Monuments for a Provisional City (on Alice Könitz)September 2015
Open 24-7, California Donuts is located at the corner of West Third Street and New Hampshire, at the threshold of the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The shop is situated in a strip mall that might be described as anonymous, given the ubiquity of that building type throughout Southern California. Yet the setting is in fact a remarkably specific constellation of entrepreneurial ambition and consumer traffic, testifying to the diverse needs of the neighborhood. California Donuts has shared its pink stucco context and a parking lot with a variety of restaurants—La Morenita Oaxaqueña and Hawaiian BBQ House among them—along with a hair salon, a water supplier, and a coin laundry that, like the donut shop, is open around the clock, synergistically if not also sympathetically.
Among these businesses at Third and New Hampshire, California Donuts is clearly the beacon—a “local hotspot” (according to its website), clad in a checkerboard of aqua and red oxide tiles, somewhat discordantly outfitted with a cheery yellow and brown hexagonal sign featuring the words California and Donuts paired in mismatched atomic age fonts befitting a bowling alley, a retro furniture store, or—yes—a donut shop.
When I say that the strip mall might be described as anonymous, I am also confessing that it was anonymous to me. I hadn’t bothered to give the building much thought if I had noticed it at all, despite the siren song of donuts (a song to which I am admittedly susceptible). I had certainly driven past it on many occasions, but it remained in my periphery, if that, until 2006. I arrived at California Donuts on a Saturday morning that year at the invitation of the artist Alice Könitz and quickly found a number of friends and acquaintances loosely gathered there, alongside strangers, eating donuts and drinking coffee. The artist was there too, though I would hesitate to call the work a performance. As far as I could tell, she was just hanging out, having already installed two temporary works with the permission of the owners. Könitz’s Golden Disk Tree (2006), situated outside the shop and in close proximity to the alluring pastry case that serves as a counter, is a vertical sculpture of four triangular columns—three tall and thin, one squat and situated over an existing concrete pylon—interspersed with horizontal circular gold-papered platforms. An untitled sculpture (2006), mounted on the wall inside a small adjoining dining area, consisted of two gold paper hexagons, stretched horizontally, recalling the shape of the emblem announcing the establishment’s name. A circular void was punched out of the top hexagon, to reveal—and frame—an existing poster on the wall promoting the “cool tastes” of blended iced coffee.
Könitz intended the intervention to last a full twenty-four-hour cycle, though for unspecified reasons the management asked her to vacate early. Regardless, the casual occupation seemed remarkable in its inability to raise suspicion from regular customers—who presumably hadn’t received an invitation from the artist—or to disrupt everyday rhythms and routines that manage to intersect with California Donuts. While there, I noticed an unassuming customer use one of the gold platforms on Könitz’s sculpture as a tray for her coffee. And why not? It fit the mix-and-match paradigm of the strip mall in which it momentarily resided as perfectly as anything that had been there for years.
Some six miles from the strip mall, one could find a cardboard maquette of California Donuts (Model for Donut Shop, 2006) and the temporary sculpture that Könitz added to it, a small but significant object in an exhibition titled Public Sculpture.[i] The show’s title, seemingly as benign as the artist’s donut shop intervention, nevertheless marked a moment—post-9/11, still stuck in the paranoid fever dream of the Patriot Act—of an endangered notion once taken largely for granted: public.
The subject of the exhibition and Könitz’s research at the time was Century City, a highly regulated enclave of gleaming corporate headquarters, retail spaces, and upscale condominiums adjacent to Beverly Hills on the west side of Los Angeles. Built on what was once the sprawling 20th Century Fox studio back lot—hence its name—Century City boasts numerous touchstones of late modern and postmodern corporate architecture. Among them: the first two buildings to be entirely enclosed in a glass skin (Century City Medical Plaza, designed by Anthony J. Lumsden and César Pelli); the skyscraper blown up in the movie Die Hard (Fox Tower, designed by Johnson, Fain and Pereira Associates, which was called Nakatomi Plaza in the Bruce Willis vehicle); and Los Angeles’s own “twin towers,” a pair of triangular columns designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who had previously designed the World Trade Center in New York.
