Conditional Tense: Andrea Zittel’s Protean Art of Possibility
Originally published in Makzine (#1, 2013)
The expansive nature of Andrea Zittel’s work is hinted at in her name, from whose initials at opposite ends of the alphabet she takes the title of her one-woman operation, her A–Z enterprise, her “institute in investigative living.” Her home-studio compound is situated in an area of California’s Mojave Desert where hippies, artists, and libertarians roost in scattered off-the-grid outposts on the outskirts of Twentynine Palms, the massive U.S. military base containing Combat Town, a replica of a Middle Eastern city. Given that it accommodates contradictory approaches to organizing one’s life—fugitives from society’s restrictions at one extreme, soldiers following intricate rules at the other—the Mojave suits Zittel’s unconventional social laboratory.
In keeping with her A–Z mentality, Zittel started her career on the opposite coast, in New York, customizing spaces and objects in a Brooklyn row house in the early 1990s before returning to her childhood home of California in 1999. A–Z West, so called to differentiate it from its forerunner, began as a 200-square-foot homestead on a parcel of rocky land and has since expanded like a steadily growing tentacular organism to include numerous other structures, projects, and bits of property. Scattered among the compound’s acres of boulders and shrubs are examples of Zittel’s Wagon Stations, transportable one-person living compartments that open and close like metal-and-glass clamshells. The idea of a shelter reduced to a human shell: Frederick Kiesler, the iconoclastic namesake of Austria’s Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts, which Zittel received in 2012, might approve. “The house is the skin of the human body,”1 Kiesler declared in one of his manifestos advocating for more fluid intersections between humans and their natural and technological environments, a spirit shared by his peer R. Buckminster Fuller, another of Zittel’s precursors in freeform, Utopia-minded, category-defying thinking.
As with Kiesler, Fuller, and other multi-hyphenate visionaries, even the catch-all terms “artist” and “designer” don’t quite seem to encapsulate Zittel. Her projects to date include experimental breeding units for quail, an ongoing series of handmade uniforms designed for her personal wear, a week spent without clocks in a windowless room in an effort to slip regimented time, a fabricated, habitable island off the coast of Denmark, functional furniture, tools, and living environments, and, most recently, textiles woven by expert artisans and large-scale paintings. With Zittel, a design isn’t merely, or isn’t quite, a design; with few exceptions, her prototypes—for travel trailers, chamber pots, eating utensils, living units—aren’t intended for production on any kind of mass scale. They are hypothetical prototypes, prototypes of prototypes. And a painting—or wall work—by Zittel tends to be not merely, or quite, a painting: her main series of paintings is produced under the collective title Prototypes for Billboards, lending them, as with a good deal of Zittel’s work, a ghost element, a conceptual parallel in which you imagine them functioning out in the world, the painting on the gallery wall giving way to a version of giant proportions along a highway meant to be viewed by drivers at far, middle, and close range. A second series of paintings consists of smaller gouaches in Zittel’s crisp style that borrows advertising’s easily digestible visual language, illustrating prototypes for hypothetical garments and structures, or showing realized versions of prototypes in use.
The protean, boundary-testing quality of Zittel’s work isn’t merely formal; it’s central to her implied philosophy of living. “We are most happy when we are moving towards something that is not yet attained,” proclaims one of the “Billboards” paintings (Prototype for Billboard at A–Z West: “These Things I Know for Sure” #14, 2005), part of a sub-series that grew out of her curiosity over whether she had any solid, unchanging beliefs, even minor ones, in an era when belief is taken as a matter of perspective. The text continues, printed over an image of a desert road as viewed through a windshield: “This feeling also extends to physical motion in space… we are happier in a car because we are moving forward towards an identifiable and attainable goal.” The connection between happiness and mobility is a consistent theme with Zittel, and not coincidentally seems to extend to her method of working: a sense of movement, of forward momentum, pervades her work, which is full of ongoing series, the Prototypes for Billboards and well-known A–Z Personal Uniforms among them, while she sets a self-imposed two-year limit on any projects undertaken at A–Z West to avoid stagnation.2 She sees failure as a method of propulsion: “Every single piece is flawed in some way,” she has said, “and it’s that flaw that I work off of for the next piece… Only once did I make a piece that I felt pretty satisfied with, which was the A-Z Escape Vehicles, and everything stopped dead for about a year after that. I hope I never make a successful piece that I like again.”3 As in the analogy of the driver, satisfaction seems greatest in a transitional state, when the next thing is visible on the horizon.
Maximized possibility, prime mobility, hovering in a conditional tense where options are open, yet somehow measured (after all, the car is traveling on a road)—this character manifests as well in Zittel’s recurring motifs and techniques. Weaving has long been a central element in her work, endlessly varied patterns created through simple, repeated manipulations of only a few strands. Since 1991, when she conceived her first set of uniforms as a means of evading the rule of daily outfit changes, she has produced over seventy versions, from fantastical felted dresses to basic Constructivist-style aprons; the cumulative effect is that fiber strands have been passing through her fingers for over 20 years. Crochet patterns resembling open-ended mazes show up in her paintings, while her recent Wall Sprawl works, a series in which aerial photographs of exurban development are tiled and flipped to form wallpaper-like designs, roadways resembling tangled thread—are in theory infinitely expandable. One thinks of webs, and a spider is a good metaphor for the type of artist Zittel is—spinning out an art practice through a steady stream of consistent acts, creating a physical site, a habitat of her own making for others to buzz around: art-making as a kind of high-order biological process, a system that gallery exhibitions tap into, rather than vice versa.
