces the domesticated ‘meaning’ of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration.” In essence, she exposed the fakeness of the happy housewife cliché.
Rosner wasn’t the only feminist artist to use the kitchen as a stand-in for the inescapable trap of domestic chores and childcare for women or stay-at-home parents. Also in the 70s, in another kitchen, artist, Mimi Smith, was home with two young children, and she began making large wall drawings made of knotted thread and tape measures. These long skeins of thread basically outlined the walls of her confinement and marked time as the dreary days of childcare and housework marched on, largely the same. Her thread traced the shapes of furniture: the bed, the dresser, appliances, doorways, windows, and even the wall-mounted rotary telephone, complete with curly cord. I remember seeing two of these pieces at White Columns in their 2002 exhibition Gloria: Another Look at feminist Art in the 1970s. The phone piece was there next to the door piece, outlined in black thread with flashes of yellow in the measuring tape accents, and the piece was made in 1973, the year I was born.
It was eerie because I was standing there, a new parent myself, looking at something an artist of my mother’s generation had made about her experience, and it felt like a beamed message from one parent to another. I saw that phone, painstakingly made with tiny knots that must have taken months of stolen moments to make, and related deeply to her feelings of frustration at being an artist put on hold. She writes about the thread works: “I felt that the repetitious knotting and measuring process symbolized my existence both visually and conceptually, which had become machine-like and repetitive.”
In the book, A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood, edited by Judith Pierce Rosenberg, artist, Betty Saar, says, “I’ve always been a kitchen artist. Basically, I worked around the family and things got done. You can have the schedule in your mind, but if your child has the measles, you take care of the kid.” She would make woodcuts, etchings, and screen prints at home when her kids were small and when getting time at a printmaking studio wasn’t practical. Saar created prints early but then moved into collage and assemblage, exploring her interest in mystical, occult, personal and political themes. Often, these assemblages were made with old frames, windows and doors, and each panel would have its own distinct treatment: painted, covered in clippings, and embedded with physical objects. In her piece, Black Girl’s Window 1969, a silhouetted figure peeks in or out from an old window frame. The hands are pressed against the glass, in a silent plea. Other imagery includes paintings of a skeleton, moons and stars, and an old Daguerreotype photo still in its decorative frame. In the same way as Mimi Smith, we get a sense of someone trapped in a domestic space, longing for escape.
Saar credits a Joseph Cornell exhibition as her first introduction to the possibilities of assemblage, which is an interesting coincidence because — Joseph Cornell was also a kitchen artist. He was reclusive and lived at his mother’s house in Queens for most of his life, rarely going farther than Manhattan. In an article in The Guardian, Olivia Laing writes that although he “didn’t attempt to physically escape his circumstances, he chose rather to master the hard knack of conjuring infinite space from a circumscribed realm.” He began to make collages of his own, sitting with scissors and glue at the kitchen table of 37-08 Utopia Parkway, his home from 1929 until his death in 1972. He worked mostly at night: his mother asleep upstairs and Robert, his brother, dozing in the sitting room surrounded by his model trains. And eventually, his collages morphed into assemblages, and began to inhabit box frames and include 3D elements. These objects showed the variety of things he had collected from his sporadic trips to New York City thrift stores: paper, ephemera, toys, magazine clippings, cups and marbles, to name a few.
And next we’ll visit the kitchen (or kitchen table rather) of the artist Carrie Mae Weems. Weems not only made work in her kitchen but used it as a stage set for her powerful body of black and white photographs titled The Kitchen Table Series. In the 90’s, she lived and worked as a professor in the small town, Northampton, Massachusetts, and brought the local community into her kitchen to act as subjects for her work. In the photos, we can see Weems herself, her neighbor, Don Washington, a little girl who she had seen outside chasing a boy with a stick, and her colleague from school.
In a 2018 lecture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Weems said, “I’m very interested, not only in the work that I make, but I’m also interested in the context in which the work is being made and who is around me.” Her kitchen itself became a subject in her work. She remembered that her female students would angle away and hide behind their hair when photographed: “They were never square to the camera” (versus her male students, who seemed more confident and were always looking directly down the lens). She said she wanted to “present another way the female subject could be made.” And at her small domestic table, a person of color could be honored, squared up, remade, or re-represented, and the world could be invited in to play on it like a stage.
And moving right along, I’d like to pop over to Robert Rauschenberg’s kitchen next. In New York, Rauschenberg’s kitchen was a bit of a social butterfly and hosted all the art world’s glitterati. But when he moved to Captiva, Florida, his house and studio were so small, that “he couldn’t get back far enough to see the big paintings he was working on,” says Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times. In his article The Irrepressible Ragman of Art, Kimmelman goes on to explain that undaunted, Rauschenberg MacGyver-ed a way: “He built a wall away from the house to lean the paintings against. He would scramble up to his kitchen and look out the window, the only way to have a good view.”
So maybe that’s not technically art made in a kitchen, but it’s art viewed from a kitchen, and I think that’s close enough. One of his Combines from 1960 included a cup and spoon too.
And a couple more quick stops. Remember Alice Neel’s painting of a turkey in the sink called Thanksgiving from 1965? She only worked from life in those days, so I like to imagine her struck all at once by it and pausing all cookery to plop down right in front and paint it, in-situ, in the kitchen. And also, Alexander Calder’s wife, Louisa, would sometimes notice a missing fork or wish for an additional serving spoon and Alexander would just bust out some aluminum or silver and, lickety-split, a new utensil would appear to meet Louisa’s needs.
So, finally, what can we glean from peeking into these humble kitchens that ended up incubating so many powerful and moving works of art? For me, all these stories underline how great art can be made anywhere. We don’t need huge lofts or architect-designed spaces with white walls as far as the eye can see. We also don’t need clear calendars, because a spare hour or two snatched back from a busy day will suffice. A kitchen is a place, yes, but it’s also a symbol for a real life lived.
And a real life can’t just be shunted to the side so that we can make our work. It’s all mixed up in the blender for us, and it was all mixed up in the blender for them. But they still found a way to create where they sat with the time they had. They didn’t put things off, hoping for more ideal conditions, but used what was at hand: a kitchen, and made great art anyway.
Fun fact: You can see the figure that I animated for Ida Applebroog in the last frames of her Art 21 episode. Watch here.
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens. Also, don’t miss her upcoming group exhibition “Blush” at Auxier Kline Gallery (NYC), April 1 – April 22, 2023