America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

June 9 - September 29


Camouflaged History (Maquette), 1991, Painted wood
Installation view
Detail of "Constitution On Tour," 1991, Model train cars and tracks, sandblasted and painted marble, metal brackets
Installation view, "America Starts Here," 1988, Broken glass and fiberglass panels, sandblasted glass, wood frames, two photographs
Detail of "Peas, Carrots, Potatoes," 1994-96, Sandblasted and painted glass jars, baby food, metal shelf
During their decade-long collaboration (1985-1995), Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler produced some of the most profound and influential conceptual art projects of the time, ranging from important public projects and site-specific installations to drawings and mixed media sculptures. Ericson and Ziegler, both alumni of the Kansas City Art Institute, redefined public art in a way that was welcoming to a diverse set of communities. Prior to Ericson’s untimely death from cancer at the age of 39, Ericson and Ziegler devised projects that altered sites subtly, using poetic language and wit to illuminate mainstream American contexts and highlight individual community issues. "America Starts Here," the first retrospective exhibition of Ericson and Ziegler’s career, provided a critical analysis of the artists’ still under-appreciated position in the history of twentieth-century art. The exhibition included sculpture, installations, models, and video documents of site-specific works.
"Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler: America Starts Here" was jointly organized by the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. This exhibition was generously sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, Peter Norton Family Foundation, The Judith Rothschild Foundation (given in recognition of Kate Ericson), the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation. The Kansas City presentation was supported by the Richard J. Stern Foundation, the H&R Block Foundation, the Missouri Arts Council, and private contributions.


America Starts Here, 1988
Broken glass and fiberglass panels, sandblasted glass, wood frames, two photographs
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
Originally conceived for an exhibition in Philadelphia, America Starts Here displays Ericson and Ziegler’s interest in American history and use of mapping as a method of approaching their work. The title is a direct quotation of a tourist slogan used by the state of Pennsylvania during the 1980s, recalling the origins of the United States and the utopian ideals of the country’s founding fathers. Yet the piece itself encourages a view of American history more complex than the optimistic boosterism of the slogan. 
To make America Starts Here, the artists removed broken windows and fiberglass replacement panels from the former National Licorice Company factory at 1301-19 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, and replaced them with new windows. All of the broken panels are framed between sheets of glass sandblasted with the paths of well-known trails, canals, rivers, and railroads, or tracings of cracks found in architectural elements in the former and current national capital cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC. The removed windows are displayed in the configuration found at the factory. Their lines echo the cracked features of two of Philadelphia’s most beloved tourist attractions, the Liberty Bell and the broken glass of Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass).
Camouflaged History (Maquette), 1991
Painted wood
Collection of Robert Shimshak, Berkeley, California
This model house documents a project for Places with a Past, an exhibition of site-specific, public art curated for the 1991 Spoleto Festival to foster works addressing the history of its host city, Charleston, South Carolina. For their contribution to Places with a Past, Ericson and Ziegler arranged for a private home just outside the city’s designated historic district to receive a much-needed repainting using each of seventy-two commercial paint colors approved by the Charleston Board of Architectural Review for homes within the district. Army camouflage specialists at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, designed a new, regionally appropriate pattern for the house, and each patch of color was labeled with that paint’s official trade name. Names such as “Moorish maroon red” and “Confederate uniform grey” evoked venerated and at times problematic chapters in the city’s history.
Ericson and Ziegler’s camouflage pattern called attention to the newly painted house, and thereby to the racial and economic stratification and subtexts embedded, whether intentionally or not, in the city’s historic boundaries and preservation code. Through community meetings, Ericson and Ziegler discussed their intentions to neighborhood residents. At the end of the exhibition, the house was painted again in a color of the occupant’s own choosing. 