The last of these, visible from unexpected vantages throughout the west side of Los Angeles, provided the architectonic form that quite literally structures the large but spare centerpiece of the Public Sculpture show. In Mall Sculpture (2006), five triangular columns covered with dully reflective gold paper support four hexagonal frames of melamine covered in brown felt—shapes echoed in the two works at California Donuts. The sculpture is at once monumental and skeletal—a sign that coyly refuses to signify. And yet these forms based on the idealistic architectonics of Century City, constructed from humdrum materials with an emphasis on ersatz bling, insinuate, as I wrote at the time of the show, “difference from—if not exactly opposition to—the smooth, seamless forms of the pervasive corporate imaginary.”[ii] To put it another way, Könitz’s sculptures, which so effortlessly slipped into the visual logic of the working-class strip mall, could never pass undetected in the scripted and manicured homogeneity of Century City.
As with Model for Donut Shop, Könitz frequently begins with a small maquette for a larger eventual sculpture. I hesitate to say finished sculpture: the frankly experimental, ad hoc quality of her models often carries over into the “full-size” objects, as do the materials—construction paper, felt, Mylar, thin sheets of lauan plywood, among others—from which the eventual sculptures are made. Which is also to say that her sculptures maintain a provisional or propositional quality. Even Mall Sculpture, spanning sixteen feet of gallery space, flirts with flimsiness, despite the hard geometry of the architectural framework: reflective golden paper stands in for metal cladding, eagerly admitting its insubstantiality while also revealing glued joints and unfussy seams that lack the assured permanence expected of Century City’s architectonics. It’s as stable a monument as one might hope for in a city that is, literally, always shifting underfoot.
With Century City’s history as the Fox Studios back lot in mind, it might also be useful to think of the prop-like potential of these objects, and indeed a number of Könitz’s sculptures have served more tangible purposes in her videos than they might standing inert in the gallery. In Circle Sculpture (2004), a clustered stack of circles constructed of thin wood, metallic foil, and paint recalls a room divider—albeit a porous one. It also doubles as an enigmatic prop in the video Untitled (Owl Society) (2003): its purpose in the video’s loopy narrative is unclear, yet the camera zooms in on the sculpture to mark transitions from one scene to the next, thereby providing a visual pun on the word screen. The four actors in the video read an absurdist text while holding elaborate geometric masks fashioned by Könitz. When the masks are hung on the gallery wall and disembodied, their functionality begins to give way to their sculptural qualities and the combination of disparate materials like paper, felt, foil, and cork. It’s unclear whether the objects are a pretext for video’s narrative or vice versa. Stand-ins and inversions are recurring motifs for Könitz, hinging on the ability of her humbly utilitarian—“craft”—materials to resist the finitude of pure function.
The Owl Society works were followed by a small exhibition in the Oak Park suburb of Chicago, titled Sculptures for a Panamerican Nightclub, including another standing screen, narrower and more figural than its predecessor, and another mask, or the barest suggestion of one, with four triangles attached in a trapezoidal arrangement.[iii] Joining these was a maquette of sorts, a low-slung construction of triangles and wedges, covered in horizontal stripes of black, brown, pale pink, and rusty orange. Two female figures cut from a fashion magazine (including the pop singer Fergie—before she was famous) posed against the stripes, providing a sense of scale for the whole, which rested on two abutting wooden pedestals.[iv]
The ensemble of objects was inspired by a Panamerican nightclub on Temple Boulevard, just west of downtown Los Angeles and located close to the artist’s studio at the time—though it’s doubtful the maquette provided a reliable sense of the interior. The reference was sure to be lost on much of its audience in the Chicago suburb, but dislocation seems to be at least part of the point. Könitz has frequently mined the rich possibilities of the nonsite as defined and first developed by Robert Smithson in 1968.[v] For Könitz, a maquette exhibited in the Midwest reflects a site near the artist’s studio in Los Angeles, or a sculpture installed at a donut shop near Koreatown reiterates the architectonics of Century City, miles away, just as Smithson positioned containers of geologic material in a gallery in Manhattan in order to displace the viewer to far-flung sites in New Jersey, Oberhausen, or the American West. Still, I think it’s important to point out that, unlike Smithson’s, Könitz’s site/nonsite transpositions articulate social and economic distances just as clearly as geographic ones—and often emphatically so.
