Tucked against an unassuming, yet strangely inspiring set of boulder-covered hills in the remote community of Joshua Tree is A-Z West, the compound of renowned artist Andrea Zittel. Zittel is a blue-chip art staple that has exhibited globally for decades, but it's here among this seemingly extraterrestrial environment of the high desert that she calls home.
Following models such as Frank Lloyd Wright's compound Taliesin West and Paolo Soleri's experimental town in the desert, Arcosanti, Zittel moved back to southern California a little less than a decade ago and began to create what is now known as A-Z West. This small compound in rural Joshua Tree has become both her primary residence and studio, but more-so functions as a place for diving into both the exploration and beta-testing of her various experimental sculptures. In much the same way as the Arizona outpost Taliesin West functioned for Frank Lloyd Wright, A-Z West is not only the vetting ground for her designs, but also becomes the impetus for many of her works through necessity or circumstance.
In the most generalized sense, her works could be considered sculpture, and some may mistake her creations as fashion or interior design pieces, as much of her art provides a seemingly utilitarian function.
But Zittel is much more than a simple sculptor; she is an artist that examines society and the human condition with her subversively psychological and rule-based practice. Through her philosophical frameworks, she digests the world around her, responding with her practical, and sometimes abstract, devices, inventions, components, and home fixtures developed out of a desire to live in a more "artful" manner.
Her recent exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum's Architecture and Design Center showcases the interaction between her daily life at A-Z West and her artistic practice. Zittel's "Aggregated Stacks" is a large sculptural installation paired with both her own weavings and selected weavings and tapestries from the museum's permanent collection. The "Aggregated Stacks" are a byproduct of the isolated Joshua Tree location.
As many items needed for her daily existence -- whether it be art supplies or dog food -- were shipped to the compound, Zittel realized that large volumes of cardboard boxes were beginning to accumulate. Over time the stacking, rearranging and storing of these boxes lead to the formulation of the "Aggregated Stack" works. In essence, these works are groupings of boxes that have been amalgamated into a single unit through the application of plaster-impregnated gauze. "When you start to put all of the different boxes together," Zittel says, "they end up not matching up perfectly, it makes me think a lot about a decomposing grid. So there is this idea that the grid represents human idealism -- what we aspire to, that kind of perfection -- and then the decomposing grid is the reality of that."
Another work that typifies the way her practice interacts with her locale is "Wagon Stations," a series of experimental/futuristic-looking structures that are micro housing units for an individual human. With an almost "Lost in Space" aesthetic, the "Wagon Stations," look strangely at home in Joshua Tree, nestled against the alien rock hills as if they were escape pods which recently crashed to earth in this remote locale. As with many of her sculptural pieces, Zittel says "Wagon Stations" was bred out necessity at A-Z West. "We really work with a lot of artists here," Zittel says, "I needed a place to house them. The building restrictions are really stringent and so limited in San Bernardino County that I just started exploring what I could do. I think that a lot of this doesn't even have to do with scale, but rather with these underlying issues of autonomy."
True to her original impetus for A-Z West, experiencing "Wagon Stations" within their context is mind-blowingly different than what one would take from seeing them in a gallery or museum context. Zittel says that each varying environment and the specifics of that space has made a noted impact on the pieces created there -- Joshua tree is no different. The influence that A-Z West has had on Zittel's work is not as she had originally expected. "I thought it would change more than it did," she says, "I think I had this idea that when I moved out here, the work would get really expansive. I have always been known for making these compact pieces. The thing that turned out to be so interesting for me was that the environment out here was so harsh that the work actually retained its sense of compactness, because that's all that can hold up."
Many of the sculptures are produced out of necessity dictated by her environment or daily existence, while others manifest from a set of self-imposed project parameters. She makes sculpture that critiques the minutiae of urban living, the commute, the morning coffee, the afternoon exercise, all of the peripheral ephemera simply becomes a part of life's routine. If going through the motions is transitioned into living artfully -- truly seeing and evaluating our existence -- how would it change our daily process? If we did not choose what outfit to wear each morning, but rather put on our uniform for encountering the world, how much time and mental space would that afford?
Some of Zittel's investigations into daily existence have gone through long term testing -- for decades Zittel has worn just one unique, handmade article of clothing for each season of the year. Her 2011 solo-exhibition at Regen Projects in L.A. included an installation of dozens of these previously worn works from throughout the years.
Zittel says that her projects and A-Z West were responses to the "growing globalism" of the art world in the 1990s. Her works were firmly rooted in a sense of place. "[The art world] went from just being a European and American phenomenon to really reaching a kind of homogenization and a lack of cultural context," she says. "For somebody that is very much an American, or even more specifically a Southern California artist, I felt that when my work is transported to these other cultures, so many of these references are completely lost. So probably similar to how Donald Judd thought, I wanted to create a space where the work could be seen in its original context. Where hopefully all of that isn't completely lost."
Like Judd's minimalist pieces, Zittel's works often change meaning according to the place where they are displayed. Within the context of A-Z West, the "Aggregated Stacks" function as one may think, storage and shelving units, but at the Design and Architecture Center there are dozens of these large conglomerates mounted to freestanding walls or standing on their own as sculptural elements. The "Aggregated Stacks," while serving both an artistic and utilitarian function based on human needs, could also represent a metaphor for society. While viewers can easily argue about intent, societal implication, and true function of Zittel's artworks, one thing that stands out intensely is the philosophy that has always pushed the works forward -- this sense of living in a more simple, beautiful way.