the best of nest

Andy Coolquitt’s Austin Art Commune Was Inspired by Duchamp (But UT Denied Him an MFA for It)

Joseph Holtzman and Andy Coolquitt circa 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Andy Coolquitt

Artist Andy Coolquitt considers his 2002 feature in cult interiors magazine Nest one of the biggest honors of his life. After being given the very first issue (published in 1997), he wrote to its editor, Joseph Holtzman, igniting a years-long correspondence that concluded in the fall of 2002, when Holtzman flew to Austin, Texas, to visit Andy’s home — his life’s work.

After studying with the sculptor Charles Ray in Los Angeles in 1989, Andy had an epiphany: He wanted his work to be his life. So he decided to build a house.

He proposed the idea as a master’s thesis at the University of Texas at Austin and was given the green light to “perform” as the architect and builder. After years of controversy within the department of art and art history, Andy was never awarded the thesis and gave up trying. (“But is it art?” they wondered, and they couldn’t agree that it was.)

The work, a performance/studio/domestic space, remains ongoing. The Nest article was 16 pages, mostly photos, with long pieces of text detailing the artwork that adorned the prominent structures on the property, and specifying the motifs (boobs and butts, penises and pets), materials (mostly found, recycled, or created), and methods used (especially sgraffito, an Italian wet-plaster technique used by Gaudi, also often referenced). At the time of the article, Andy — and some helpful friends — had been at it for nine years. There were five structures, not including two trailers, a bike shed, and maybe another shed — it’s not clear: Despite Andy’s hand-drawn plan, published with his story, it’s nearly impossible to sort out what, exactly, was (or is today) on the oversize lot, other than a canopy of pecan trees. And yes, he has roommates — living communally is a crucial part of the work.

Tell me about the compound.
I’ve had this place since 94. And I still live here. Though from about 2002 to 11, I was back-and-forth quite a bit in New York; I lived in the East Village at some point for about four years. But I always kept this place and come back every few months and check in. There’s a group of people that’s always lived here — there’s nine living here now — so it was easy to leave for months on end. The place wouldn’t fall apart.

There are huge pecan trees. Sixty-foot canopy. The neighborhood was developed in the 20s. We’re close to the river, so the trees are really happy.

There was a 800-square-foot little farmhouse I guess — not a bungalow, not a shotgun, just a little 20 by 40 feet farmhouse. And that’s it. On this huge lot, nothing else. There was an old garage that was falling apart but yeah it was pretty much just a huge empty lot, overgrown with growth. I moved into that structure which had not been lived in for four years. It didn’t have any electricity, and the plumbing was fucked. We kinda camped out in there for a few months. But it was pretty much camping out because I was just working on the first structure that I built, from sun up to sun down every day for a year. The very first time I saw the property, I didn’t even look at the house, I just looked at the land, and I thought, Ok I’m gonna tear that down at some point. It wasn’t part of the picture. And, without trying to be funny, I just have not gotten around to tearing it down. It just never made sense, you know.

The idea also wasn’t purely practical. I was super conscientious about being the one and only white person living in the neighborhood, and I really did not want to announce to the street that that was the case. So the fact that that house is still there 25 years later, I think is more than just a practical “I haven’t gotten around to tearing it down.” What kind of person moves into a context and wants to totally ignore that context? Like that’s weird to me. When I first moved into the neighborhood, I was super interested in this kind of aesthetic and documented it extensively — every handmade addition or ground-up structure in the neighborhood. So I was very conscientious about not making a lot of changes to the place visible to the street. When you walk into the property, that’s not the case, but from the street, it really just looks like nothing’s changed since 1994.

And yet you sought out being covered by Nest. Why?
Nest was the biggest national publication, but [the project] had quite a bit of interest from day one because I was doing it as a grad student. So a lot of people were looking at the project from the beginning, and it had this relationship with the institution because I was building it as my [MFA] thesis project and inviting professors and students over and having discussions about the project. People started writing about it and paying attention to it pretty quickly, from 94 on.

Someone gave me the very first copy of Nest and said, “I think you would like this.” I loved it, and I wrote to Joseph and said, “I love your magazine.” I think we corresponded a few times in between. Whenever I first wrote; he would write me back. A few months would go by or maybe a year, I don’t know. Letters. [Laughs.]

I was in love with that magazine — I thought it was just the most amazing thing. And when you’re an art student, young artist, the biggest pinnacle of publication is usually Artforum, and I was way more excited about being in Nest than in Artforum.

Photo: Courtesy The Best of Nest, by Todd Oldham. Published by Phaidon Press, 2020. Text: Frank Moorhouse. Photo: Amy Eckert.

