by Dilpreet BhullarSep 23, 2021
Last May, I stumbled upon an assemblage of 11 striking artworks called Social Contracts: Choreographing Interactions, created from 1991 to 2020 by New York artist Allan Wexler. They assumed their curious positions at one of the most prominent corners at the Arsenale during the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, which was held under the theme How Will We Live Together? The works’ improbable scenes included Four White Shirts Sewn into a Tablecloth, One Table Worn by One Person, One Table Worn by Four People, and Table for the Typical House. They seemed to question our current isolation, how spaces we inhabit can be shared, and how they could redefine our behaviour and relationships—as friends, family members, and strangers. I wanted to know more about these strangely familiar objects, as the label that accompanied them did not clarify anything, intentionally, I suppose. Back in New York, I contacted the artist who invited me to one of his two studios—in Chelsea in Manhattan (the other one is on the North Fork of Long Island)—and agreed to reveal his thought process.
Allan Wexler (b. 1949) was trained as an architect at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but from the start his work focused on exploring non-pragmatic issues in architecture. After earning his Bachelor of Architecture there in 1972, he got a job as an urban designer for the NYC Department of Highways, working for a couple of years designing urban projects and pedestrian amenities. Wexler acquired his Master of Architecture at Pratt Institute in 1976, and, in addition to working on his independent projects, he has been teaching architectural design, currently at Parsons School of Design. His experimental work has won prestigious awards, including Guggenheim and Rome Prize Fellowships, and Chrysler Award for Design Innovation. Besides the last year’s Biennale in Venice, he has had numerous solo exhibits, including at Parrish Art Museum on Long Island, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. Wexler was represented by the Ronald Feldman for many years where he had 10 solo exhibitions until the gallery’s recent closure. His permanent sculptures, in collaboration with his wife Ellen Wexler, include In the Shadow of the Wind (2000) in Hanover, Germany; Two Too Large Tables (2006) at Hudson River Park, Overlook at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and Pratt Desk (2012) on the grounds of Pratt Institute. In the following interview, artist-architect Allan Wexler talked about the essence of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, how John Cage influenced his thinking, where his rebellious attitude comes from, his urge to make things, and why he wants to become architecture.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let me start with describing what you do the way I see it. You create drawings, multimedia objects, images, and installations, typically utilising domestic furniture, tableware, utensils, and tools to alter perceptions and investigate such everyday activities as eating, sitting, sleeping, walking, and socialising, which you then turn into rituals and theater-like performances. Could you tell me how this interest first occurred and what is it that intrigues you about such objects and rituals?
Allan Wexler: As a child I loved building and working with my hands, which led me to study architecture at RISD. I imagined it as a balance between my love of making and my interest in the sciences. At RISD, I was introduced to contemporary art and the work of Andy Warhol. I wanted to become the Andy Warhol of architecture. I imagined architecture as a theatrical backdrop for choreographing human interactions and daily rituals. After graduation, I focused on experimenting with the domestic landscape. Eating, sleeping, and bathing became the content for my work. How can human ritual and ceremony manifest in architectural form? How might I reveal the process of construction? I am inspired by the work of Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes, and the music of Steve Reich who invented Phase Music, a type of music that relies on tape loops. I was interested in conceptual ideas rather than designing buildings—something I was able to avoid throughout my student years. Experimenting with the basic building blocks of architecture and the art of building became my focus. At that time, someone likened my work to a stream of consciousness approach to constructing and to Japanese architecture and culture. So, I studied the Japanese tea ceremony, which is less about the serving and receiving tea, than a way for guests to enjoy the hospitality of the host in an atmosphere removed from the fast pace of everyday life. I am fascinated by the seemingly infinite details of this ancient eastern tradition; it is a wealth of inspiration. In 1990, I applied this concept to Coffee Seeks Its Own Level. It is about four people at the table drinking coffee simultaneously. Because the coffee cups are connected by tubing, when one gets raised, the un-leveling causes the coffee to overflow the other three cups. It is about playing with coordination between the guests. The remnants of such performances stay as stains on the white tablecloth.
Vladimir: You mentioned LeWitt as one of the influences on you. Another important artist is John Cage. Could you touch on what you learned from him?
Allan: I met him through one of my students who was working on an architecture project that used Cage's idea of "chance operation". He contacted the artist. So, I said: “Can I come too?” [Laughs.] Cage invited both of us to his studio in Chelsea. He was generous and we ended up spending hours with him. His book Silence: Lectures and Writings made a strong impression on me. Mostly because he was interested in ordinary things that he would express in extraordinary ways. For example, the ordinary sounds of the street were as musical as sounds coming out of an orchestra hall. He said, "Is a truck passing by a music school more musical than a truck passing by a factory?" Changing context is important. Robert Venturi played with similar ideas when he looked at the Las Vegas Strip and saw beauty in what architects before him saw nothing special. So, who decides what’s a good taste and what’s a bad taste?
