Unit Structures

John Haber
in New York City

Andrea Zittel and Rob Fischer

Andrea Zittel emulates a product showroom, for a product that could accommodate anyone but also remake the world. She could teach even Chelsea a thing or two about art's commercial potential. Probably she has.

For fifteen years, Zittel has fashioned art out of experiments in gentrification, chicken breeding, mobile homes, drab clothing, interchangeable carpet patterns, and the alleged "A-Z Administrative Services" behind it all. Does that make her accepting or critical, humorless or bitingly sardonic, painfully sincere or bracingly self-aware? Shall I call work like this conceptual or material, impersonal or self-involved, idealistic or a sell-out? Probably all of the above, which is why it is so worth seeing. That is also why it helps to see so much at once. This spring two museums offer her products an extended showroom. Andrea Zittel's Norton Unit 2 (New Museum of Contemporary Art/Peter and Eileen Norton, 1994)

The New Museum uses its temporary Chelsea home for a career survey, looking rather like a trailer park by the Hudson. The Whitney's midtown branch—itself named for a corporation, Altria—sticks to her latest variations on a theme, customized Wagon Stations for the California desert. The first displays a career of cool, methodical objects, the second a collection of intriguingly battered, varied designs, dragging in spare tires and desert sand. Meanwhile her predecessor at the Whitney, Rob Fischer, makes me nostalgic for Minimalism's first incarnation.

People and products

New Yorkers know about small living spaces. When an artist moves into a fringe neighborhood, remodels a storefront, and tries to maximize efficiency, I understand. Thomas Hirschhorn or Jeff Landman even calls it art. Exit Art squeezes more than a hundred studio visits into one room. It had not yet caught on in 1990, when Zittel graduated Rhode Island School of Design and began scavenging the streets for materials. Andrea Rosen's gallery had not left Soho for the wilderness of Chelsea either when the artist first showed there in the art of 1993.

Zittel had converted not just a Brooklyn loft, she announced, but the A-Z Management and Maintenance Unit. She was exploring repetitive structures in other ways, too, including supposed Breeding Units for those chickens and drawings for imagined cloning efforts. I, for one, do not blame her for the outbreak of avian flu.

She had adopted a corporate identity as well, starting with A-Z Administrative Services in 1991. She called her brief, early efforts Repair Work. One looks like a kitchen appliance that has begun to sprout extra plumbing. The idea of assemblage as repair looks back to Robert Rauschenberg, who says that he "rescued" the components of Rauschenberg combines. It looks ahead to Mark Dion's Rescue Archaeology as well. However, her vocabulary deliberately confuses human caring and the machine shop.

With the shift from chickens and scrap metal comes other changes, too. Her subject now becomes human beings—specifically, how they live and work. Even more, she makes it difficult to sustain a division between life and work, pleasure and necessity, person and product. When she left in 2000 for Joshua Tree, California, she did not speak of moving. According to her Web site, "more attention is now being focused on our new project."

Most artists do their work first and foremost for themselves. In this market, they have to. Zittel's product line, too, finds her best customer in herself. She started making dresses that she could wear for six months at a time, at work or play. I hesitate to think how she did the wash. From their almost sexless design, she branched out to fabric that can shift at will from carpeting to wall covering, but never with the torn liberties of Al Loving.

Mostly, though, she produces compact, free-standing living units, none half as costly as a hotel room in the Guggenheim by Carsten Höller. The most ambitious squeeze several rooms, on two or three levels, into a space smaller than most New York kitchens. Others unfold from a trunk or trailer into barely space for a bed, in what the Whitney aptly calls "Small Liberties." Again she uses them herself. Her boyfriend had to put up with the same meal for months at a time. Think what would fit on a camp stove.

Alphabet city

"A-Z" sounds corporate enough, but also democratic, for A to Z encompasses everything. Work like this has the same ambition. It exists as a kind of Museum of Modern Art in miniature—at once art, design, architecture, and even new media: a video at each exhibition space follows Zittel's adventures in California. They serve as virtual wall labels, product catalog, travelogue, and personal history.