Perhaps no project by Könitz better reveals this tactic than a body of work that appeared in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. It spun out of the artist’s long-standing interest in a freeway overpass marking the terminus of the Glendale Freeway (or California State Route 2) in Los Angeles. Intended as a section of the proposed Beverly Hills Freeway, which would have connected the northern foothills of Glendale to the western beach community of Santa Monica, the ground to a halt in 1975 due to opposition from concerned citizens—especially landlocked NIMBYs in Beverly Hills. The 2 now spills onto Glendale Boulevard, with freeway abruptly becoming surface street, and the concrete plateau of the ill-fated Beverly Hills Freeway is largely hidden from sight. One drives past too quickly to examine it; as a pedestrian one walks under it but must trespass in order to see the blank concrete expanse above. Inevitably, Google Maps makes it easy to see, though in the end the site is remarkable not for its own visual qualities but for the unexpected vantages it affords—and for the invisible history it commemorates.
Könitz became intrigued by the site shortly after moving to Los Angeles, while exploring her Echo Park neighborhood. In 2001 she made a maquette of cardboard, bamboo, colored felt, and rocks titled Diamanten Autobahn, proposing an elevator that would take pedestrians from the sidewalk along Glendale Boulevard to the platform above. To what end, the artist never specifies, though I can confirm that she likes to picnic there. “It was fascinating to find this huge empty slab of concrete and exhilarating to watch the cars driving by at quite a high speed, while being in a spot that was almost invisible and inaccessible to the cars driving by.”[vi]
Könitz’s participation in the 2008 Whitney Biennial included a raffle—the museum sold tickets for the unlikely amount of four dollars, which also covered a poster designed by the artist—with the winner flying from New York to Los Angeles for a three-day trip in order to visit the overpass on Glendale Boulevard and stay at the Triangle Motel, far from luxurious accommodations a few miles from the site. A winning number was drawn from a clear acrylic tube in Könitz’s Raffle Sculpture (2008), a table that recalled a jerry-built prop from a game show, tricked out with golden paper (by now a signature of sorts) and black faux leather. Raffle Sculpture was accompanied by a table displaying a travel magazine—also designed by the artist—and an enigmatic sculpture titled Ghost, intended as a sort of talisman for the raffle. The artist was out of town when the winner eventually took the trip from New York to Los Angeles, and reportedly he opted out of the stay at the Triangle Motel. His reaction to the overpass is undocumented. As with the elevator that never got past the proposal stage, Könitz emphasized dislocation over destination.
Since her arrival in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, Könitz has been among the most astute artists of her generation making work in and from—presumably “about”—the context of her adopted city and its monuments, from its urban infrastructure and corporate architecture to its localized, ad hoc structures that just as readily define the vernacular. Take Taco Stand (2000), a janky accumulation of wood, Mylar, Styrofoam, and paper that seems less like a tribute to any particular Los Angeles taqueria than to the provisional nature of unlicensed vendors selling elotes after church or bacon-wrapped hot dogs after a Dodgers game. It also predicts her donut shop intervention and her contemporaneous Public Sculpture.
Könitz left Düsseldorf to attend the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and she quickly embraced the new context provided by the move west. CalArts is in fact situated not in Los Angeles but in suburban Santa Clarita, north of the city. In this context Könitz made a work titled Tent/Radio (1998), installed in the mountainous elevation that separates Santa Clarita from the San Fernando Valley immediately to the south, in close proximity to the Los Angeles aqueduct, a massive infrastructure system that conveys water from the Owens River to the city of Los Angeles: “I installed the radio in a place where the radio frequency changes. I carried a bag of cement, mixing utensils, water, an eyehook and a padlock up the little mountain next to the freeway. I dug out a hole, cast a foundation that would anchor the eyehook and locked the radio to it. Then I turned on the radio and found the station that was relatively stable. The tent that I put up around it was made out of plastic sheets, 1 x 2″ wood and duct tape.”[vii]
Könitz’s addition to the landscape was modest—at least relative to the scale of nature and industry in which it was situated—and seemingly indifferent to an audience. Still her choice of site was pointed. Like most new arrivals in Southern California, the artist became aware of her sudden proximity to movie locations, recognizing the aqueduct from several Hollywood films where it served as a signpost marking fictional characters’ arrival beyond civilization. Far from an anonymous wilderness, as one might experience it through the mediation of film, the actual site in question is located at the threshold of industry, agriculture, and suburban sprawl. And while located outside Los Angeles, the site of her Tent/Radio nevertheless points to the city from its remove. As Könitz notes, “The Tent/Radio piece has a lot to do with geography, a sense of place, certainly also with a perceived change of social structure that starts behind those mountains.”[viii]
Könitz points to a significant, ongoing aspect of her work, and Tent/Radio provides an early example of the way in which objects activate—or are used to negotiate—social structures. Several of the artist’s videos—the aforementioned Untitled (Owl Society) and Light Communication—incorporate sculptural props and masks as literal interfaces between performers, who perform basic interpersonal formations. In Untitled (Owl Society), the actors enact a frankly theatrical narrative in a forest setting, and in Light Communication, the performers use mirrors to bounce light between themselves as they move around a grotto, without recourse to language.