Peaks and Valleys (Maquette), 1991
Wood, Plexiglas, shingles, paint, hardware
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, Gift of Themistocles and Dare Michos
Peaks and Valleys was commissioned by Capp Street Project, a San Francisco artists’ residency program. The artists covered the gallery floor with 2,200 asphalt roof shingles on which they handwrote the name of every street in San Francisco, arranging the street names in a random order that provoked dialogue about the city’s unique, hilly topography and its effect on the cultural and economic diversity of certain neighborhoods. To complete the work, the artists offered the shingles to a San Francisco homeowner whose house in the Mission District needed a new roof. They also provided funds from the Capp Street residency to pay re-roofing costs.
Give and Take, 1986
Broken tools, polyurethane
Collections of Mel Ziegler, Amy Lipton, and Barbara Broughel
Broken tools collected by the artists from three groups that work together to maintain New York’s Central Park—the city maintenance crews, a corps of volunteers, and the Central Park Conservancy—were coated with polyurethane and displayed. The resulting works were sold individually, and a portion of the sales went back to the park to purchase new tools.
Stones Have Been Known to Move, 1986
Sandblasted stone samples, metal brackets, vinyl text
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
Promotional samples of American marble, granite, limestone and travertine were collected from various stone distributors to produce this piece. Each stone is sandblasted with the latitude and longitude of the quarry from which it was mined and with the name and location of a known example of its use.  The stones are hung on the wall according to the coordinates of the quarries, forming a large-scale map of the United States. The distances between the stones’ original geological coordinates and their ultimate destinations highlights the idiosyncratic trajectories that take resources out of the earth in one location to become built structures in another.
From the Making of Mount Rushmore, 1986
Stones from the base of Mount Rushmore, metal brackets
Collection of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
Stones taken from the base of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota are mounted relative to the positions of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
Leaf Peeping, 1988
Sandblasted glass jars, paint, metal shelves
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California, Museum purchase, Contemporary Collectors Fund, 90.9.1-31
Each jar contains paint matching the color of a specific autumn leaf from a tree in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  The pattern of each color-matched leaf has been sandblasted onto its corresponding jar. The jars have been mapped onto the wall according to the positions of the trees as they were planted in the garden in the late 1980s.
Hollow Oak Our Palace Is, 1989
Stenciled cocoa mat
Unlimited edition
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
This affordable, unlimited edition of welcome mats was produced in response to the imminent displacement of Real Art Ways (a Hartford, Connecticut alternative arts space) by the Oak Leaf Development Corporation, a real estate concern. The leaf-shaped mats are labeled with the scientific name of the white oak tree—quercus alba—and are drawn from leaves taken from the city’s Charter Oak, a fabled ancient tree in which the state’s charter was hidden from the British representatives of King James II, who demanded the dissolution of the colony in 1687. The funds generated by selling the mats went to support Real Art Ways’ move. The title is from a sea shanty, A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea, written by Allan Cunningham (1784–1842), an eminent botanist.
Dutch Cupboard, 1993
Nineteenth-century wooden cabinet, gold-printed dinnerware, silkscreened napkins and tablecloths
Collection of Jack and Nell Wendler, London
For Sonsbeek 93, an international exhibition held in Arnhem, the Netherlands, Ericson and Ziegler replaced the normal place settings in a local restaurant that served traditional Dutch fare. Akzo Chemicals, based in Arnhem, is one of the leading chemical companies in the world and provides the economic foundation for the city. The artists produced gold-trimmed plates printed with the over eight hundred types of products made by the company and scenes from Dutch colonial history. Today the work exists as Dutch Cupboard, with the place settings displayed in a cabinet as one would display fine dinnerware. Its current owner uses the china for meals on special occasions.
Where the Water Goes, 1987
Sandblasted glass jars, water, metal shelf
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
The artists collected fresh water from three sites in the Washington, DC metropolitan area: the Upper Potomac River north of the aqueduct that supplies the city with water, each of the nine sinks in the public restrooms of the United States Supreme Court, and the Lower Potomac River downstream from the city’s primary wastewater treatment facility. Eleven jars correspond to each of the collection points and are sandblasted with the water’s path, making visual the relationship of the natural world to the architectural and institutional. The piece traces a liquid journey from the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority through the bowels of the Supreme Court, the serpentine pipelines of Washington bureaucracy, and out the far side of the judicial body politic into the river again.