Vladimir: Your book Absurd Thinking: Between Art and Design begins with the following self-introduction: "I am an architect in an artist’s body. My studio is a laboratory. I sculpt with gravity and paint with rain. The smell of wood, the texture of stone and the sound of the door against frame inspire me. I saw, drill, and chisel in order to become physically exhausted at the same rate that I become intellectually exhausted. The work looks at simple things: sight lines between seated people, the way that two bricks intersect, the line between inside and outside. I invent ways to walk through walls. I build anti-gravity machines.” In your work you fight against routine, predictability, preconceptions, and clichés. Could you talk about this rebellious attitude and where is it coming from?
Allan: It took me a while to form an attitude. In my high school I did very well, got straight A’s but I didn’t learn anything. I simply memorised facts. I did not learn to think. When someone asked for my opinion, I was puzzled. I couldn’t write a critical essay. I started at RISD thinking that there is a right answer for everything. In my freshman year I was not doing well, and I doubted my aspiration to become an architect. And out of that frustration I thought: “If I am not doing well being good, why not try being bad?” And as I started breaking the rules, people noticed my work and encouraged me to pursue this direction. I am grateful for my professors Raimund Abraham, Michael Webb, and Friedrich St. Florian who introduced me to the work of artists, and conceptual designers. That’s when I started experimenting, blurring the edges of art and architecture, and questioning the idea of a traditional practice. Here is what I realised: I didn’t want to become an architect; I wanted to become architecture.
Vladimir: That, of course, is a title of one of your projects—I Want to Become Architecture. How did this idea come about and what were some of the questions that you tried to raise with it?
Allan: I study the relationship between the body and the built world. How can I merge into the sheetrock or the brick wall? Where is that line? It’s a kind of tailoring, the invisible line between architecture, clothing, and skin. So, with my piece I Want to Become Architecture, created first in plywood and later in brick, the wall is a pixelated negative shape in the form of my seated body. Recently, I have been working with materials that allow me a more refined version of merging of person with form. I am now experimenting with fabric to create extensions of the body. I would credit Oscar Schlemmer, the German designer and choreographer who taught at the Bauhaus theatre workshop, as an influence on me. He played with theatricality, abstract geometry. Those experiments instigated some of my own experiments. So, the idea is to express my observations and daily mundane moments of living through the process of art but with the materials of architecture. I have an urge to make things. I build something first and then I contemplate its meaning. And typically, what I discover is a new idea. Some lead to something new and thrilling, but that typically happens in retrospect. I find limitations useful. I give myself time limits or limit the tools that I will use. Much of my work happens by accident.
Vladimir: You said your work is about pushing ideas to their logical absurdity. As you pointed out, “Absurdity means not every day, not status quo, out of normality, edginess of continuous search, pushing boundaries." You try to go beyond what is logical, right?
Allan: I don’t premeditate what to do. I think with my hands. And none of my work is about answering questions. It is more about posing new ones. It is important to put work out there—to create a vibration between what’s existing and what’s new. I am a builder. I am a tool guy. They inspire me. When my hands are busy, I am removed from thinking logically; I use hand tools to pull ideas out of my head.
Vladimir: You said: “I don’t think and then build. I build and then think. Work is not premeditated to avoid coming up with clichés. Making itself helps to discover ideas through accidents." Could you touch on your design and making process?
Allan: My work is about finding poetry in something that seems purely functional. I take an object, destroy its function, and play with it until I discover a new function.
Vladimir: You play with function, utility, logic, conventions, rituals, human interaction, eccentricity, and so on. You make theatre out of everyday life. What are some of the intentions of your work?
Allan: I would say it has to do with slowing down and looking more deeply into what surrounds us. My work pushes people to reconsider what they thought they know well, what they do without a second thought. This is what art does. It takes the "everyday" and turns it into something else. I like the quote by Valery, "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees." Sure, it is possible to make a beautiful object out of 18K gold, but how do you make something beautiful out of a piece of corrugated cardboard? I bring something surreal into what’s real. My work rides that edge between fine art and applied art, physics and metaphysics, function, and sculpture.
Vladimir: As you said: “I do not problem solve. I play with irritations, accidents, and things we don’t really understand. These are my materials, and I use them to explore the other side of function. I am asking myself, 'Where is the softer side of architecture—poetics, spirituality, and metaphysics?' I work on the edge of the conscious and the unconscious, fine art and applied art.”
Allan: Yes, all my work is situated on that precipice, and it is easy to fall either way. I try to balance myself in a kind of vibration between black and white, hot and cold, light and heavy, between function and non-function, between what makes perfect sense and the absurd. And I encourage students to take the “wrong” path because the “right” path is the one that they have always taken. And what we might think at first is a wrong path can turn out to be the right one. But the intention is to find your own way. I try to teach my students how to find themselves. When you experiment, it is very important to remember that as with all experiments the result is usually unknown.
Vladimir: How would you like people to think about your work?
Allan: I am an artist who engages architecture. I am an artist, thinker, and maker who experiments with and on the world.