Embracing the Elements at Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West

A-Z West Wagon Stations in Joshua Tree, California (all photos by Josh Cho, courtesy Andrea Zittel and High Desert Test Sites)

Around 100 miles east of Los Angeles, look out for the “Able 2 Help Bail Bonds” sign. Go about a thousand feet more and take a right off the highway onto a poorly-marked unpaved road. Drive slowly — this is bound to be a bumpy ride. 

At the end of the road and just shy of government land, you will find the A-Z West Works compound, which currently serves as the headquarters for High Desert Test Sites in Joshua Tree, California. Located in the Morongo Basin on the border of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, the high desert has become a mix of ex-pat Angelenos, artists, longtime desert locals, and marines (nearby Twentynine Palms is home to a military base). The desert also plays host to a seemingly never-ending flurry of year-round visitors to the now-infamous Joshua Tree National Park.

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A-Z West (2000) began as the California version of A-Z East (1994), a celebrated life-as-artwork piece by contemporary artist Andrea Zittel. Located in a three-story row house on Wythe Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, A-Z East was Zittel’s residence as well as an artistic laboratory for her “prototypes for living.” Long interested in the relationship between freedom and restriction, autonomy and authority, many of the fundamental questions of Zittel’s practice revolve around the concept of how we live our everyday lives and what gives our lives meaning. 

A-Z West Studio

In her ongoing series of “A-Z Personal Uniforms” (since 1991), for instance, Zittel designs different uniforms that serve as a source of freedom from what she deems the “tyranny of constant variety.” Like many of her projects, it has morphed throughout the years as the inevitable need for change occurs, and she has come up with a number of different uniforms and series, such as “A-Z Personal Panel Uniforms” (1995) and “A-Z Hand Made Stranded Uniforms” (2001), over time.  The ethos of these works extends into other artworks as well.  In “Planar Configuration One” (2016), Zittel applied the same mindset she applied to her uniforms to a series of furniture-like panels that can be arranged in a number of ways, making these abstract objects the literal base of living upon which one can sleep, sit, and dine. 

Zittel purchased what would become the nearly 80-acre sprawl during much more modest times in the desert. Having grown tired of living in New York City and longing for her native California, Zittel made the move back west around the turn of the century and bought what is now the A-Z West House and the surrounding five acres for a small fraction of its current value. 

A-Z West Guest Cabin
Located in the Morongo Basin on the border of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, the high desert has become a mix of ex-pat Angelenos, artists, longtime desert locals, and marines 

“Back then, there was almost no one out here, I felt at home in the vastness,” Zittel, who grew up in Escondido, a vast desert plain near the California-Mexico border, told Hyperallergic in an interview. 

Over time, she purchased surrounding parcels of land at county auction sales, eventually growing the property to its current size. Her home, originally 400 square feet, doubled in size, and many other buildings, including two smaller homes, an outfitted recreational vehicle, and a large studio building with a ceramics station, weaving room, and wood shop, popped up over the last 20 years or so. A shipping container compound sits opposite the original home as well. Once serving as Zittel’s personal studio, the compound now houses a number of chickens and doves, fed daily by the various artists-in-residence A-Z West takes in over the year. It is in this way that I became intimately familiar with the compound and its multiple functions when I was an artist-in-residence in February and March of this year.

This residency, unlike many others that require the production of exhibitions, presentations, studio visits, or a combination of all three, is, like many of Zittel’s projects, extremely specific while at the same time infinite in its possibilities, granting its residents a veritably unlimited amount of personal freedom in making whatever they want to make at their own pace — or do nothing at all — while at the same time expecting them to live fairly structured lives by the restrictions of the environment. For instance, both the bathroom and kitchen available to the residents are entirely outdoors, which means that in the winter months, cooking dinner gets started early, before the sun goes down. While in attendance, residents are entrenched in Zittel’s highly-individual overall aesthetic, a synthesis of elegance and necessity, and have access to the gargantuan landscape that surrounds them, including the aforementioned and nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

Having been stuck in an artistic rut and questioning whether I wanted to direct my focus more toward art-making or art-writing, the extreme freedom and lack of pressure the residency offers appealed to me. I used my time in the desert largely to cleanse myself of my everyday art-world-soaked life and the various roles I inhabit within it. In essence, to get back in touch with what I want from my art practice on a deeper, intuitive level, rather than one that is derived from personal habits or social expectations. 

