BY Travis Diehl in Profiles | 07 JUN 23
Featured in
Issue 236

The Grand Gestures of Gary Simmons

With major shows at MCA, Chicago and Hauser & Wirth London, the artist assesses his past, present and future

BY Travis Diehl in Profiles | 07 JUN 23

Gary Simmons met me for lunch at a restaurant at Santa Monica Airport on the west side of Los Angeles. The old tarmacs host events, like art fairs – including the most recent Frieze. Simmons has a salt-and-pepper beard and thin dreadlocks that trail from his short-brimmed cap. You could describe him as athletic, just from the easy-going way he seems ready to lunge into action. Coordinated, controlled.

‘I was raised to be a pro baseball player,’ he says. His father was a well-known cricketer from the West Indies who immigrated to New York, worked ‘odd jobs’  and toured the cricket circuit in the Northeast and the Caribbean with a team of expatriates. ‘Where other kids were having orange slices during Little League, it wasn’t like that for me,’ he laughs. ‘It was, you know: “Dad, I got two hits!” And he’s like: “Right, but you could have got three.”’ Eventually, a knee injury took Simmons out of the game, just in time – while college baseball recruiters wooed his peers, he turned to his other love: art. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York, graduating in 1988. From there, he attended the intensive and prestigious summer programme at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the Maine woods. When he finished, he drove to the other side of the country, earning an MFA at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1990.

oGary Simmons, boom, 1996/2003, installation view at 'Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making', 2007. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photograph: Thomas Griesel

Simmons was born in Queens in 1964 – the year of the New York World’s Fair and the Civil Rights Act – and spent most of his childhood in the borough. 1964 (2008) is the title of a giant, hand-smudged suite of three wall drawings that the artist re-created earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago for ‘Public Enemy’, his first major survey show. Producing the works is draining; the process involves shoving paint or chalk lines across the surface into whorls and smears, until the drawing looks partially erased, partly on fire. ‘I have to stretch, you know, do yoga,’ he says. ‘I drink probably six to eight Red Bulls while I do it. I sweat like a dog. It’s kind of brutal. You’re talking about a 12-metre wall with this massive image.’ The subject matter is also difficult, so to speak, to wrestle with.

In the elegant economy of his paintings, sculptures and installations, Simmons continues to explore persistent cultural demons, such as the racist early history of animation and the inequity of public schooling. One work, boom – a mural originally produced in 1996 and also re-created for the MCA show – depicts a cartoon explosion that looks a bit like a slapstick dust-up. It’s one of Simmons’s favourites. When a show closes, his murals are painted over; they stay there, hidden in the wall.

Earlier, we met at the office of his studio in Inglewood, Los Angeles. The space is relatively sparse, save a charcoal-grey couch (‘like an eraser,’ Simmons says), a desk, a shelf of toys and collectables, such as a foul ball hit by baseball hall-of-famer Ken Griffey Jr. Leaning back in his desk chair, Simmons described coming up in the New York art world of the 1980s. He was in the thick of it. He remembers being awed as painters like Alex Katz and Julian Schnabel, flush with cash, invested in a sceney downtown New York restaurant, Hawaii 5-0. ‘We were literally like little kids with our faces on the glass.’ He remembers Jeff Koons’s first shows at International With Monument in the mid-1980s; Ashley Bickerton’s early ‘Susie’ sculptures – unforgiving, wall-mounted life rafts covered with logos, which Simmons helped fabricate. He and his friends made rent by hanging drywall in the galleries and the lofts of more successful artists. Meanwhile, there was the club scene, the birth of rap.

