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Shopping the aisles for ideas

Andrea Zittel's almost utilitarian works tweak our designer lives.

March 19, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

IN the 1960s, when Andy Warhol said, "I want to be a machine," he meant that he wanted his work as an artist to be as efficient as an assembly line. He called his studio "The Factory," brought mechanical reproduction into painting and treated bodies of work like lines of consumer products.

Since the early 1990s, Andrea Zittel has been bringing Warhol's celebration of working-class industriousness into the age of upscale niche marketing.

She has embraced the language of managerial professionalism, using her initials to name her office-style organization: "A-Z Administrative Services."

She works in series, designing compact kitchens ("A-Z Management and Maintenance Unit, Model 003"), kitchen-bathroom combinations ("A-Z Body Processing Unit"), houses ("A-Z Cellular Compartment Units") and plastic islands ("A-Z Deserted Islands"), as well as customized pods ("A-Z Escape Vehicles"), outhouse-size libraries ("Prototype for A-Z Cool Chamber") and stylish toolsheds ("A-Z Homestead Units"). Dresses ("A-Z Personal Uniforms"), blankets ("A-Z Covers"), bedpans ("A-Z Chamber Pots"), light fixtures ("A-Z Wallens") and poster-style pictures, some with anodyne, New Age-style captions, fill out Zittel's impressive inventory of domestic goods.

She has also published a newsletter, keeping clients abreast of developments at A-Z East, her Brooklyn studio that, in Zittel-ese, is "a showroom testing grounds." If Zittel were to paraphrase Warhol, it isn't difficult to imagine her saying, "I want to be the CEO of a designer boutique -- one that brings Russian Constructivism to the L.L. Bean set."

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, "Andrea Zittel: Critical Space" looks more like a trade show than an art exhibition. Handsomely installed in the Geffen Contemporary, the survey of works from 1991 to 2005, organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, is unpretentious, user-friendly, informative and enjoyable.

The amusement factor is high, as is the sense of bemused curiosity that accompanies presentations of innovative products displayed as prototypes, experiments, trial runs. Zittel's series benefit tremendously by being seen en masse rather than individually. Among their best features is the capacity to get pragmatic consumers to suspend disbelief -- to get past the skepticism of product evaluation and wonder, momentarily, about a world that is different from the real one. That has been one of art's jobs, at least since Romanticism.

Think of this alternative reality as Zittel-land, a sort of designer theme park for folks who like to make an adventure of window-shopping. Highlights include nine space-saving setups efficiently packed with the necessities of home: basic beds, minimal kitchens, fold-out desks, tiny closets and modest storage spaces.

The oldest, from 1992, combines off-the-shelf appliances with custom wood furniture, all set in a welded steel armature. The newest, from 2005, is an approximately 10-foot-square "house," its powder-coated steel armature, birch paneling, corrugated metal roof, open windows, camp stove and foam bedding making it look more like a tent or prefab garden shed than a home.

In between are the "A-Z Living Unit," a neat crate set on casters that opens to become a compact office; "A-Z Escape Vehicles," resembling miniature RVs; and the "A-Z Body Processing Unit," a column of compartments in which food is stored (at the top), cooked and cleaned up after (middle) and disposed of (bottom, in the garbage can / latrine).

The largest piece in the show, resembling a miniature modernist apartment building, has 10 modular units, each closer in size to a coffin than a room in even the smallest of actual apartments.

In Zittel's work, Quaker basics meet IKEA. Most pieces would be at home in high-end shelter magazines: tasteful, sleek, smart and strangely insensitive to the differences between strict utility and luxurious excess. But Zittel's fanciful fabrications never rise to the challenge of real design by seeking to make a place for themselves in the open market, where consumer popularity, not an artist's intentions or an object's symbolic significance, determines success.

Never leaving the shelter of art and its institutional support structure, her products consistently refer back to the modular format of Minimalism (Donald Judd's boxes haunt the show), the pedestrian pleasures of Pop (Warhol's embrace of the everyday is everywhere) and the disembodied idealism of Conceptualism (Marcel Duchamp's "Boite-en-valise" is the model on which everything Zittel has made is based).

This is not the only strategy available to artists working in the idiom of design. Works by Jim Isermann, Jorge Pardo and Pae White transform everyday reality by disappearing into it.

In contrast, Zittel's pieces cling to a conservative idea of art: that its job is to stand back from society in order to get viewers to think about its problems and conflicts more critically. That's no mean feat, but Zittel's art pretends to be more than mere Realism. In that it is disingenuous.


`Andrea Zittel: Critical Space'

Where: Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Ends: May 14

Price: $5 and $8

Contact: (213) 626-6222,

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