While the desert is largely associated with oppressive heat, extreme weather conditions can extend year-round. During my time in residence, the compound experienced a historic wind-and-snow storm that took off large sections of the current studio’s roof, downed a nearby power line, and blew out the back windshield of a fellow resident’s car. The desert is not for the faint of heart, or the uninsured. Luckily, we all were. And Zittel, having developed long-standing relationships with fellow desert residents over the years, wasted no time in calling in a bevy of handymen, roofers, and friends of A-Z West to help get the compound back in shape.

If this all seems extremely ambitious in terms of scope, that is because it is. In addition to all these projects, and as well as maintaining her own artistic practice, Zittel is a co-founding member and current artistic director of the non-profit organization High Desert Test Sites (HDTS). Founded in 2002 and currently operating out of A-Z West, HDTS started as an extremely informal way to bring artists and friends out to the desert. While happy to be in her native California, Zittel missed the conversation and company of art world people after moving to Joshua Tree, saying that in the desert she and her artist friends who came here “got to have conversations you would just never have in the city.” She found that the paradoxical sense of freedom and closeness in the harsh desert landscape lent itself more easily to conversations carried out over days and the potential for art and creativity outside the art market.

A-Z West Planar Pavilions

Over the years, and as it generally goes for organizations that want longevity, High Desert Test Sites has become more and more structured. While it initially had no official status as an organization, it has eventually become a non-profit and adopted a board of directors, granting HDTS the ability to apply for grants, lobby for funding, and provide artists with things like travel stipends and budgets for projects. For many years, HDTS operated without a physical location, existing largely as a chain of emails between members. Serendipitously, just as Zittel was longing for more privacy (it gets hectic living in a compound constantly frequented by residents, staff, and curious members of the art public) High Desert Test Sites was looking for a formal operation site. Zittel moved off the property and HDTS moved in.

Currently, the operation runs a variety of programs on-site, including tours of A-Z West and the aforementioned residency program. HDTS remains committed to its core mission of sponsoring artists in the development of desert artworks and to date has “hosted the work of more than 460 artists, 12 expansive site-specific programs, and 25 solo projects,” as mentioned on the HDTS website. It certainly does not hurt that the desert, by all accounts, and probably due in part to Zittel and HDTS’ presence here, has become a destination hot spot for the contemporary art community.

In addition to the plethora of artists who have either moved to the desert or live between the desert and Los Angeles, there are also a number of recurring art events, such as Desert X or Intersect Palm Springs, that happen across the Mojave. One particularly popular attraction is the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art. Considered by many a testimony to making art for art’s sake, the museum comes out of the practice of Noah Purifoy, who moved his practice to the desert in the 1980s, when literally no one from the art world was out there. A quote from Purifoy that reflects a similar, if not entirely identical, sentiment to the ethos of both Zittel and HDTS: “I do not wish to be an artist, I only wish that art enables me to be.”

When I asked Zittel if it was hard for her to leave A-Z West, having given so much of her life to it, she said that, surprisingly, it was not. What excited her most about the transition of A-Z West from an artwork by her to the home of High Desert Test Sites was the ability to give opportunities to other artists, for that to be the work’s legacy. 

“I want it to become something larger, something beyond me,” she says.

Exterior of A-Z West Studio

During my time in the desert, I quite happily made nothing and put myself under absolutely no pressure to create. But while in residence, questioning the future of my own art practice, I kept coming back to why I got involved in art in the first place: a revolving door of a story tied to my own troubled adolescence in a likewise-rural hometown. Since returning home to Los Angeles, I have traveled back to Joshua Tree twice to shoot for a video essay and create a series of paintings inspired by this memory, and, most importantly, I did this from a place of genuine desire, not compulsion to perform. Sometimes opening yourself to the possibility of generating nothing produces the most interesting results. 

This article was made possible through the support of the Sam Francis Foundation in honor of the 100th birthday of Sam Francis.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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