Squeaky Clean, 1993
Bars of soap, soil from the geographic center of the United States, nineteenth-century wooden chest
Collection of Themistocles and Dare Michos, San Francisco, California
Hundreds of bars of white deodorant soap are stacked in an antique wooden box next to soil from the geographic center of the United States. Ericson and Ziegler viewed the geographic center of the nation—a red-pole marker in a wide prairie sixty miles north of Rapid City, South Dakota—as a symbol for the country as a whole. The soap alludes to a sanitized notion of American history and consciousness.
The Smell and Taste of Things Remain, 1992
Nineteenth-century wooden pie cupboard, sandblasted glass jars, perfume
Collection of Themistocles and Dare Michos, San Francisco, California
The names of over four hundred of pie recipes found in old cookbooks from different regions of the United States have been inscribed on jars containing a liquid scent. Master perfumer Felix Buccalato was commissioned by the artists to create a scent based on his interpretation of the smell of old books and records held at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Statue of Liberty, 1988
Sandblasted glass jars, paint, metal shelves
Collection of Michael and Leslie Engl
These five paint samples were mixed to match the major color areas of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. The four bottom paints represent levels of the building, museum, and base structures of the statue, while the penultimate green layer corresponds to Lady Liberty's body and the gold to her then-recently restored torch.
Feed and Seed (Heisey Farm), 1990
Seed bags, sandblasted Plexiglas, hardware
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
Feed and Seed (Heisey Farm) is part of a series of seven collaborations with farmers in which the artists provided ten percent of the farmers’ annual seed cost in exchange for the empty seed bags that had been subsidized. The bags are framed under Plexiglas sandblasted with the type of crop and the number of acres sown with seed from the bag. When galleries sold the work the remaining ninety percent of the cost of the seed was given to the participating farmers. The project linked the real-world economics of the small farmer with those of the art market, contrasting the labor and cycles of food production with the fluctuating and often fickle enthusiasms of the art world. The piece recalls Mel Ziegler’s youth on a working Pennsylvania farm. Its subject matter expresses the artists’ appreciation for the crucial labor performed by farmers today.

Constitution On Tour, 1991
Model train cars and tracks, sandblasted and painted marble, metal brackets
Collection of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 2005.3
In 1991, Philip Morris Companies, Inc. sponsored a high-profile nationwide tour of an original copy of the Bill of Rights celebrating the bicentennial of its ratification. In response, Ericson and Ziegler imagined an alternative approach to a tour for the document. The artists sandblasted the entire United States Constitution on a sample of the same marble that covers the exterior of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC—the site of the governing body responsible for interpreting the Constitution. This thin slab of marble was broken and the shards were placed into ten Union Pacific model train cars, chosen for that company’s role in creating the transcontinental railroad.
Oldgloryredbleachedwhitenationalflagblue, 1995
Latex on paper, sandblasted glass
Microsoft Art Collection, Seattle, Washington
Ericson and Ziegler calculated the percentages of each of the United States flag’s three official colors—Old Glory Red, Bleached White, and National Flag Blue—and mixed them into one composite color.
Peas, Carrots, Potatoes, 1994-96
Sandblasted and painted glass jars, baby food, metal shelf
Collection of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
Ericson and Ziegler solicited new parents to interpret and describe the pre-linguistic sounds of their young children. These three hundred sixty-four jars are filled with baby food made from peas, carrots, and potatoes and sandblasted with those phonetic sounds. The jars are arranged to form a color-shifted American flag.
From the Making of a House, 1995
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
To create From the Making of a House, Ericson and Ziegler asked a neighbor to save all of the off-cuts from a homebuilding project near their studio in Milanville, Pennsylvania. The presentation of the wood is reminiscent of many post-minimal sculptures from the 1970s. This piece was the last work completed by Ericson and Ziegler before Kate Ericson’s death in 1995.
Dianna Drawings, 1995
Ink on paper napkins
Courtesy of Mel Ziegler, Austin, Texas
The Dianna Drawings were made when Kate Ericson was too sick to begin any major pubic projects. As part of their daily routine, the artists would go to their local diner, Dianna’s Place, to sketch and plan new projects.



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.



Press Release

"America Starts Here" opens June 9 at the H&R Block Artspace
KCAI website |
Fri, 2007-05-04

Ericson and Ziegler worked together from the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s, producing mostly installations and outdoor projects.