The piece was called “Andy Coolquitt’s Thesis.”
I was like a warrior at the time because I was fighting the institution. I was presenting this idea that turned out to be very controversial within the sculpture department at UT, and at the end of it I was getting quite a bit of pushback, and I got basically railroaded out of the department: I didn’t get my MFA in the end. The center of the controversy was, “Is this thing art?,” which is this stupid question that for some reason art academics have been obsessed with since day one.

I think that was part of [Joseph’s] interest in the story. The way he chose to visit was a trip that was paid for by UT Austin. It wasn’t the art department but it was the architecture department flew him down for a talk about his magazine, and he used that free trip to come over and visit me. So you’d have to ask him if that’s the way he reads it. That he worked the system the same way I did.

You know, who the fuck knows [why Nest was interested] because Joseph is like really difficult to read. Whenever Joseph visited — he is not very talkative — we were walking around, and I couldn’t get a read. He wasn’t smiling, he wasn’t laughing, he wasn’t saying, like, “This is cool.” He was just walking around, looking. We got to a point, and he said, “When do the leaves fall off the trees?” And I said, “Um, probably like after Thanksgiving.” And he said, “Can we shoot it before Thanksgiving?” When he said that, I erupted inside, but of course just said, “Yeah I think I can work that into my schedule.” And that’s all he said. He asked me that and then he got on the phone. I got a picture of us standing in front of the kitchen right when that moment was happening. We published that in my monograph. The photographer came before the leaves fell, and the writer came at some point, I don’t remember when. It was super exciting, and the biggest honor of my life — maybe still to this day.

Publications never, ever, ever, ever lead to sales. It’s so funny. A lot of people that I respect and love and am super happy that noticed it, noticed it. But direct benefits as far as shows or sales, no. Never.

Tell me about the community here. Your roommates. Has it changed?
There’s one guy who’s been living here for 15 years. He’s been here for the most, the guy that had been living here for the second most just moved to Taos; he’d been here for nine years. There are several people that are pretty long-term. Other people come and go, but we’ve had a good run the last ten years or so with people staying for a long time. I think it has to do with me getting a little bit older. Usually the way a new person comes in is they’re a friend of someone who’s living here. Twenty-five years ago, everybody was just younger. I’m still the oldest one that lives here, but the age median has kind of gotten older with the years, with people who are more settled and don’t move around as much.

The guy that’s been here forever, his name is Ben. He works as a bicycle mechanic. He has a bicycle shop in the area. That’s a big part of this scene; he’s an angel. He also acted as the property manager when I would be away a lot in those years. So he’s got the most seniority of the people who live here. Right now Ben is moving his bike repair studio and building an addition to his place. I last year built an addition to my art storage unit, and I’m working on something — I don’t know what it’s gonna be — within the big part of my studio. Everyone who lives here is always doing something to their place, as far as adding on or remodeling or whatever. As far as big structures, no domestic structures have changed since 2002, but it has changed, and it does change, and it is a work in progress.

Photo: Courtesy The Best of Nest, by Todd Oldham. Published by Phaidon Press, 2020. Text: Frank Moorhouse. Photo: Amy Eckert.

And you live in your studio? Have you always?
I lived in the house that Nest called “the Thesis House” from late 95, when it got livable, until 2002. At that point, the first time I went to New York … I subletted the place I was living, and then went and lived in Austin for a couple months and then subletted it again, and realized that was going to be a pain in the ass. So I moved into my studio, I moved out of “the Thesis House,” and have been living here ever since.

“Home” is a stretch. It’s a big, rambling, messy, multi-part studio that I built. When I moved in here, there was a plywood box that was upstairs, and I eventually made it more comfortable. I also kind of camped out in here for a while before it was really like a house. And it’s still really not. It’s like a little area for me to sleep within a huge studio. There’s not a lot of separation. There’s three different parts of the studio: One is the downstairs area, which is the big, high-ceiling large area, mainly for fabrication, so it’s got welding machines and saws and it’s dirty. And then there’s an area that’s got white walls and it’s a little bit cleaner — it’s still downstairs — that’s mainly used for photography and for arranging works when I’m working on an exhibition. So it’s more like a gallery-type space. And there’s an upstairs where it’s like the cleanest space, and it’s where I do fabric works and sewing. It’s the most domestic of the three spaces. And there’s a loft within that space, and I have a bed and a kitchen, but it all kind of blends into each other — the domestic and the studio, there’s no separation. I have a kitchenette, I guess you would call it. I have a little fridge and an Instapot and a coffee maker and a microwave and a toaster.

Do you all eat together?
I still use the big kitchen to make bigger meals or when we have dinner parties. It’s a communal kitchen for all the structures, but everybody except Ben has some sort of small kitchen situation, whether it’s just a hot plate and a coffee maker. Some people have a fridge and a sink. Some people who live here seemingly never cook ever — I guess they eat out every meal. Ben just happens to be a cook, so he uses it probably more than anyone else. It’s also the building that’s in the center of the property, and so everybody lives on the periphery and then that communal structure is in the center. It is the center. In the evenings, it’s the communal space where people are just hanging out drinking beer on the back porch.