The work's ambition also includes its multiplicity of functions. To say that it includes everything but the kitchen sink does it a disservice. Besides the Homestead Units, Living Units, and other suspiciously similar titles, Zittel has made Escape Vehicles for weary humans in need of "body processing." They offer just enough room for a hot tub, a tiny rock garden, and maybe a shelf for alcohol. At times make that a multiple lack of functions: white plastic shapes, mimicking recreational paddle boats but going nowhere at all, floated in Central Park in 1997 as Deserted Islands.

The artist invites buyers to "customize" the prefabricated entities. One Wagon Station has a painted exterior, patterned after spiders. Others come outfitted for rock climbing, studying the desert environment, documenting the waste brought on by military test sites, or making art. Work tailored to a client's needs suggests another kind of ambition, too, toward community. One can imagine the Whitney's eleven units as not an installation but a village. Artistically, customization links to the ideal of art as collaboration.

Even aside from their collective presence, a single unit pretends to a total environment in itself. Each replicates and displaces a natural or unnatural habitat. One of her projects combines a kitchen sink and toilet—a parable of life as garbage in, garbage out. The hinged sides of her cramped quarters facilitate hauling things into place, but they also emphasize the experience of crawling in and becoming one's own world. Think of the isolation in the very title Deserted Islands or indeed Zittel's preferred locations. Did she abandon Williamsburg because suddenly it contained more yuppies than the California desert?

Zittel's ambition, the total work of art, also includes her role. Her attention falls not just on human habitats in general, for she makes her art an extension of her life. In fact, she makes her life an ongoing work of art. "A-Z" of course matches her initials. I hardly know when to leave a phrase of hers alone like a common noun describing a generic object, when to put it in quotes as a quirky expression all her own, and when to italicize it as the title of a work. Somehow her art has become all three.

Like Rauschenberg combines, her gambit has roots in performance art. It resembles, too, projects by Rirkrit Tiravanija from the same years—cooking for visitors or reconstructing his home in a gallery. Zittel need not actually perform, though, at least in public. William Butler Yeats once wrote that an artist must choose perfection of the life or of the work. Her art embraces the imperfection of life and her life the imperfection of art. It has the potential to keep prefabricated entities alive.

Raugh and ready

Zittel's art comes with its share of paradoxes. It aims to be simple, even simplistic, but all-embracing. It effaces the artist in the name of a corporate entity and its clients, but it becomes the story of her life. In fact, she keeps disappearing before one's eyes. The videos may look like confessions, but one can wait a long time hoping to catch a glimpse of her. She appears on her Web site—although not as prominently as her dog, Poppy—but her face remains just as elusive.

Perhaps the paradoxes arise naturally from her ambition. As philosophers since Hegel have said, the more one tries to include in one's explanation of the world, the more the excluded comes back to haunt one. The paradoxes also come down to a moment in time, with art these days still trying to make sense of its relationship to modernity or postmodernity. Zittel's self-contained environments recall any number of utopian movements in Modernism, not to mention environmental art. Her modular units rely on the reproducibility of design since the Bauhaus and on the familiar grid of geometric abstraction since Piet Mondrian. To watch her video at the New Museum, one sits on a couch of foam rubber—the same material she uses for bedding—and I found it not uncomfortable, but not exactly luxuriant either.

Postmodernists have often criticized utopias even as, like Zaha Hadid, they have proposed new ones. They have asked to save the High Line and the fabric of city streets from the perfection of glass towers. They have carried on America's almost mythic love-hate relationship with consumer goods. One can see Zittel's units as enjoying or satirizing a world of trailer parks, exurbia, sprawltown, "little boxes," and prefabricated luxury. No wonder her exhibitions can seem so empty, and I mean that as a compliment. One can see her as reveling in or savaging the commercialization of art itself, like a subtle improvement on Fischer's beat-up hulks at the Whitney at Altria just weeks before.

