On my second evening alone in the California high desert, I realize how much I’m looking forward to lighting the glass oil lamp. My home for this scorchingly hot week in June is a one-room cabin without electricity or running water that my host, the artist Andrea Zittel, has purposefully left nearly bare, and I’m craving the flame’s intricate shadow, the only baroque fillip in this spartan interior. As daylight drains from the wide, empty plain outside the uncurtained windows, and the darkness makes the uncanny quiet feel even more silent, I fall into a brief reverie about the human hunger for ornamentation and the expressionlessness of my electric lamps back home. Mundane revelations, perhaps, but insights into the ordinary are the point of living in this spare box tucked into a landscape as strange and sweltering as Venus, with little to occupy me but uninterrupted thoughts about how I conduct every bit of my life, down to the way I brush my teeth or wipe my hands on a dish towel.
The 400-square-foot structure, where I have come to try to understand Zittel’s work — and, if her theories are correct, myself as well — is one of a pair she calls “Experimental Living Cabins.” They are the latest addition to her singular oeuvre, called A-Z West — a challenging sprawl of projects that has developed in the 17 years since she left an art career in New York for a lone stucco shack on the edge of ghostly Joshua Tree National Park, some 130 miles east of L.A., where she currently lives full time. What she refers to as her “life practice” now comprises more than 60 acres, including permanent sculpture installations, informal classrooms, shipping container workspaces, dormlike guest quarters and a giant studio with rooms for weaving textiles and crafting rustic clay bowls. The bowls and textiles, collectively known as A-Z West Works, are sold to help keep the whole thing going.
Maintaining this small empire has required endless endurance, extreme physical exertion and an obsessive ambition of the sort we associate with the celebrated, largely male land artists of the 1970s who colonized the American desert, among them Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. But while those protean figures are experiencing a renaissance in the public imagination, their works have, in fact, ossified or become commercialized — in New Mexico, De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” (1977), consisting of 400 sharpened steel poles, is run by the Dia Art Foundation as a sleepover site; Heizer’s “City,” begun in 1972 as a mile-and-a-half-long excavation set to be one of the largest sculptures ever made, won’t be visitable or photographable until at least 2020; “Spiral Jetty,” the mammoth pinwheel of mud, salt and rock that Smithson finished in 1970, has spent most of its existence underwater — whereas Zittel’s experiment has, since she conceived it, moved from the theoretical to the vividly animated in a way that few utopian art projects ever do.
The artist in her season-long uniform, one of her ongoing projects.CreditStefan Ruiz