THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
“Rules are a liberating restriction,” asserts Andrea Zittel in the 21 beliefs that she’s been writing down since the 1990s; she posts them here on the gallery wall under the heading, “These things I know for sure (as of January 6th, 2020).”
It seems appropriate to take stock of this rigorous artist’s self-imposed guidelines in the wake of the year-long celebration of the Bauhaus's 100th anniversary. In “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus,” Walter Gropius concluded that the point of the school’s teaching “is a demand for a new and powerful working correlation of all the processes of creation. The gifted student must regain a feeling for the interwoven strands of practical and formal work.”1
Elizabeth Chodos, director of the Miller Institute of Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University, has curated a generous and thoughtfully installed array of new and existing work by Zittel, “Andrea Zittel: An Institute of Investigative Living.” The artist’s practice embraces a variety of media that similarly elide boundaries between practical and formal work, between art and applied design. The exhibition prompts consideration of connections reaching back to the design principles and experimentation embraced at the German school as well as forward to the extended practice of today’s like-minded artists for whom social, ethical, and environmental considerations are essential to their aesthetic projects.
Zittel established her first studio as A-Z East in a live/work space in Brooklyn after completing her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1990. Since 2000, she has worked from a settlement in the California High Desert, A-Z West, on a variety of research initiatives, including her Institute of Investigative Living (the focus of this exhibition). Installed across the three floors of this sizable gallery are examples of her signature all-in-one living spaces, sculptural shelving units, crocheted wall hangings, woven rugs placed on floors and walls, simple garments (the A-Z Uniform: Fall/Winter 2011-2012), and reliefs and drawings. Zittel’s flat, geometric style unifies the diverse objects presented along with her common palette of dark red, black, white, gray, and ocher.
The shadow of the Russian avant-garde falls over much of this work. The Suprematist patterns of Lyubov Popova’s textile designs come to mind, and the abstractions of El Lissitzky are openly evoked in the diagonal composition Study for Planar Configuration Variant #2 (gouache and watercolor on paper, 2016) and related reliefs in painted wood (Study for Planar Configuration #1, #3, #6, 2017). But what can be made of this seemingly incongruous association of an American artist working deep into the 21st century with the Utopian principles and formal experiments of a hundred years ago? Though Zittel seems drawn to the energized abstractions of the Russian modernists, there is no trace of their transcendentalism in her work. Nor is there any hint that she is advocating for a new zeitgeist, like the Bauhaus masters. Thankfully, as someone who is always aiming for simplicity and clarity, the artist provides the answer to this question in her posted “rules” and video running in the ground-floor gallery.
Zittel’s Dynamic Essay About the Panel (video, 2014) makes plain the seamless conflation of her studio practice with built designs incorporated into her own home. She joins the ranks of many artists who have set aside emotional expression or psychological revelation for the boundless possibilities of formal exploration within self-imposed restrictions. The essay’s footage considers the spatial extension from a point, to a line, to a plane and the permutation of those abstract elements in built forms.
Projects placed nearby illustrate the artist’s conceptual framework. Neatly arranged directly on the floor in Linear Sequence #1 (2016) is a series of beams and planar elements in powdered-coated steel, aluminum, and plywood that could be related to the repeated abstract forms of Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculptures. However, the added cushions and bowl immediately recast the composition as a compact living room with sofa and coffee table, calling to mind a build-it-yourself kit from IKEA or the artist’s own portable Living Units of the 1990s. Installed on the adjacent wall is a different solution to this play with planes. Parallel Planar Panel #3 (grey, black, off-white, pink) (2017) consists of a vertical black metal rectangle mounted flat to the wall with a woven wool “rug” installed perpendicularly, jutting into the viewer’s space. Expectations about spatial orientation and domestic and artistic materials are neatly conflated and reinforced by the textile’s design, which looks like an architectural plan.