Zittel’s most recent New York solo exhibition, at Andrea Rosen Gallery last fall, synthesized the major themes or tributaries that have flowed through her art since its earliest days. The sure sense of direction that has always been a feature of her work felt more pronounced—the A–Z Covers series that first appeared in 1993 melding with the Prototypes for Billboards series, for instance, to form a pair of large, striking paintings in which color-blocked textiles in hot desert tones appear to slide off the vertical plane. Meanwhile, the weaving component of her practice moved onto the wall in the form of A–Z Cover Series 1 and 2 (2012)—woven canvases, in effect, with colors embedded in the thread, a kind of reverse painting, created by teams of master weavers following Zittel’s instructions, but with room built in for subjective decisions. “My goal is to make a work that is simultaneously a highly rendered artisan object, conceptual art, and functional object,” she wrote in a statement accompanying the show, noting that Mies van der Rohe hung Rothko paintings alongside Navajo blankets, being obsessed with both.
“Fluid Panel State” was the show’s cryptic title. A panel, according to Zittel, is a section of a two-dimensional plane in three-dimensional space, such as a “doormat, a tablecloth, a bath towel, a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood, or a piece of printer paper.” A fluid panel, she explains, is a flexible two-dimensional plane, such as a textile, that can describe three-dimensional shapes, transcending its reality, in a sense, by bending the rules that contain it. One such panel in the exhibition appeared in the form of carpet designed to fit the dimensions of a one-room cabin near Zittel’s desert compound, an extension of her A–Z Carpet Furniture series in which rugs are patterned with shapes designating furniture—here, a blue rectangle for a bed, a red square for a table, and a striped rug-within-a-rug. In the gallery, it rested on the floor—a photograph shows a woman lying on the “bed”—though it could equally hang on the wall, where it would resemble a color field painting. The carpet allows for the feel of structured space without actual obstacles, without furniture, without impediments to mobility, and it is a shifting concept itself, moving, as Zittel writes, “between abstract and literal potential—highlighting the slippage between formal art object and useful possession.”
In one of his odd, prescient, and illuminating short essays on the nature of design, the midcentury media philosopher Vilém Flusser, in a moment of optimism, envisions a future culture “with less and less room for objects of use to act as obstacles and more and more room for them to serve as vehicles for interpersonal contact. A culture with a bit more freedom.”4 It’s a vision Zittel could be said to share. From carpets eliminating the need for furniture to trailers that consolidate living spaces to tables with depressions for food that do away with the need for plates, the alternate reality she has imagined into existence is one comprised of surroundings that facilitate the flow of life, sometimes melting the built environment into the background, sometimes melting it closer to the body. If, somewhat uniquely among contemporary artists, from the beginning of her career Zittel has persistently and explicitly addressed a central question, that of how to live, her implied answer might be in a world that allows not just for greater mobility, but more conscious mobility—literal mobility, as offered by her wheeled A–Z Travel Trailers, A–Z Mobile Compartment Units, and A–Z Yard Yachts, but more often a sort of psychic mobility.
Human habitat echoes our essential psychological makeup: walls for security, doors for freedom, and windows for striking some sort of compromise between the two—seeing outside without actually leaving. Without walls, people die of exposure or attacks; without doors, they starve in more ways than one; without windows, they can live, but not happily or even sanely. The cliché equating art with a window is a truism: it’s windows that represent possibility—the promise of mobility without its dangers. Zittel’s work does not only operate in this zone of hypothetical escape, the happy gap between feeling trapped within one system and realizing we’re trapped in the next; it examines the quality of this experience and our desire for it, scrutinizing the meaning of progress and unpacking the paradox that in order to move forward, we have to close off possibilities. The act of shuttling between poles of freedom and limitation lies at the center of her work, and perhaps one reason her project feels relevant is that it keeps driving at the heart of what art’s role has been ever since the demise of religious faith removed many people’s sure sense of existential boundaries.
“Everyone is born a genius,” Fuller famously said. “But the process of living de-geniuses them.” Modernity makes it easy to travel mindlessly on tracks. What Zittel suggests, in her way of observing the strands as they are knit, being ready to manipulate (or not) the possibilities of the next stitch, is that the process of living can be transformed into occasions for ingenuity.
1. Frederick Kiesler, “Manifeste du Correalisme,” L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (June 1949)
2. Zittel maintains a diary of her life and projects at A–Z West in the form of a blog at www.zittel.org
3. Stefano Basilico, “Andrea Zittel,” Bomb, Spring 2001, No. 75, pp. 70-76
4. Vilém Flusser, “Design: Obstacle for/to the Removal of Obstacles,” in The Shape of Things, London 1999, p. 61