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The experience of seeing Andrea Zittel’s recent exhibition at the newly opened Architecture and Design Center at the Palm Springs Art Museum is probably somewhat unusual given what many of us have come to expect of contemporary art shows in prominent art-world epicenters. The space, for one thing, is a repurposed bank originally designed in 1961 by the beloved local architect E. Stewart Williams, and its recent renovation by the Los Angeles-based firm Marmol Radziner leaves intact such features as the vault (now home to a small gift shop) and a drive-up window that juts unobtrusively into the exhibition area. No doubt we are accustomed to such “alternative” exhibition venues, but this one in particular—a gorgeous specimen of California’s mid-century design sensibility—feels as much on display as the work it contains. There is also something deeply refreshing about the institution itself, which feels less like an off-the-beaten-path destination for art-world pilgrims than a resource for members of its own community. Its affordable admission (free during downtown Palm Springs’s weekly VillageFest) and easy accessibility to foot traffic are ostensibly designed with this goal in mind. Moreover, the center’s friendly, talkative docents evidence an all-too-rare desire to actively engage the local audience, which is especially important for a show that, judging from the occasional grumble overheard in the galleries, comes as a challenging follow-up to the center’s inaugural retrospective of E. Stewart Williams’s architectural work.
These factors contributed to the distinct charm and strange pleasure of Eye on Design: Andrea Zittel’s Aggregated Stacks and the Collection of the Palm Springs Art Museum, a show organized by Zittel in collaboration with museum curators Daniell Cornell and Sidney Williams, for the exhibition is as much about the museum as it is about Zittel’s practice. As its title suggests, the show includes a suite of the artist’s recent Aggregated Stacks—white, plaster-covered assemblages made of those ubiquitous cardboard boxes from Amazon.com that we all seem to accumulate without meaning to, here repurposed into multi-tiered, shelf-like objects that fall somewhere between wonky Minimalist sculpture and equally wonky furniture. The exhibition also features smaller woven works from Zittel’s studio, which are juxtaposed with textiles and weavings selected by the artist from the museum’s permanent collection.
Assuming the now familiar role of artist-as-curator, Zittel organized these objects into four separate room-like zones, each intimated by temporary walls joined at right angles, as if demarcating corners and perimeters. While some weavings are displayed on these walls like tapestries, most are arranged horizontally upon four low, square platforms (squat pedestals measuring perhaps ten-by-ten feet and no more than a few inches tall), topped by monochromatic industrial carpeting. In the same manner that we tend to use rugs to define interior spaces, these carpeted “fields,” as Zittel calls them, bestow distinct personalities upon each of the four “rooms” and lend the exhibition as a whole a domestic feel. And perhaps also not unlike interior decorating, the compositional logic governing the arrangement of objects on these “fields” is more formal than anything else: one of them is overtaken by blacks and whites and fruity reds, another by earthy ochers and mustard yellows, another by zigging and zagging geometries. On any given “field,” then, we might confront a curious sampling of sometimes overlapping Navajo blankets, mid-century textile designs, and contemporary weavings, all of which share little more than formal affinity or common palette. Meanwhile, the hulking Aggregated Stacks are scattered throughout these four partially enclosed rooms and the spaces between them, sometimes wall-mounted like a bookshelf or relief, sometimes standing on the floor in a more familiar sculptural capacity.
For me, the show recalls Zittel’s Carpet Furniture works from the early 1990s, large carpets imprinted with geometrical compositions reminiscent of Suprematism and hard-edge painting, which are displayed on the wall like some industrial breed of tapestry or else on the floor like quirky rugs. But these apparently abstract designs also describe conventional interiors rendered as floor plans at a 1:1 scale, like readymade living spaces flattened to a single, two-dimensional plane that can be unfurled anywhere—the adult version, perhaps, of those play rugs found in preschool classrooms that map out zones for different activities. Thus the squares and rectangles populating Zittel’s Carpet Furniture also designate chairs, beds, and tables, and hence define ostensibly functional, if flat, bedrooms, living rooms, and sitting areas. In Eye on Design, too, the same kind of confusion between decorative object, art object, and functional object reigns supreme. Are each of the four horizontal fields, for instance, suggestive of lived rather than aesthetic space? On the one hand, the layerings and juxtapositions easily read as belonging to large-scale, floor-bound compositional planes—horizontal flatbed spaces given over to the logic of montage. On the other, the presence of props such as stacks of books and plain wooden panels (allusions to furniture, according to one docent) convey a space that is somehow to be lived—with or in or upon.
