For the past 14 years, artist Andrea Zittel has lived peaceably in Joshua Tree, California—a quiet and beautiful desert town just over two hours from Los Angeles—where she moved to escape the art community and establish a small and personal one of her own. Called High Desert Test Sites, it’s not exactly a collective or a commune. Zittel describes it as “conceptual entity,” an open space where she makes art and occasionally holds events that are as bizarre as they are wonderful. Last year I trekked out to an intentionally hard-to-find secret restaurant to eat ramen under the light of the full moon. But that’s another story.
And that’s all to say it’s often difficult to describe the kind of art she makes. Once she built a floating island and anchored it off the coast of Denmark; for another project she created “Six Month Uniforms” and experimented with wearing only two items for the entire year. With such carefully executed projects, it’s not surprising to hear her credit design for playing a large role in her life and work, and yet before watching the latest episode from PBS’ ART21 documentary series, I never made the connection.
“It’s impossible to talk about art without talking about design,” she says. “If an art historian 100 years from now had to talk about my generation, it’d be almost impossible to talk about it in a significant cultural sense without touching on what was going on in design at the same time.”
For her, it all comes back to the grid. “I think the grid is representative of human aspirations.” This connection is particularly apparent in “Aggregated Stacks,” collections of papier-mâché cardboard boxes that become either sculptural or functional objects depending on the user (watch them being made in the video), as well as in Zittel’s gorgeous geometric weavings, which give a heavy nod to the Bauhaus women. With the weavings, she’s spent the past few years “trying to find the intersection between a subtle, minimal object that’s both fine art and design.”
The grid in general, and her work in particular, is “about perfection,” she says. “I love the tension where this is trying to be perfect, and we try to make them perfect, but they just don’t want to be.”
“Design has power because it touches people in a much more concrete way, but art has more wiggle room and flexibility. And maybe I’m as interested in failure as I am in success.”