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Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, 2015

Beth Lipman

Look closely at this delicate and complex glass installation, which is now on view in the exhibition Beth Lipman: Collective Elegy. Reflect on the artist’s concerns with our relationship to nature and create your own still life of objects of personal significance in this object lesson for all ages.


For twenty years, American artist Beth Lipman has explored ideas of mortality and temporality through visual images and symbols rooted in Western European art, particularly still-life painting and the decorative arts. Take a close look at her monumental Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads (2015) from the Museum’s permanent collection. Created almost entirely in glass, the installation is over sixteen feet long!

  • Create a list of descriptive words that come to mind while you are looking.
  • What is surprising about this artwork? Why?


To create this installation, the artist and her team create dozens of blown and hand-sculpted transparent glass objects and painstakingly arranged them atop a painted wooden table. Watch this video of gallery workers assembling all the pieces.

  • What do you notice about the process?
  • Look back at the artwork. What do you notice about the arrangement or composition?
  • How do the glass objects relate to the table—and to one another?


Lipman intentionally uses the table to create a separation between the items placed above and below. Beneath the table is a “paleo-landscape” filled with extinct flora such as ferns, mosses, and gingkos. Atop the table is an array of man-made objects, such as books, plates, bowls, chalices, urns, and musical instruments. At three points in the composition, a cycad (an ancient seed plant with a crown of evergreen leaves and a stout trunk) pierces through the table, blurring the boundaries between the natural and human worlds.

  • Look at images of cycad plants. Can you find the three glass versions of cycads in the artwork? What do you notice about where and how the cycads are placed?
  • How are the natural elements below the table and the man-made objects on top different from each other?
  • What might be the significance of placing elements from nature below the table and the man-made objects above?
  • In what way is this artwork a critical commentary on contemporary life?
  • What do you think Lipman wants viewers to take away from their experience of this work?

In her glass installations, Lipman frequently references the genre traditions of vanitas and memento mori that were very popular in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. These paintings included imagery, such as candles and animal skulls, to symbolize transience and the dangers of excess wealth and consumption. In Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, Lipman highlights a single object in opaque glass: a gazing ball. Its reflective surface was used for divination, a popular practice during the Victorian era. In this still life, the gazing ball can be seen as a symbol of an unknown future, inviting the viewer to reflect on the history of the Earth and the impact of humans on nature.

  • Can you find the gazing ball in the composition? What do you notice about where and how it is placed?
  • Take a look at images of traditional memento mori. How does Lipman borrow from this genre? How does she make it her own?


A common theme of Beth Lipman’s work is ephemerality. In this series of photographs, Lipman creates glass still lifes, photographs them, and then destroys or recycles the arrangement, leaving the still lifes memorialized only with photography. Create your own ephemeral photograph by arranging a still life with personal objects or natural objects. Then take a photograph before taking it apart.

  • Tip: Go on a nature walk and collect natural objects from your backyard or a nearby park.
  • Tip: Arrange your objects on a cloth, sheet, or tabletop, or use a box to create a small diorama. Consider using a lamp or window to light your arrangement.
  • Tip: Think about what the objects you select symbolize. What stories can we tell with objects? What do the objects in our lives say about us?

Beth Lipman (United States, b. 1971)
Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, 2000
92 × 57 × 192 in. (233.7 × 144.8 × 487.7 cm)
Glass, adhesive, wood, paint
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; gift of the Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2018

This Object Lesson is adapted from our Teacher Resource Guide on Glass written by Queena Ko.

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