America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler Essay

06/09/2007 - 09/29/2007

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America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Ian Berry and Bill Arning

America Starts Here presents ten years of work by the art-making team Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, whose work together embodies a way of approaching art that joins minimal and conceptual impulses with a broader interest in audience, social process, labor, and history.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler met as students in 1977 at the Kansas City Art Institute. Their work developed along parallel lines during their studies in Kansas City and later at the California Institute of the Arts, where they utilized found objects and environments, and experimented with new possibilities for public art. After collaborating for a number of years, the two formally joined as a team in 1985. They mounted shows in alternative spaces in New York and Los Angeles in that first year, and from 1985 to 1995 they created nineteen major public works and scores of gallery- and museum-based projects. In 1988, Artforum magazine featured their piece “House Monument” on its cover, and shortly thereafter their works were included in the 1989 Whitney Biennial exhibition. They continued working together until Kate Ericson’s death from brain cancer in 1995.

Ericson and Ziegler’s work displays a thirst for researching arcane areas of knowledge and exploring unnoticed aspects of public life. Their art-making strategies employed mapping and related modes of representation as the basis for visual schemes that approached the world, and American culture in particular, as a text to be read and decoded.

Their public art projects often focused on cultural institutions—including museums, monuments, and civic buildings—as sites for active engagement. Tellingly, Ericson and Ziegler worked with people from outside the academy in ways that incorporated voices too often unheard in the world of contemporary art.

Even when producing work for urban contexts, Ericson and Ziegler preferred using natural materials like stone, leaves, and water, teasing out the ways culture inflects or imprints them. The artists also designed pieces with multiple stages or states, each crucial for creating meaning as part of a carefully planned conceptual process. At times they conceived works that would disappear, vanishing as “art” through their incorporation into the everyday activities of their collaborators and audiences.

One example of some of these methodologies at work literally covers the walls of this gallery. While researching the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the pair learned that the director and major curators in the museum—art world luminaries such as William Rubin, Kynaston McShine, and Riva Castleman—each preferred a particular shade of white paint for the wall colors of their exhibitions. After unearthing the formulas for these paints, the artists displayed them as specimens in large glass jars etched with the informal names given to them by members of the museum’s installation crew. This exhibition marks the first realization of this work, “MoMA Whites,” as an installation: each of the gallery walls is painted with one of the whites and labeled with its corresponding name. This nearly invisible result reveals a regular mode of working for Ericson and Ziegler, the presentation of fact-filled, richly layered narratives to transformative effect.