Still Könitz’s work feels most urgent when the social context is less mediated and grounded in an interaction with an identifiable site. This becomes abundantly clear in the intervention at California Donuts and in the raffle at the Whitney Museum, in which an unsuspecting or indifferent public might encounter the objects or action in question. Könitz moved to Los Angeles from Düsseldorf, where she was raised and received her undergraduate art education, and it is tempting to wonder to what extent her invocation of social structures might echo or inherit the idea of social sculpture developed in her native city by Joseph Beuys. (And, sufficiently tempted, I asked her directly about her relationship to Beuys and his legacy.)
Beuys’s notion of social sculpture, according to the curator Caroline Tisdall, was “a means of suggesting and effecting change beyond restricted art concepts” and was embodied in that artist’s role as an influential professor of sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1961 until 1972 (when the outsize authority figure was deposed) and his participation in numerous political organizations, including his role in founding Germany’s Green Party.[ix] As a student at the Kunstakademie, Könitz studied art in a context still polarized about Beuys’s unavoidable influence. “Some of the purging of the Beuys spirit turned into an overly regulated, antiseptic bureaucracy at the art school,” Könitz admits. “Of course getting rid of Beuys was impossible. I took at least two classes on his work when I was in art school, one was a class that compared Warhol to Beuys, and for the other one I did a report comparing Duchamp and Beuys.” Even before arriving at the Kunstakademie, she visited his retrospective in Berlin, and her parents met the shamanistic artist on several occasions. Even so, Könitz maintains a critical ambivalence toward his legacy:
Studying his work made me very conscious of materials. He uses a lot of metaphors that are based on physical properties of the materials that he chooses. I remember making almost Beuysian decisions about using acrylic felt and reflective materials, for their light absorbing and light reflecting qualities. Beuys uses felt as a metaphor for insulation and copper as a conductor, as in communicator, or transmitter of social energy. I remember very consciously choosing acrylic felt over organic felt because of that, sort of anti-Beuys. I wanted to make sure there was no overlap. He links his materials as allegories and metaphors to social interactions, concepts and models of society. I’ve been trying to stay away from heavy metaphors in my work. I never wanted materials to symbolize specific social concepts. For me materials are associated with places, similar aesthetics, but they wouldn’t carry any inherent or prescribed metaphorical or allegorical value. Or at least I’m not pushing that.[x]
There is no shortage of fierce criticism of Beuys and his legacy, much of it focused on his stance as an authority figure—the shaman, “The Boss.”[xi] I don’t wish to rehash any of it here. Better to state that Könitz occupies a more fluid position in relationship to the way her objects intersect with the social dimension, and as she describes, her materials resist metaphoric reading. Her actions—if that’s even the right word—point or prod gently toward social or political transformation, “entering into dialogue with [her] environment” as she puts it. [xii]
Perhaps it is worth noting, for comparison’s sake, that on his first trip to the United States Beuys made a point of not setting foot in America: he was immediately wrapped in felt upon arrival at Kennedy Airport and transported via ambulance to René Block Gallery for his well-known performance with a coyote (I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974). Soon after, he would develop nothing less than an “Energy Plan for Western Man,” the centerpiece of a well-publicized speaking tour. Könitz, for her part, arrived in Los Angeles and quickly set about exploring its taco stands and donut shops, its Panamerican nightclubs, its suburban infrastructure, its grottos, and its forgotten freeway off-ramps, making a series of modest monuments along the way.
