This Artist Spent 40 Years Documenting His Life So Others Could Learn From It

Artist Louis Zoellar Bickett with his work.
Mallory Cunningham, Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery
An installation view of "The Archive of Louis Zoellar Bicket" at Andrew Edlin Gallery.
Scott Indrisek
Another view of the Archive.
Scott Indrisek
Self-portraits by Bickett.
Olya Yvsotskaya, Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery
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Another view of the Archive.
Scott Indrisek
Shelves containing tagged items.
Scott Indrisek
Another view of the Archive.
Scott Indrisek
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Another view of the Archive.
Olya Yvsotskaya, Courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

A plentiful variety of urine, captured and wax-sealed in bottles, rests on a shelf. Nearby, other distinctive items, each bearing a typewritten tag specifying its importance: a roll of scotch tape; a small bottle of K-Y lubricant; an orange prescription bottle for the anti-inflammatory drug Meloxicam. These objects all belong to Louis Zoellar Bickett, a 66-year old Kentuckian who has been more serious than most about stomping on the division between art and life. Along with jars of dirt, a plastic menorah, a Charlie Chaplin doll, and endless reams of printed matter—receipts, news clippings, restaurant menus—these things make up an open-ended, four-decade-long project that Bickett simply refers to as “the Archive.” A small fraction of his autobiographical holdings are now on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York, through April 15, in an immersive installation organized by director Phillip March Jones, who previously staged a similar show at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky. Bickett guesstimates that the archive’s debut outing in New York comprises a mere 5 percent of its unwieldy totality. “I don’t think my family gets it at all,” the artist acknowledges of his painstakingly marked-and-dated inventory, a practice that, he says, owes a debt to On Kawara. “I take the most innocuous details and make them almost sacred.”

One would be forgiven for assuming that this vast accumulation is the work of a hoarder, but Bickett is far more intentional than that—and also hyper-organized, keeping meticulous written track of the identity of his magnum opus’ tens of thousands of small parts, beginning in 1972. Along the way, he has also produced discrete artworks that stand on their own: black-and-white photographs of boyfriends; formally inventive wall-bound sculptures of leather-wrapped crucifixes and other objects which recall (and predate) pieces by Tom Burr; hilarious and wry self-portraits wearing various costumes, all taken at a local Wal-Mart photo studio. At Andrew Edlin, the living-room-style installation gives these pieces the same weight as annotated jars of garbage culled from the roadside, small kitschy statuettes gifted from friends, or a jar of matchbooks advertising A La Lucie, the (now defunct) high-end restaurant where Bickett was a waiter for about thirty years. It’s all strange and sweet and mysterious, an immersive sculpture in flux that just happens to be someone’s life.

Bickett has faith in his archive’s value for future generations—a kind of time capsule or resource about a specific American man and his unique milieu. He can envision the entire piece finding a permanent home in an academic context, like New York University—or even at the Vatican. “Ideally I would have every bit of it displayed, stored, and studied together,” Bickett says, alluding to the precedent of artists like Clyfford Still, who put famously strenuous demands on their estates. “I don’t know where the archive fits artistically, but historically, I think it is really important. There are aspects to it—like the way the AIDS crisis affected me, as a gay man in a small Southern town—and how it affected other people. But there’s a universality to it that makes it interesting and applicable to other places; that’s probably what separates really significant art from art that’s just designed to hang over a couch. It tells you something about the artist, and it tells you something about yourself, and your place in the world.”

While Bickett once entertained the prospect of moving to New York, he is ultimately glad that he remained in Kentucky, a hometown icon who balanced his time between artmaking and waiting on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Sam Shepard, and other less boldfaced diners at A La Lucie, many of whom had no idea their restaurant server was also a feverish cataloger of his life’s tiniest moments. “I could continue the archive without trying to commercially promote it,” Bickett says. “Everything seems to be so market-driven, that when you find someone that isn’t—I would like to think it’s a breath of fresh air.”

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