The same categorical confusion occupies the Aggregated Stacks. When anchored to a wall, do they become more or less sculptural, more or less shelf-like, than when freestanding? Like the repurposed building they temporarily inhabit, the stacks are products of reuse, consisting as they do of the leftover shipping boxes that sustain Zittel’s isolated studio practice in the high desert outside of Joshua Tree, CA. The artist arranges the boxes, open ends facing every which way, into small mountains, which she then secures together with heavy layers of plaster-soaked strips—the same ones used in casts for mending broken bones. As a result, the stacks look gridded yet irreparably blobby, like woozy, biomorphic versions of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, now scaled down to furniture size. And furniture is indeed the operative word here, since Zittel mounts these in her own home, as shelving for books and knickknacks. Deprived of such props at the Palm Springs Art Museum, however, they just as readily assume the role of sculpture. “What I’m really interested in is when another person takes control of the piece away from me,” Zittel has said of her work (Andrea Zittel, Beatriz Colomina, and Mark Wigley, “A–Z Drive-Thru Conversation,” in Andrea Zittel: Critical Space, eds., Paolo Morsiani and Trevor Smith, Munich: Prestel, 2005, 49). Shelving for one collector, then, sculpture for another.
But even more than the tension between art and design—a perennial topic in Zittel’s work—the show offers a thoughtful investigation of the grid. One of the anecdotes the docents eagerly relate to museum visitors is Zittel’s enthusiasm for the rigorously gridded program of Williams’s former bank. And truly, the grid is a pervasive visual presence. The marvelous terrazzo floors instantiate a strict four-by-four framework below, which is reiterated visually overhead by a gridded drop ceiling and track lighting. Zittel allowed this Euclidean scaffolding to press in on her installation in every way: the temporary walls and the spaces they enclose line up with the tiled floor, as do the low “fields” on which Zittel composed selections from the museum’s collection. The Aggregated Stacks follow suit, their rectilinear units similarly submitting to the building’s influence. And because we are dealing with textiles and weavings, where the grid is present at the material and procedural level in their warps and wefts and geometrical motifs, these objects’ very internal logic also aligns with the grid written into the space. At a certain point, everything begins to align with everything else.
In a brief segment produced by the PBS program Art21 (and playing on loop as part of a very informal A/V setup in the Architecture and Design Center’s basement), Zittel explains that “the grid is representative of human aspirations”—an obsession, let’s say, with the infinite, with transcendence, with perfection. She is quick to note, however, the tension that arises between this ideal and its inevitably imperfect realization. Lowered into the realm of the material and the finite and the muck of the everyday, in other words, we only ever get a grid that is inescapably deformed, imperfect, mortal. We see this in the hand-woven Navajo and Zuni blankets, for example, whose designs clearly respond to horizontal wefts and vertical warps but are nevertheless given over to fabulous distortions and vectors that gently bend and flex this way and that. The same is true of the weavings from Zittel’s studio, their curvaceous bulges belying their mechanical (or at least mechanically assisted) origins on the loom. Whereas many of the fully industrialized products Zittel includes—such as the jagged black-and-white circles Maija Isola famously designed for Marimekko or the improbably photorealistic Jacquard rugs depicting wisps of smoke made by the contemporary artist Pae White—are at pains to coax from the industrially guaranteed grid not eternal order but biomorphic plasticity.
What, then, to call this undertaking in which objects typically relegated to the museum’s crafts or design departments are brought together by a visual artist and incorporated into what, by any measure, feels like a large-scale installation, but in an institution whose very name would reclaim the whole thing as design? Certainly at stake is a blurring of these very categories. But more than this, Zittel effectively connects the modernist grid with an alternative lineage—a lineage defined not by the optical pursuit of the ideal (in the visual arts, one thinks of the grid as an organizing and ordering principle in the development of perspective) but one that more properly belongs to the realm of domesticity and craft. Weavings, blankets, and textiles—these are tactile things, after all, things we tend to touch or wear or use close against the body. Their presence here invites us to experience the rigorously gridded architectural space less as an empty Euclidean void than a tactile, shell-like extension of the self. For the grid to no longer be about optics but about that which swaddles and touches us—this seems to me to be the great question raised by the exhibition.
PhD student, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles
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