PRINT March 1997


GOOD ART MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD, and everything in it, into art. When you leave a gallery and can’t tell whether the piles of traffic cones outside are a streetwork or not, then the show inside must have been a “good” one. However, this porosity of art boundaries can be a problem, especially for the artists. They’re urged by everyday proximity to and belief in art (at least in their own art) to artify everything within their ken. Think of thousands of Blanche Duboises encircled by a galaxy of bare bulbs. So a few have decided to make the most of this involuntary tendency and work the space around them. While some, like Christo, lay claim to geographic and public space, others, for reasons drawn equally from the walls of Altamira and Alcatraz, begin closer to home: with home.

Of course, all homes are made, not born, and the skills that apply to the design, assembly, arrangement, and decoration of any home are probably as close to a general manifestation of artmaking as will ever be found. (The body, inevitably scarred, colored, and clothed, is home’s only universal-art mimic and rival.) But artmaking still has a vital stake in divorcing itself and its products from routine life. Paradoxically, this is what gives “home art” its power: the fact that it’s too close to home.

Distinguishing between home art that calls itself art and that which does not isn’t always easy. Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald’s 1902 white-on-white bedroom, recently documented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was so flat-out unexpected a treatment of design and decor in its own time that the room’s strangeness, as well as its formal innovation, prods it toward the realm of art, with all the freedom from use that art implies. Yet it was meant primarily to be slept in, to change the way people woke and lived. (Uh-oh, art again.) In any case, it is certainly closer to home art than Florine Stettheimer’s cellophane-draped Manhattan salon, a home made artistic more by the artists congregating in it than by any transparent decorative strategy.

Some artists see their walls as canvas—even if they’re not painters—and are impelled to mark every surface with their labor, to familiarize it through peculiarity and, in that way, inhabit it. Though Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, constantly concerned with inhabited space, conceived his Merz theater stage and Merz cathedral (“so filled with wheels that there is no room for people”) only on paper, he actually constructed his Merzbau, a gigantic assemblage column that went through the ceiling of his house in Hannover and into the next floor. (The Nazis wrecked the home in 1938.) How different is the every-surface-crammed Merzbau from California Outsider artist Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village Pencil House or Cleopatra’s Bedroom, loaded with expressive toys and translucent with Gallo-filtered light but empty of aesthetic principle?

And then there’s the Modernist master of plumbing, who mended a dripping shower in his place in Cadaqués by sculpting a lead disk with angry little protrusions that plugged the holes of the errant showerhead. He called it Bouche-Evier and had it reproduced in an edition of 300, in bronze, silver, and stainless steel. Artists Eduardo Costa and Scott Burton once noted that in the ’60s Duchamp replaced intact plain tiles in the tub stall of his New York apartment on West 10th Street with about half a dozen patterned ones from Mexico, an unobtrusive example of an assisted readymade. Was this home-improvement intervention declared and claimed? Should it have entered the artist’s catalogue raisonné?

Practical living has always been at most a secondary function of so-called living rooms. Nonart interior decoration is usually intended to please either an audience or a camera, and home art too can be stage-set performative: think of artist Colette, lounging in swathes of permanent parachute, her loft the set for a challenging ’70s role of postodalisque. Where and when does this backdrop art end? How is it cleaned? Can it be sublet? We now understand how aura was reflected and magnified by Andy Warhol’s foil-papered columns and walls. But could even a Marx or Engels explain how a Factory almost—but not quite—became the product?

Not everyone, not even every artist, has a home, and socially attuned home art faces this inequity straight on, as Krzysztof Wodiczko did (on wheels) in his “shopping cart” housing modules for the homeless. Certainly, Wodiczko’s politically sensitive project reverses home art’s presiding paradigm, the logical, asymptotic end of Marcel’s good—bye wave. Must the artist’s home become the artist’s art? We retreat to the comfort of the artist’s intentions before a domestic prospect too frightening for words.