Andrea Zittel makes plenty of objects: furniture, paintings, clothing, carpets, and escape vehicles. She is to architecture and design what bloggers are to journalists, someone who makes you feel you could do it yourself. But she is a sculptor of lives, not objects. If she eats only out of bowls or out of depressions in her tables shaped like bowls, why can't you? If she sits on gray foam-rubber furniture shaped to resemble a bare rock outcropping, why don't you? What is stopping you from making your own clothing and wearing the same thing for months on end? Zittel is an inspiration, a word that doesn't get used often for artists anymore, since the word now lives in the realms of advertising and self-help.
Is Andrea Zittel a self-help artist? She certainly invites comparisons to an earnest lifestyle guru who's just sharing what she's learned in her own search for freedom in work and in leisure. The chief myth she's working against is the one—handed down in her upbringing in suburban California—equating liberation and leisure, freedom and free time. If you enjoy parts of your job, are those still classified as work? Why do we draw such a stark line between our professional and private lives when many of us are pursuing our natural interests and following our natural inclinations at the office? Doesn't the American dream really mean the dream job?
Rules, Zittel believes, are freeing—if they are tailored to individuals. In one project, she was a life coach for a fellow artist. In another, an ongoing list of "things I know for sure," she declares that making rules is more creative than breaking them. The list is the Zittelian manifesto, a wry cross between women's magazine tips and the bomb-dropping, space-clearing writings of the early 20th-century avant-garde movements.
That manifesto is writ large on the wall at the entryway to her first comprehensive North American survey exhibition, at Vancouver Art Gallery this summer. It's worth the drive.
The artist, who began her career in 1990 in New York, now lives in the remote desert of Joshua Tree, California, in a 25-acre compound (it's always described using that cultish word) where she "integrates the production, use, and presentation" of her work. She makes self-conscious and darkly witty structures, like the A–Z Body Processing Unit, which unites the kitchen and the toilet in a single intake-outtake module. Her objects take the austere, geometric shapes of Le Corbusier, Mondrian, and Russian Constructivist designers, but are customized for individual collectors. Zittel's place, called A–Z West, is also open for visitors. (She used to run A–Z East in Brooklyn.)
Zittel is a part of her work—she lives inside it, tests it, and improves it. She began her art career by breeding animals and presents herself as a scientist, always developing theories that feed back into the objects. Zittel is a big artist, but her persona is everyperson. Her "Raugh" (pronounced "raw") foam-rubber furniture is, she says, a subversion of the social hierarchy represented in elevated, right-angle chairs. And her habit of wearing a single garment for extended periods began when she worked for a pittance at a New York gallery and couldn't afford to keep up with the art world's continuous fashion show. Now that she's an art star, her then-version of this-old-thing can be seen as a one-woman show she had at that gallery every single day—a nice revenge.
If she's an everyperson, she's also an everybusiness. All her activities are classified under the name A–Z Administrative Services. It's an intriguing transformation of the role of the artist, but the more practical reason she invented the name was because when she needed materials and services for her works, businesses didn't take her seriously. She attributes this in part to her Valley-girl accent, which, again, is not the sophisticated sound of an artist, an insider.
The first art project Zittel ever thought to do, when she was 6 or 7 years old in the early 1970s, was to lock herself into a room with no windows and no clocks. When she finally realized the idea in a weeklong 1999 piece called Free Running Rhythms and Patterns, she found that she worked more, slept less, and generally conducted herself according to patterns totally unrecognizable from her typical schedule, or the typical schedule of any working person.
For an artist like this, it's always fair to ask what's to be gained from a traditional museum exhibition. (This one was organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.)
It's true that some of her objects are cold and alienating in person, divorced from the particular needs that created them. Sunsets in Joshua Tree, the abandoned shacks and rock carvings of other crazy pioneers—these have to be reduced to a PowerPoint presentation, Sufficient Self. But Zittel makes a surprising amount of work suited to museum viewing, including paintings ostensibly devoted to documenting and advertising her work; newsletters from A–Z East (in a particularly droll one, Zittel suggests that her trip to the Winchester mansion might yield ideas for your own home); an A–Z Homestead Unit with "Raugh" furniture that looks like an installation of a classic Western landscape, customized A–Z Escape Vehicles; and Sufficient Self. Who wouldn't want to see New York dealer Andrea Rosen's coffin-meets-Miami escape unit, or Zittel's handmade pink-wool pregnancy dress, the room for the bump defying her usual A-line form? It's also important to recognize that Zittel's critique is not of museology, but of thought structures that are far bigger than the art world.
She's skeptical of globalism, for one. By linking her art to specific locations and people, she deliberately limits its mobility to foreign contexts. It's anti-art-fair art. Depending on how long she stays at Joshua Tree (in the excellent catalog, she alludes to her fatigue at being a tourist destination), Zittel may establish herself as the most Western contemporary artist working, both in location and in spirit. For now, she is a symbol of the rise of the post-pioneer American West in contemporary art.
The remote Southwest earthworks of the 1970s were never meant as interactions that included the artists themselves. Zittel is in the middle of what she does, wry but not ironic, speaking the discredited languages of advertising, self-help, and lifestyle coaching. Whatever else her work accomplishes in critical and art-historical terms, it also provides something to believe in. Maybe A–Z Administrative Services fulfills that other contemporary American dream—finally, a company we can firstname.lastname@example.org