Gary Simmons, Reflection of a Future Past, 2006, installation view, pigment and oil on panel, 3 × 12.2 m. Courtesy: Gary Simmons and the Bohen Foundation

By the time Simmons graduated from CalArts and returned to Manhattan, the art market had crashed. Non-profit project spaces, however, offered young artists defining opportunities. One of Simmons’s first breakthroughs was a show at White Columns in 1990. He filled an all-white gallery with diminutive lecterns, stuck a microphone on each, and arranged for a live, white cockatoo to preside over the ghostly class. His other breakthrough was like that, too: the chalkboard drawings that cemented his reputation resulted from the chance fact that a Hunter College studio he’d gotten through a work exchange was full of old chalkboards.

The game was economy: ‘Hey Gary, do you want to do a show?’ someone would say. ‘What do you got? And I was like, well I got a gallon of paint, some chalk and some erasers, and I can put a show together.’ Simmons paraphrased Bruce Nauman: ‘An artist should be able to take these things on this table,’ he said, looking at his desk, ‘bits of string, a rock, a stick, a piece of paper, and give you a piece of art. That’s an artist,’ he said, rolling a baseball between his hands. ‘That kind of economy is something that I’ve always aspired to.’

Simmons’s work of the late 1980s and early ’90s delivers a series of knockout blows (which, in the context of debates around what was then called ‘multiculturalism’, most critics dismissed as too direct). Some are full frontal, like Six-X (1988), a row of child-size Ku Klux Klan robes on hooks, or a 1993 chalkboard drawing of smeared cartoon eyes called Wall of Eyes (Cartoon Bosco) – there’s so little on the surface, and yet the American-educated mind fills in details from centuries of racist caricatures and systemic bias. Wall of Eyes appeared in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. So did Lineup (1993), a deadpan installation of gold-plated basketball shoes arranged in front of the striated background of a police lineup. The shoes parodied the murderous commodity fetishism of nascent sneaker culture; the black lines of the mugshot backdrop poked at minimalist art. And what bodies do you imagine in those shoes? What colour is their skin? (Simmons notes with some irony that the hi-tops are all his size.)

Gary Simmons, Step In The Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994, plywood, solid pine, metal hardware, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes and shoes, 2.1 × 3 × 3 m. Courtesy: Gary Simmons and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; photograph: Sheldan C. Collins

Curator Thelma Golden put Simmons in ‘Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art’, a major group show at the Whitney Museum in 1994–95. His Step In The Arena (The Essentialist Trap) (1994) comprises a full-scale boxing ring, its black surface scuffed like a partially erased drawing of dance steps, the white suede ropes hung with black tap shoes like urban powerlines. The motifs of battling, of the arena, are everywhere. If modernism saw the canvas as a field of passionate struggle against personal or social evils, Simmons coolly transposed that thinking onto the full scope of indoctrinatory culture.

I ask Simmons if sculptures incorporating Klansman figures, for example, or other stark implements of racism –  like Noose Flag (1991), a pole draped with lynching ropes – might play differently in 2023 than they did 30 years ago. He acknowledges the shock value of some of his early work, rolling the idea around. ‘Art doesn’t just function as entertainment,’ he says. ‘It’s not always nice. Sometimes you have to confront our horrible past.’ People may be more sensitive to trauma today, but the underlying issues still fester. The work holds up. ‘I have a daughter,’ he says. ‘I can’t bubblewrap my kid and prevent her from seeing certain things or certain images or circumstances that are gonna make her grow as a person. If I bubblewrap her, then what happens when she actually has to confront those sets of problems? She’s unarmed.’

Still, there’s something to be said for finesse. Not that he’s mellowed. The work has gone from a bone-rattling explosion to a slow, ruthless burn. ‘When you’re young’, says Simmons, ‘you want to make these big gestures, big statements, big things. Cause you don’t know if you’re going to show again. You wanna punch somebody in the face. You don’t wanna use a feather duster.’ Like a puppy, he says, with new, sharp teeth and no jaw control. In a Whitney Museum interview from 1992, Simmons told Golden that his work comes ‘straight out of the aesthetic produced by young Black male rage’ – from hip hop to graffiti to high fashion. He tempers that rage with the aesthetics of conceptual art. ‘Anger is a funny thing,’ he tells me. ‘It’s one of the basest emotions that you can draw from. But, once you hit that, you lose the focus of your argument.’ Now, well into his mid-career stride, he can take more time, and place his teeth exactly, with care.

