Drawing on Experiments (on Andrea Zittel)

October 2008


Since her emergence in the early 1990s, Andrea Zittel has created a provocative body of work that effectively combines sculpture, design, and performance into one of the most exemplary, if inimitable, models of artistic practice in the early 21st Century. Zittel’s significant career survey exhibition at Basel’s Schaulager (“Andrea Zittel, Monika Sosnowksa: 1:1”) is providing viewers an opportunity to see the full range of her striking and signature namesake objects, from wearable “A-Z Fiber Form Uniforms” to habitable “A-Z Homestead Units.” While two-dimensional works are frequently exhibited to provide context for objects they represent, this survey, organized by Theodora Vischer, positions Zittel’s prolific body of drawings and gouache paintings on paper and plywood in a symbiotic relationship with their better-known, three-dimensional counterparts.

In architecture—a discipline with which this artist obviously shares many concerns—the drawing typically precedes the built work, but many of Zittel’s gouache works turn those tables and feature the completed objects in use. A series of “Diaristic Gouaches” from 2004-5, for example, reveals only close-up glimpses—based on snapshots?—of the artist’s RAUGH furniture in a domestic setting variously littered with objects including a laptop and an electric carving knife used to shape the dense-foam furniture. (One work’s title, handwritten under the image of the creased gray object, reads, First Flaw in New RAUGH Furniture at A-Z West, January 2005.)

Zittel alludes to herself in these diary entries, and in many other works, she foregrounds herself directly in the work, as in the long-running 1990s series “Me Wearing Personal Panels” in which the artist wears variations on an insistently simply one-piece garment of her design. Historically, gouache has been a material more popular with illustrators than “fine artists.” Before the introduction of programs like Adobe Illustrator, gouache was popular with illustrators because it flattens perfectly for photographic reproduction, and indeed Zittel has created a number of flatly illustrational advertisements for her products. In an ad for her “A-Z Food Group,” for example, she is seen arranging jars of colorful dried food items amidst the “A-Z” logo and the nourishing slogan “Everlasting and Complete.”

To the extent that most of Zittel’s projects are new templates for—or radical alterations of—everyday living, they sometimes recall the propositions of the experimental design groups that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Archizoom, Ant Farm, and Superstudio. The hand-painted evidence of Zittel’s experiments in the stark, seemingly inhuman high desert of Southern California that she frequently calls home, echoes a Superstudio photo-collage from 1972, titled The Happy Island, in which a girl in a white dress skips rope on an infinitely expanding white grid that only breaks open for two towering cacti in the foreground, and the mountains in the distance.

While many of these groups dreamt big and proposed impossible solutions to affirm their radicality—see for example, The Continuous Monument, Superstudio’s world-covering grid structure—most of Zittel’s projects are imagined for herself and relatively down-to-earth. But, they are radical precisely because they can be implemented in daily life; most of what she has created—from six-month uniforms to a floating island to a chicken breeding scheme—has been fully realized, and fully subsumed into her daily routine, if not always successfully. This is why many of her painted “proposals” follow the “finished” products.

In most of these works, success is relative. For her A-Z Time Trials (also known as Free Running Rhythms and Patterns) in 1999, Zittel placed herself in a Berlin basement for one week without access to clocks or daylight, and recorded the results on video. The goal of the experiment was to determine whether or not she could develop their own bodily sense of time, free of mechanistic imperatives and social mores. The results, according the artist: “Exciting, exhilarating, and a little stressful.” For Zittel, “experiments” and “experience” are always the same thing.