Back in the early days, there would be seven people that lived here and we all were really trying to be hippies, and every night one person would be responsible for cooking dinner for everyone else. It was beautiful, it was wonderful: You had a home-cooked meal every night of the week, and you just had to do it once. But that only lasted for three or four years.

The first thing I built was what they’re [Nest] calling the Thesis House, in which I and my girlfriend lived in from ’95 to 2002, and then the second structure we all built — there was her and this other guy that was now living in the farmhouse — we were all working together on the second structure, and that was the kitchen. At that point, there would have been three. And then I started the studio and other things came after that.

You lived in L.A. for a brief time, too. How did that influence this project?
I went to L.A. in 1989, just as I had finished my undergrad degree. I went mainly to study with Charlie Ray. But I thought it was a cool place, but that was kind of the main reason I went. I grew up in Texas and had never lived in a gritty urban environment. And I was like, “I’m gonna live in downtown!” And I lived at Fifth and Wall, downtown, and it was a war zone every night. It was super intense. It was also amazing: I lived in this six-story building that when I got the place, everybody else that lived there said, “Okay don’t pay any more rent because we’re on a rent strike because the roof leaked and the building wasn’t legal to get mail.” I lived on the second floor of a six-floor building so the leak did not affect me at all, and I didn’t ever give a shit about getting mail anyway. So I lived rent-free the whole time, after I paid my first. It was all artists in this huge — I had a 3,000-square-foot studio — in this old fucked-up building. It was scary at night. That was a big part of the reason I didn’t like L.A.; I got traumatized by the environment. But I had a job at what they now call the Geffen. I would ride my bike half a mile to work at this amazing space. I met all these people. At the end of that semester, I was like, “Uh, did not super hit it off with Charlie,” and had one of those, “Is that all there is?,” kind of moments about being a professional artist, and wanted something more. I didn’t articulate it at that point, but I think what I wanted was what I did four years later: I wanted a house. I didn’t want to just devote my life to an art career. I wanted it to be bigger. I think what I picked up on with Charlie and with a bunch of people in L.A. was that it was all about this one thing. And everything else got neglected. I mean that’s a 22-year-old kid thinking that but, if you get used to it, baby —

I couldn’t articulate this then and maybe I couldn’t for a long long time, but it’s sort of like, I wanted the life: I wanted the aesthetic, or I wanted the space of what I created rather than to be a career artist. That was the most interesting thing when I was younger: I would look at pictures of where artists live. I was way more interested in how they lived than their work. [Laughs.] Wow their living room is so much more interesting than their painting. So yeah I was never super focused on creating specific body of work, blah blah blah blah blah. It was also really informed by Allen Kaprow and his understanding of the problem with the separation between art and life. And all of that sort of came together and it just made sense to like, live this life. That’s what I wanted, was to live this life. I didn’t want to like necessarily make a specific thing.

And that was a radical thing to talk about, and I think that was probably a big part of why the controversy developed. I think they maybe realized like, Oh, this kid is not developing a cohesive body of sculpture. He’s just like fucking off and living. [Laughs.] He’s gettin away with something. He’s gettin away with murder. We can’t let that happen.

And that led back to this place, in Austin. Is there a theory behind all of this?
A big hero of mine was Duchamp and the fact that he worked in a library and didn’t ever really make a living selling his work. There’s much more freedom. Why would I design a life where I had to do fucking do the same goddamn thing every day? But you know, Liam Gillick really talks about this in a very beautiful way about when you go to graduate school, you’re kind of expected to develop a speciality in your life, in your way of thinking and creating, and you’re basically like kicking out every other way of thinking except the way that produces your signature, individualized work, and that’s really like toxic, y’know? It’s like, no I don’t wanna do that, I wanna open up; I don’t wanna close down. I don’t want to spend three years learning how to make this shape the most, the best shape that I can make.

This is the work, for sure. It is — every object, and every installation, every group of objects that ends up in a gallery or museum comes out of the experience of living in this place. It’s really an experiment in learning how to live. Learning how to live with other people. Learning how to live a sane existence. It’s more like the experience of living this way has informed the work. I’ve learned a lot from living like this.

I grew up and developed and matured as someone thinking about sculpture. I was an artist who had thought about art and architecture, and life and art, as one thing, and meshed both of those things together for my whole career in a conceptual sense, not really in a specific object sense. I like to court complication — I like that when it’s happening in my brain. I resist branding my life as a work, so I’m responsible for all this. [Laughs.]

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Andy Coolquitt’s Austin Art Commune Was Inspired by Duchamp