Other projects foreground the artist’s commitment to a sustainable practice. The several versions of the A-Z Aggregated Stacks (2015) are shelving units made from recycled cardboard boxes that are unified by a layer of white plaster. In their empty state, they look like frameworks for Louise Nevelson’s assemblages. But viewed up close or seen in photographs storing the artist’s belongings, their quirkiness and individuality come through. Also constructed out of repurposed materials, the RAUGH Furniture: Energetic Accumulator II (2008) makes good on one of Zittel’s rules: “Forms have to look good as they age.” She began the series in 1998 with the desire of embracing imperfections in used plywood rather than trying to cover them up. In this example, two rough-edged, irregularly carved planes—one wall-mounted and the other free-standing—provide a backdrop for another living space. An added Aggregated Stack provides storage on one unit, while a built-in bench and shelves in the other unit incorporate domestic necessities like a tea kettle and radio. A grid of framed prints nearby gives the visual Rules of Raugh (2005), suggesting possibilities for handling these unpainted laminated wood planes that allow them to deteriorate and show signs of wear.
Like Gropius’s belief that good design could improve the world, Zittel’s similar conviction brings enviable order to the chaos of her lived experience. The Bauhaus director wrote, “The objective of all creative effort in the visual arts is to give form to space…. This conception of space demands realization in the material world, a realization which is accomplished by the brain and the hands.”2 Zittel seems to share this allegiance to thinking through making but prefers to see the task as defining space. Point #20 on her posted list states, “Space can’t be ‘made’, instead it is defined by boundaries, divisions, walls, compartments, etc. In essence, space is created by the physical boundaries that we build to contain it.” Surveying Zittel’s long career, this exhibition shows the impressive range of her creative solutions to making physical boundaries in the domestic environment that take into account the interrelated issues of aesthetics, ethics, and sustainability. Considering the looming environmental apocalypse and the acrimony of contemporary life outside the gallery doors and beyond the artist’s desert compound, maybe the world would be a better place if we could all make a similar commitment.
Kristina Olson is associate director of the School of Art & Design at West Virginia University, co-editor of Social Practice Art in Turbulent Times: The Revolution Will Be Live (Routledge, 2019), and exhibition reviews editor for the journal Art Inquiries.
“Andrea Zittel: An Institute of Investigative Living” was on view from January 25 to March 8, 2020 at the Miller ICA at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
1. Walter Gropius, “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus,” originally published as Idee und Aufbau des Staalichen Bauhaus Weimar by the Bauhaus Press (Bauhausverlag), Munich, 1923 in Art in Theory 1900-1990, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993), p. 343.
2. Ibid., p. 340.
Left, A-Z Uniform: Fall/Winter 2011-2012, 2011-2012. Yellow and black crochet short-sleeve shirt. Right, Study for Planar Configuration #1, #3, 2017. Wood and paint. Photo by Tom Little, 2020.
Andrea Zittel, A-Z Aggregated Stacks, 2015. Cardboard, plaster, gauze, paint. Dimensions variable. Photo by Tom Little, 2020.
Left, Linear Sequence #1, 2016. Powder-coated steel and aluminum, tung oiled birdseye maple plywood, brass, 3 cushions. Dimensions variable. Right, Parallel Planar Panel #3 (grey, black, off-white, pink), 2017. Powder-coated aluminum and steel and woven wool textile. 94 1/8" x 59 1/2" x 33 1/4". Photo by Tom Little, 2020.
Andrea Zittel, RAUGH Furniture: Energetic Accumulator II, 2008. Wood, Danish oil, rigid wrap, electric tea kettle, ceramic mugs, wool, radio, felt, glass jars with tokens on carpet. Dimensions variable. Photo by Tom Little, 2020.
Living Room of AZ West main house near Joshua Tree National Park, California, with view of Andrea Zittel, AZ West Linear Sequence, 2019. Photo by Sarah Lyon. © Andrea Zittel, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
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