Art in residence.
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 Cadaques 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 raisonne?
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.
It's already been years since decorators caught up with the surface of David Ireland's surfaces and started to fling mottled tints and dun glazings onto restaurant and condo walls. That's why Ireland's most ambitious and challenging work, the house at 500 Capp Street in San Francisco, looks more and more familiar - at least at first glance. This century-old building tells the difference between decor and art: the former is applied (as in "applied arts"), the latter is discovered. Consider Ireland a domestic archaeologist who, in the process of exposing the integuments of wall and floor, the shadows of sill and frame, the fastening trails of screws and nails, creates.
The work Ireland creates here is not initially "his." Those stains and fissures he preserves by stopping his stripping here and continuing there, the blemishes and scorings he underscores - also darkens and refeatures - with resin sealer, are as "found" as any resituated faucet or pipe. But here's a readymade that is its situation, produced not by a factory but by what poets mistakenly call the depredations of time.
And it's no coincidence that theorists of architectural restoration have caught up with him, too, since no building can be brought back to its moment of pristine birth. The attempt effaces the plaster record of serial use. So earnest restorers look to uncover and preserve every layer of a building's life. Their new problem? These progressively skinned buildings look like created things, housing created beauties. They look like art.
McDermott and McGough
I've seen them strolling New York's smaller streets, these two anachronous gentlemen with Victorian hats and - do I remember correctly? - walking sticks. McDermott and McGough seem to have decided, early on, to make their lives their art. Nineteenth-century Europe called those who made the same decision "dandies." But this is the end of the following century, when a choice such as this, exploded by the definitions of art in the present, becomes absurd, even cynical. So back they went to simpler times. Fellow collegians in Syracuse were aghast, I am told, at young McDermott's use of chamber pots instead of plumbing - student work.
McDermott and McGough's homes are their studio and stage, places of years ago. What a curious, determined experiment, agreeing to enter a temporal biosphere. (What do you do for a paycheck?, onlookers ask. Don't you get cable?) Every bath taken in their dated bathroom becomes a reflexive ablution, every cup of tea an implicit comparison. In each home antique-store and thrift-shop relics - here's the artists' real work, hunting and gathering - are assembled to duplicate a different past. Toying with the decades within an overarching Not Now, McDermott and McGough's gestural, situational art urges one to see one's own living space as if it too were a fiction, a narrative base, the result of effort and deliberation. Photograph aspects of their behavior if you like, put into a gallery whatever the gallery needs. What McDermott and McGough show is that the art of the matter is here, at home.
This is how artist and critic Donald Judd at first wished his work to be seen: as pure form without reference. As "object art," not sculpture, which to him smelled of Cubism condensed. As divorced from use as a solid could be. Not even art critics were allowed to use his pieces - the pieces should use them (and they did).
So what happened? The unavoidable: pure form wound up luring its opposite. How close can an object get to a bookcase, a table, or a desk and still deny it? Too close for comfort. No truly practical design really looks like a Judd: his work was too profligate with ambient space, too resistant to attenuation, beveling, adjustment. Yet each and every piece, because it had to be conceived and constructed basically as all usable things do, ultimately signaled design. The artist himself appeared to know this. How close could he come to furniture? Quite close: editions (multiples, "runs") were offered and sold to be used. Brancusi made benches, Sol LeWitt a bed. So?
The complex of spaces at Marfa, Texas, exemplifies, better than any single room or apartment, the encompassing ambition of object art when it is adjusted to refer to nonuse and to be useful at the same time. This table's a table; these library bookshelves are indeed bookshelves. Of this there is no doubt, because the concrete object art's literally outside. Odd that Judd should have chosen Native American rugs to people these spaces: their abstract forms are laden with local data and spiritual association. The molcajete or Mexican mortar on the table looks purely shaped: but it's a common kitchen tool that cries "location, location." Maybe their employment is not so odd, though, in a project that memorializes the attraction of all art objects to use and of all useful objects to art.
Magpie in the Sky
It takes a certain amount of bravery to live among one's own art, as if locked overnight in your show after the gallery has closed. It's probably easier if you possess a monastic temperament, happy to sit at an Upper West Side kitchen table and stitch remnants or string beads or fracture and manipulate images. Of course, monks aren't usually packrats, surrounding themselves with junk-store familiars that are audience to their own demise and artistic resurrection. But this is how Lucas Samaras lived and worked until 1990, when he moved himself and his material brood into a dramatically high high-rise overlooking Central Park. By giving up his hermetic home/studio, was he giving up his art? Certainly not. It's natural to keep up with one's achievement. But would he feel himself? "First, hang your favorite picture." That's the magazine advice given to new home owners to ease their desolation. Samaras took it one step further: he "hung" his whole apartment.
