New York

Andrea Zittel

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Andrea Zittel wants to make our lives a little bit more livable, and she’s determined enough to have established an “administrative services” business that promises to enhance our domestic experiences through a marriage of art, design, and architecture. Under the auspices of her pseudocompany “A to Z Administration,” Zittel both manufactures and tests utilitarian/art objects—or “prototypes” as she prefers to call them—within the comforts of her own home, regularly inviting friends over to sample the goods. In a sense, all of her artworks are objects of utility—or is it the other way around?

Recently, the artist published a catalogue of the various “selected sleeping arrangements” available for purchase, a booklet that serves as a visual and conceptual guide to this show and to somewhat concurrent projects at the Whitney Biennial and the Rooseum in Sweden. Her Prototype for A to Z Pit Bed, 1995, feels like 21st-century Ikea. This low, wooden structure (rectangular with curved corners) measures 12 feet in length and 8 feet across, its edges covered with the same deep-purple carpeting upon which it rests. A circular “pit” opens up at its center, allowing participants to watch television, sleep, or just sit around shooting the shit. At the foot of this Prototype, two adjacent yet virtually hidden compartments hold optional sleeping materials.

Formally, the piece melds Minimalist codes with ’60s-style Swedish furniture design for a groovy, understated hot-tub look. In the back gallery, Zittel’s Prototype for A to Z Platform Beds, 1995—variously sized, circular pancake beds on wheels upholstered in pretty red/black and pale-green/black geometric combos—lie about the place like bedroom props from a James Bond or, better yet, a Matt Helm movie, beckoning us to do anything but sleep on them.

Zittel’s humanistic optimism and sober nostalgia do not appear to be riddled with the requisite irony, regardless of how much more comfortable we might feel if they were. It may well be that she occasionally dreams of the experimental environments of the Bauhaus, De Stijl, or the Constructivists, of a time when it was possible to view the systematic mingling of distinct kinds of artistic labor as socially progressive, transformative, and unifying. In the words of Walter Gropius, “the guiding principle of the Bauhaus has therefore the idea of creating a new unity through the welding together of many ’arts’ and movements: a unity having its basis in Man himself and significant only as a living organism.”

Our cynical response to such statements today is perhaps more than a little justified given the failure of those movements to abolish the hierarchical and ideological separations between “art activities” and “life activities.” In the name of supposedly transgressive, cross-media cultural production, they actually set the stage for the reinforcement of the very institutional divisions they hoped to dissolve. As history demonstrates, the already tenuous coupling of idealism and a systematic pragmatism usually demanded subscription to a collective politics that could—and would—prove to be as coercive as it promised to be emancipatory.

While I don’t mean to suggest that Zittel is merely pining for the revolutionary potential of that historical moment, she nevertheless invests her work with a social or socializing function, with the promise of new bridges linking “artistic consciousness” with the “everyday.” Paradoxically, Zittel’s pursuit of a usable esthetics has the effect of reminding us of art’s ineluctable divorce from “practical” concerns, and it is precisely in the center of this conceptual gap that she operates. Instead of pointing toward a utopian future, she offers us a model of what things might look like if our today were less about a possible tomorrow than about a probable today.

Joshua Decter