Gary Simmons, Hollywood, 2008, pigment, oil paint and cold wax on canvas, 2.1 × 3 m. Courtesy: Gary Simmons and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Tito Molina/HRDWRKER

Simmons has moved between New York and Los Angeles over the years; our conversations filter through that grand duality of the US art world. In the competitive density of Manhattan galleries, an artist needs to shout to be noticed, let alone remembered. In LA, Simmons says, he makes shows for his peers – the community of artists from hardcore art schools like CalArts and UCLA that, he knows, will drill down to the work’s core. They let him know what they think.

In LA, where Simmons and his family currently live, he has the literal and figurative space to work larger and longer, further developing ideas like the ‘Erasure’ drawings – which, when he first started making them in the early 1990s, were monumental one-offs – into a lingering, nuanced series of paintings. The shapes of the metropolis, the Hollywood Sign or downtown landmarks like the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, appear in pale outlines smudged to resemble smoke or flames. Other paintings from the mid-2000s incorporate store signage – black on red, green and yellow grounds – evocative of the shops burned during the deadly uprisings of 1965 and ’92. The racial tension smouldering under the glitz; the creative potential of destruction. 

It makes sense that Simmons would appreciate the power of New Orleans, a vibrant city shaped by disasters both natural and human. When I ask about his project for the Prospect.3 triennial in 2014, he lights up. The city speaks to him. ‘I love everything about it,’ he says. ‘It’s wild. It very much reminded me of the West Indies. Come to find out a lot of that architecture in the French Quarter, all that wrought-iron work, was made by Bajan metalworkers.’ For his project there, Simmons decided he wanted to try something new: letting go. ‘In the West Indies’, Simmons explains to me in Santa Monica as the waiter cleared our plates, ‘everybody from any financial or social status comes together in the dance hall. It smells like rum and sweat and sex. It’s raw. I wanted to replicate that.’ He found a carpenter who was also a musician. They collected scrap wood from Tremé, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and from those ruins created a sound system inspired by dub musician Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s studio, the Black Ark.

Gary Simmons, ‘Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark’, 2014–ongoing, PA speakers, wooden stage, paint and ratchet straps, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Gary Simmons and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Scott McCrossen/FIVE65 Design

The work – a series of public performances titled ‘Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark’ (2014–ongoing) – consists of a square plywood stage, painted with dark stars, wired with very loud, very good speakers, which poets, rappers, punk bands and dozens of other acts have been invited to use as they will. ‘It literally is this living being,’ Simmons tells me. It tours the country, gathering performances wherever it lands. ‘The curator at MCA was like: “Can we make a museum copy? We don’t want to damage it.” I was like: “What? No museum copy!” The whole point of the thing is that it has this history, and you can’t replicate it. If it gets damaged, it gets damaged and then we fix it. And it moves on.’ In that way, it’s one of Simmons’s most radical projects, and you can sense his excitement to watch it grow. When the piece joins the MCA survey, it won’t sit in the museum, but will circulate through Chicago’s storied music scenes, host-ing anything from drill to jazz, house to noise – it isn’t Simmons’s call.

There’s a throughline between Step In The Arena and the stage of ‘Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark’ – the square boundaries, the implied audience and spectacle, the marks the scuffle leaves behind – but they’re very different, too. There’s an ease to the stage, where the ring seethed. Which is not to say Simmons has made peace with the way things are.

‘Public Enemy’ is on view at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, from 13 June to 1 October 

This article appeared in frieze issue 236 with the headline 'Profile: Gary Simmons'

Main image: Gary Simmons, Ghost Town Skies (detail), 2023. Courtesy: Gary Simmons and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Keith Lubow

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.