Kirsty Bell – The Artist’s House

Written for Line Magazine
Summer 2014

Critic and writer Kirsty Bell is interviewed in Edinburgh where she recently delivered a multimedia slide lecture based on her new book The Artist’s House: From Workplace to Artwork. In this book Bell narrates a series of intimate encounters with artists for whom the home is the locus of artistic production and the role of domestic space is in direct relation to the work.

You worked for many years in various galleries in London and New York. How has this influenced your approach to the subject of the artist’s house?

Though I studied art history, my first encounters with contemporary art came through work: I began as an intern filing press clippings at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in the early 1990s, went on to be exhibitions assistant there, spent a couple of years freelancing as an artist’s assistant and curator, and then as director of Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York from 1997 to 2001. So my interest in contemporary art was never academic or theoretical, it really came through the practical experience of working directly with artists, and building up ongoing relationships that had as much to do with their daily lives as with the works they were making and showing. This hands-on approach influenced me when it came to the subject of the artist’s house in that I wanted to get as close to the situation as possible, to base my research on site-visits and interviews with the artists; field-work rather than second-hand analysis. Although theory did have a part to play, this came later.

Were artists always willing to share their private spaces with you?

I had worked with many of the artists in the book before in some capacity, having either written about their work, or gotten to know them when working in galleries. Even those I’d had no contact with before were more than willing to share their private space, perhaps because they could see that my interest had to do with their work and was not voyeuristic. For the particular artists I was interested in visiting, the house also played a significant role in their artistic practice and they were keen to discuss this.

The book is divided into categories of dwelling and dreamspace; the house as workshop; total interiors; the house as sculpture; and from house to exhibition. How did these categories suggest themselves and what was the purpose of grouping artists in this way?

This structure actually came very late, towards the end of the writing process, though I had always intended to organize the case studies thematically rather than chronologically. The book’s structure is not intended to be a definitive categorization, however, but rather a device that allows for a kind of telescoping view on the subject: starting with the most private of interior spaces – the bedroom – and pulling back until we end up with the presentation of the house as a whole to a viewing public in the exhibition space. Through this structure, I was able to break down the uses of the home into different categories, and analyse how these uses were played out by different artists.

The Artist’s House led me to thinking about the way in which the spaces where artworks are conceived, produced and exhibited seem to be customarily approached with a fraught, problematised rhetoric. Can the artist’s home maintain a certain amount of authenticity (for the work) or neutrality even? Can it be considered the ‘ideal’ space, or perhaps a creative safety zone, even more so than the studio?

I would be wary of talking about ‘authenticity’ or even ‘neutrality’, as no space – or artist’s work for that matter – is really either of those things. I do think that the home-as-workplace escapes the problematic aura and expectations of a studio however. Whereas the studio is dedicated to the production of work, other things take place in the home. It can be seen as a boundary between a private centre and the world at large, or a container for everyday experience, so it allows for a certain porosity between different aspects of life.

Whether or not it can be called ideal depends entirely on the artist’s practice, however. For Marc Camille Chaimowicz – whose work has so much to do with the boundaries between private and public experience and whether décor, furniture making, and the staging of private activities could be allowed into artistic production – his own apartment was the ideal place. For a painter like Alice Neel, however, who always worked from home, a separate studio may have been more ideal, but was not an economic possibility. The startling directness and intimacy of her portraits may partly be to do with the domestic environment in which they were painted, though it is hard to claim this definitively.

Following on from that then, do you think the domestic sphere can or should be critically questioned in the same way as the studio/gallery?

As a workplace I think it can be analysed, and the role it plays on the work made in it can be interrogated, although of course in some cases this is more rewarding than in others. Felix Gonzalez Torres for instance was explicit about the role that the domestic played in his work, calling himself a ‘kitchen table artist’. Although initially he simply couldn’t afford to rent a separate working place, later in his career it became a conscious decision not to separate his working practice from the rest of his life, and to allow this porosity to become integral to its production. In his case, and in others such as Jorge Pardo or Andrea Zittel, it is not so much a ‘creative safety zone’ as an arena in which to investigate the boundaries between public and private zones and roles, and the materials of everyday life, as well as a zone within which to experiment.

I have noticed what seems to be an increasing tendency towards the domestic in artworks and exhibitions in terms of space, scale and objects (from soft furnishings to textiles and ceramics) resembling stage sets or pastiches of domestic interiors and lifestyles. Artists like Martino Gamper or the Granchester Pottery group, Jesse Wine and even Laure Prouvost comes to mind as practitioners who are directly borrowing in different ways from the home, recontextualising the gallery as a domestic space. How would you account for this tendency?