Könitz’s investment in social engagement has, over the years, coincided with an apparent eagerness to collaborate, resulting in a wide-ranging and often surprising list of outcomes: A Leash for Fritz and Kale for Stray Bunny (2006), a video as wacky as the title suggests, made with Stephanie Taylor, that suggests a Saturday morning cartoon scored by Captain Beefheart (or Red Krayola—take your pick); Cock (2007), a collaborative exhibition with Taylor and Kathryn Andrews, at the Courtyard Gallery in Beijing; New Energy Encounters Group, a short-lived jam band; Familientreffen (2011), meaning “family reunion,” a two-person exhibition with her artist father; Crescent City (2012), an opera composed by Anne Baron, for which Könitz designed a swamp-themed set; and numerous others.
In 2012 Könitz founded the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA), and while tiny relative to the institution its name closely recalls (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), it is easily her most ambitious project to date. Initially located outside her studio in the Eagle Rock neighborhood, LAMOA consists of a structure occupying a nine-by-thirteen-foot footprint. Open from all four sides but covered with a slanted corrugated metal roof, the small shed-like building loosely recalls the lean, transparent architectural forms of modernist pioneers such as Richard Neutra and—especially—Albert Frey. (Like Könitz, they emigrated from Europe and embraced the temperate climate of Los Angeles, not to mention a relaxed attitude toward lifestyle formalities.)
While she is busy wearing multiple hats—not without humor—as LAMOA’s director, curator, preparator, and publicist, Könitz largely subsumes her own artistic identity into the imprimatur of the micro-institution she founded.[xiii] And while the structure can be readily understood as a sculpture by Könitz, the museum it houses is also her most emphatically collaborative project, hosting a series of solo exhibitions and performances by artists from Los Angeles and Europe. For an artist who was once an outsider exploring a new territory and taking notes, the museum marks a significant shift in her relationship with the city, some fifteen years after her arrival. Maintaining a small footprint, Könitz now casually assumes the name “Los Angeles” as her own.
[i] The exhibition was on view from January 21 to February 28, 2006, at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
[ii] See my review “Alice Könitz: Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects,” Artforum 44 (April 2006): 255–56.
[iii] The exhibition was on view from March 14 to April 14, 2004, at Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago.
[iv] Perhaps it should be noted that some “maquettes,” including this one, never result in a larger or full-scale sculpture.
[v] Smithson made a number of works that he titled or otherwise referred to as Non-Sites, and the idea of the nonsite is articulated in the artist’s writing from 1968 until his death in 1973. In the essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), he writes, “If art is art it must have limits. How can one contain this ‘oceanic’ site? I have developed the Non-Site, which in a physical way contains the disruption of the site.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 111.
[vi] Mario Vasquez, “Interview with Alice Konitz on the Abandoned Freeway to Beverly Hills,” Super Mario’s Art: Fine Art in the Fast Lane, http://mariosartworld.blogspot.com, October 15, 2014.
[vii] Alice Könitz, e-mail correspondence with the author, September 23, 2014.
[viii] Alice Könitz, e-mail correspondence with the author, September 24, 2014.
[ix] Caroline Tisdall, “Beuys in America, or The Energy Plan for the Western Man” in Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man; Writings by and Interviews with the Artist, ed. Carin Kuoni (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 9.
[x] Alice Könitz, e-mail correspondence with the author, September 24, 2014.
[xi] See, for example, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol; Preliminary Notes for a Critique,” Artforum 18 (January 1980): 35–43, an appraisal coinciding with the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, and, more recently, Jan Verwoert, “The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image,” e-flux journal, no. 1 (December 2008), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-boss-on-the-unresolved-question-of-authority-in-joseph-beuys’-oeuvre-and-public-image/.
[xii] Alice Könitz, e-mail correspondence with the author, September 24, 2014.
[xiii] In this sense, LAMOA extends a tradition of modestly scaled organizations in Los Angeles in which the artist’s or founder’s identity is not reflected in the name of the institution, such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology, founded by David Wilson and Diana Drake in 1988, or its immediate neighbor the Center for Land Use Interpretation, founded in 1994 by Matthew Coolidge. Both organizations adopted names that are emphatically institutional.