Conversely, her units reflect a nostalgia for the hand-made, just as her move west evokes America's nostalgia for untouched spaces. Wagon Stations pun on station wagons, but also on covered wagons. She does not make her products herself, but she insists that she could. She calls the carpets and dresses "raugh" materials, a word that looks rough and sounds raw. She carves that foam sofa in the shape of a desert rock formation.

The paradoxical combination of the corporate and the timeworn—of rough and ready-made—has its precedents, too. Robert Smithson used entropy to describe faceless skyscrapers, natural decay, and his own rock piles within a gallery. Zittel echoes him when she designs her breeding experiments to produce not the tallest or fattest, but the average. She appeals to entropy, too, in an aphorism by the entrance to her retrospective. Use dull gray, she advises, not "self-cleaning" surfaces, so that one hardly even needs to clean.

Her aphorisms keep returning to another idea as well: she speaks of attaining freedom by relinquishing control. It could pass for surrender to 1984 or the corporate environment. It could pass, too, for Zen. Perhaps one could repeat it in her hot tub. The uncertainty may explain why I get tired of peering through her tiny portholes—and why I keep imagining life inside.

Keeping the box

Back in the 1960s, people liked to joke that someone had kept the box and thrown the art away. Of course, these days few could afford such grand, polished, and precise packaging—or indeed the machinery to carry them out of Dia:Beacon. One might have to settle instead for Rob Fischer.

Fischer has, um, hollow aspirations. Looking in on the Whitney at Altria, I feared I had come a day early by mistake. It helps that the 42nd Street doors remain shut, and one door on the Park Avenue side stands in need of repair. Right as one enters, a beat-up metal hulk lies on its side, like one of Zittel's Living Units come to grief. A huge, mirrored closet and a still larger pile of ordinary wooden ones face off from opposite ends of the atrium. A more clunky contraption spreads in all directions through the smaller gallery space.

The work's bulk, like its embrace of wear and tear, may suggest the 1960s. However, the materials invoke America's still larger expanses, in a geography and culture beyond New York. The cavity on its side once formed a boat's hull, the closets may suggest prefabricated housing, and a sealed cabinet comes from the cab of a truck. One can imagine them all discarded by the edge of a highway. Maybe Fischer picked them up on his way east from Minnesota to Brooklyn. And maybe he deposited them wherever they happen to fit.

Fischer takes his allegory of America seriously. The curators compare the installation's shabby heights to the Tower of Babel, the flight of Icarus, and other emblems of ambition and failure. It should put one in the mood for Course of Empire, Ed Ruscha's contribution to the Venice Biennale, also set to open at the Whitney. However, Fischer has more success as a scavenger than as a myth maker. Taken one by one, the items have no particularly strong associations, although I did mistake the truck cab for one of those public toilets perpetually promised New York City. Taken together, his art has not found a substitute for Minimalism's grid.

Without that structure and impetus, Fischer never quite cuts loose. His echoes of the open road lack the energy of real communities, with all their ambitions and failures. I missed the desolation earlier this year of an abandoned subway station, by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. I missed the crazed city with transport one can enter, by Barry McGee. I missed, too, the more suggestive allegory of Phoebe Washburn's landscape, which recycles its own pieces, or the madness of an installation in progress in "Reconstruction" the year before at Exit Art.

Minimalism kept the gallery and threw away anything that did not belong to it completely. By comparison, Fischer works as an intruder—or at least a traditional sculptor. Signs remind one often of the work's fragility, and one cannot step on a small, white platform. Sure, the chance to orate or to clamber into the boat might turn art into a Post-Minimalist Romper Room, but everything seems designed to keep one at a distance or to turn one away entirely. The installation comes closest to play when it approaches disrepair, as with that broken door. I still cannot say for sure which ladders, dumpsters, and warning signs truly belong with the art.

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"Andrea Zittel: Critical Space" ran at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through May 27, 2006, and her "Wagon Stations" at The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria through May 7. Rob Fischer ran at the Whitney at Altria through January 22.


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