This tendency towards the domestic is something that has recurred in different forms since the 60s, if not before. The 60s saw artists taking actual items from their homes and installing them in the gallery, or, in the case of Lucas Samaras, transplanting his entire bedroom with all its furnishings into the exhibition space, as a kind of surrogate self-portrait. The recent tendency for artists to work with textiles or ceramics on a more domestic scale could also be seen as a turn towards the haptic pleasures of craftsmanship to counteract the pervasiveness of dematerialised, digital realities. The home is the perfect place for such small scale craft-oriented activities to take place, though of course the digital may be just as present in domestic settings as the world at large.

But the artists I mentioned do appear to project a different set of motivations to some of the cases you cite, for example Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 7th St Apartment which was faithfully recreated in the gallery for the primary purpose of producing a participatory, populated space.

Rirkrit’s recreation of his 7th Street Apartment, first in the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1996, and subsequently in several other gallery locations, had more to do with bringing the social functions of the domestic sphere into the exhibition space than its contents per se. It was intended to be a model in which its audience could partake in or perform, versions of everyday activities such as cooking, sleeping, bathing, watching TV; that is, activities beyond the usual cognitive functions of observing and analyzing that occur in the gallery space. Of course it was part of an expansion in the field of art that had to do with institutional critique, and this is not necessarily what the artists you mention have in mind. Although the participation and group dynamics its encourages may correspond in some way to the activities of Granchester Pottery, for example.

I was particularly interested in the studies you made of artists homes that have been posthumously transformed into museums such as the studio-home of Polish artist Edward Krasinski. I find this concept, particularly peculiar. Do you think there is value in these highly staged, fortified spaces?

A visit to Edward Krasinski’s studio-home is certainly valuable, even without his living presence, and offers a fascinating insight into his work. The problem is how to preserve such a static situation, and how to accommodate or counteract the deteriorating effects of time. How long can you preserve a place as ephemeral as this?

The opposite approach can be seen in Donald Judd’s Spring Street Loft in New York, which was recently renovated inside and out at a cost of $25 million. Both of these examples can be seen essentially as Gesamtkunstwerke; the home as permanent installation. Of course Donald Judd and Edward Krasinski worked in very different ways. Krasinski was more concerned with temporary, perceptual transformations of existing situations through, for example, his signature gesture of applying a strip of blue tape to the walls at a constant height of 130cm. For Judd, however, permanence was the thing. In Spring Street as in Marfa, he was interested in long-term, permanent installations of objects that remain in place despite – or even in defiance of – changes brought on by time, environment, or atmospheric conditions.

The value in preserving these spaces is somewhat different than, for example, Louise Bourgeois’s New York townhouse which is currently undergoing renovations and preservational measures, and will be open to the public by appointment. It remains to be seen how much of her vitality and manic working activities will still resonate in this static form, but nevertheless I can’t wait to see it myself. There is a perennial curiosity to see how artists or writers live and work – look at how many there are: Moreau, Morandi, Brancusi, Vanessa Bell, Bacon, Pollock, etc.

In the epilogue you touch on the erosion of the traditional distinctions between work and leisure and the conflation of the two spaces for these distinct activities – has the home been reframed as a new centre of labour, production and consumption, oscillating around commercial activity – not only for artists but for all of us?

The effects of various technological advances – most significantly the Internet – have had a significant impact on the home, as they have on so many other aspects of daily life. The Internet, personal computers and, more recently, smart phones, are eroding notional boundaries between work time and leisure time, and importantly public and private. More and more people adopt work at least partly from home. Similarly, as you mention, digitized consumption is also brought into the home through the computer screen and online shopping. The effects of these rapid changes are just starting to come into focus. In the epilogue of my book I ask if it will result in the kind of fragmentation of experience that lead Kurt Scwhitters in the post war years of the early twentieth century to begin his collage-based practice that resulted in the sculptural installation that ended up taking over his home, the Merzbau? At this point I have a lot of questions but very few answers.

How do you see the 21st century home evolving? Should we be concerned about the increasingly ‘fragmented’ space of the home as you describe it?

I am curious to see how the 21st century home will evolve. The trend certainly seems to be towards smaller and smaller living units, as property prices increase and more homes are needed for individuals living separately rather than in larger family units. The problems we face regarding the erosion of private and public meanwhile also now have more to do with technology, corporate interests and government, as NSA Google scandals has proved; the assumed privacy within the four walls of the home no longer plays such a role.

But I don’t want to end on such a pessimistic note so I’ll go back to the examples of artists such as those you mention earlier, whose work suggests a counterpart to the problems of the digital realm. Or the many artists, such as Danh Vo, who I discuss in my book, whose work has to do with the movements and histories of tangible objects. No matter what technological developments may occur, the home and its contents remains intertwined with biography and memory, it is still “where the story of our lives takes place” as Marguerite Duras put it.

The Artist’s House: From Workplace to Artwork is published by Sternberg Press.

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