At its best, decor sometimes succeeds at doing what Samaras' art also does: displace objects to manipulate expectations. From the front door - one of two entrances - you walk down a hallway almost mythologized by Venetian trade beads, hanging like a Euro-tribal fringe, from the top of the flanking walls that lead toward the silver-curtained window at the end. Is this decor? Not quite. Too signature, too art to be artful. A chopstick chair dares a sitter to sit. Gray-walled rooms kaleidoscope into one another. Then a study leads into its mirror image, Samaras' studios, and the metamorphosed kitchen table. Here he is, at home: the artist's collected figments have found their place.
Critics in these very pages have bemoaned that furnishings made by artists - Judd and Flavin were mentioned, Scott Burton could have been - are being carted out of their art stores and into other salesrooms of fashion. But that's the problem with a chair in a gallery: someone will always sit in it. Andrea Zittel may have started to construct furniture out of youthful "necessity," feeling her jigsaw oats, but soon she understood home furnishing as an art medium, like acrylic. She made her beds, so why shouldn't she lie in them?
If galleries are salesrooms, studios can be showrooms, and Zittel has interpreted her Brooklyn house as a testing environment for her line of A-Z furniture. Luxuriously finished ottomans may be used serially or simultaneously as beds, tables, couches, storage, and . . . sculpture (this versatility was the '60s promise of the milk crate, knocked off but never treasured). A pit-bed prototype reconceives with shape the separation of sleep from wakefulness; stolid cots with multipurpose quilts/draperies put guests at ease and in their place; a plywood-walled and customizable Comfort Unit allows the lucky recumbent to hold contemporary court anywhere; the A-Z Living Unit prefigures Zittel's soigne trailers by emblematizing the washing, cooking, eating, and resting functions within an aggressively compact fold-up cabinet.
Shipboard cleverness and infatuation with what Lewis Carroll called the "portmanteau" or two-use object don't interfere with the artist's utopian impulse to assay her vision of daily life by living in it. Call her style, if style it is, bourgeois nomadic. That the results are at once edgy and elegant shouldn't surprise anyone.
His art gave him the reputation of being an austere man, his embellishments limited to the realm of jazz. And yes, his midtown Manhattan white-wall studio would be termed "neat," all sides at right angles or parallel - except for the inevitable circle of the table clock. So is it impossible to imagine, looking back to Rietveld and De Stijl and ahead to Yves Saint Laurent and museum-shop earrings, that Mondrian used his saturated rectangles for . . . decoration? Only if we first reexamine the concept of decoration. And then, when pushed up against these walls, we must also reconsider the artist's ongoing tussle with the canvas' edge. Because of the artist's "decorations," this room, any ordinary room, becomes a field of planes. Conversely, a canvas becomes a map-collapse of volumetric mental space. How simply this studio brings the two together.
In their studios, artists usually look at (1) magazine clippings of historical artists' work - a sentimental Seurat, a peachy Pontormo - and various crafted objects that inspire, (2) other artists' actual work, tokens of friendship or caution, (3) their own unsold and uncompleted art, to fortify or nag as necessary, or (4) nothing at all. Mondrian instead arranged to look at his own de-realizing process, to work within, however playfully, his own work.
In the late '60s, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt dealt with the problems posed to a struggling young artist in an East Village walkup (266 E. 4th Street) by hiding parlous plaster and restless roaches under his own fake roaches, tinfoil rats, "lollipop fairies" with Saran Wrap faces, crumpled colored florist foil, and re-iconned botanica saints. (Collaged male icons ripped from the pages of glossy porn bibles showed their faces later.) Fake, baroque candy completely carpeted one floor; twinkle- and color-wheel lights knit it all together. The artist called his work The Summer Palace of Czarina Tatlina (Tatlin, you see, as a big queen) and waited in drag for invited guests to make the two-room tour. Many upright men were searching at the time for ways to dematerialize their art, to shrink its rigid manifestations to nonetheless salable, self-referring ideas. But Lanigan-Schmidt knew that there was a better, even more severe way to skin that rat. Live in it.
The accrued upkeep was a constant battle. And when the artist moved to Hell's Kitchen, he had to work even harder to make his larger living space open up and disappear. Why shouldn't a bedroom be a pleasure arbor? No reason at all. Why shouldn't the viewing of daily work, its very existence, be a simple extension of gracious hospitality? This is the artist's answer to the Bauhaus, to "the projects." The most ambitious of novelists dream of living within their signature worlds, this art has Lanigan-Schmidt say, why in heaven's name shouldn't I?
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|Title Annotation:||home art|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1997|
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