Gary Simmons made a name for himself as a creator of artworks that draw on elements of popular culture to confront negative racial stereotypes. Many of his drawings and installations incorporate concrete cultural references—including advertising logos, comic book figures, hip-hop culture, and sports iconography—that can be seen as statements about race and identity in contemporary America. Yet in other works, including landscapes and photographs of skywriting projects, Simmons explores larger themes such as the meaning of time and the impermanence of human life.
Born in New York City in 1964, Simmons studied graphic design and illustration at the School of Visual Arts there, earning his B.F.A. in 1988. He received his M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990. Immediately attracting critical notice, the young artist had his first solo show in 1989 at the Roy Boyd Gallery in Santa Monica, California. He continued to exhibit frequently from that point on. In 1991 work by Simmons was included in a traveling exhibit, Interrogating Identity: The Question of Black Art, which received significant attention national attention. A year later Simmons exhibited in a solo show, The Garden of Hate: Gary Simmons, at New York City's Whitney Museum.
Simmons's work was shown again at the Whitney in 1993 as part of the Black Male show. His installation depicted a boxing ring—emblematic of a sport in which black men have attained prominence and fame—with diagrams of dance steps outlined on its floor. Critics noted the symbolic complexity of this juxtaposition of images from the entertainment and sports worlds. For some, the installation communicated the sense of alienation that African American men face in white society, which regards them with both fear and attraction. Others interpreted the work as a more nuanced statement that alluded to black men's victories as well as struggles.
Simmons is perhaps best known for his erasure drawings, made on black slate with white chalk (and later, on paper or canvas) and then smudged or partially erased—a technique that, according to exhibit text from the Studio Museum in Harlem, makes the image "ghostly, uncertain, and unstable." Simmons said in an interview posted online by the Museum of Modern Art that he began his erasure work in order to explore questions about how our personal understandings of history are formed. Using studio space in a vocational school, he realized that the room's portable chalkboard could act as the "loaded object" he was seeking for this theme. Influenced in part by such artists as Ad Reinhardt, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, Simmons began drawing with chalk on slate and then deliberately obscuring the result.
In his earliest erasure drawings, Simmons drew cartoonish crows and bug-eyed figures that suggested the racism of the Jim Crow era. According to Roberta Smith in the New York Times, these pieces "made the racial stereotypes rife in popular culture … scarily clear by giving them a semblance of furious destabilizing motion." Judith Russi Kirshner, in Artforum International, described Simmons's "bravura subtractions" as "perplexing expressions of the politics of difference and the paradox of memory." From about the mid-1990s, though, Simmons began moving away from such overtly political statements, incorporating into his erasure drawings such ambiguous images as rooms in abandoned mansions, pine trees, shooting stars, trains, and arrows. Critics have noted the evocative yet mysterious narratives that these pieces suggest.
Similar suggestions of abandonment are seen in Simmons's projects involving skywriting. In his film projection "Desert Blizzard," the white trail of a tiny jet traces a series of snowflakes, each one evaporating as the next one begins. Kirshner, noting the suggestion of war evoked by the title, praised the piece as "tantalizing and mesmerizing." In 1996 Chicago's Museum of Modern Art commissioned Simmons's Sky Erasure Drawings, in which the artist, with the help of a professional skywriter, "drew" several stars in the Chicago sky with jet vapor. His photographs of these drawings document the stars' gradual dissipation, an effective statement of their fragility and impermanence.
In 2003 Simmons had his first U.S. museum survey exhibit, which debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and traveled to Santa Fe and New York City. The survey included 37 works produced over seven years. According to Art in America critic David Ebony, the exhibit's highlights included "Ghoster Series," which depicted blurred images of rollercoaster trestles; and "Lost Ones (for L.)," a mural showing two large empty birdcages swinging from the ceiling. "The empty cages seem about to crash in the center of the slate-gray field," wrote Ebony, adding that the work could suggest the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, but "equally conveys a tumultuous yet exhilarating sense of freedom."
In more recent works Simmons has returned to obvious political themes. The solo exhibition Criminal Slang (2004), for example, includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures that explore issues relating to prison and gang culture. Several paintings in the show incorporate gang insignias and words, neatly lettered but smeared with paint in what the gallery Website described as an "aggressively controlled disruption" of the backgrounds. In this way, the artist suggests the chaotic and brutal world of the prison, where survival can often depend on one's ability to adapt to swiftly changing codes. The exhibit's two sculptures depict white fiberglass boom boxes, large portable sound systems associated with ghetto culture. In Ebonics, the boom box sits in a prison yard, playing the rap hit "Ebonics" by Big L (1974–1999) while another person is heard reading a lecture in semiotics (the study of meaning in language). The song, for which Big L was most famous, is a list of definitions of black slang. This sculpture was perhaps Simmons's most overt reference to date to his own creative method—a fragmentation and synthesis of images that, he acknowledges, is similar to techniques used by DJs and hip-hop artists.
More elusive in its imagery was Simmons's 2006 solo show at Bohen Foundation, titled simply "1964." The exhibit consisted of three gigantic drawings, one depicting the famous modernist Glass House designed by Philip Johnson; another depicting the New York State Pavilion at the World's Fair of 1964, which was also designed by Johnson; and the third showing the image of a swinging chandelier from Alfred Hitchcock's film, Marnie, released in 1964. As New York Times critic Holland Cotter explained, Simmons considers these images symbolically related. The artist associates Johnson's work with urban renewal policies that led to the destruction of working class neighborhoods in New York City. The swinging chandelier, an image from a film about deceit, evokes the social turmoil beginning to surface around the country in 1964 in response to escalating conflict in Vietnam and to the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
Simmons's work has been shown across the country in Santa Monica, California; New York City, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Santa Fe, and Washington, D.C. Simmons has also held several European shows, including exhibits in Paris and Zurich. His works are in the permanent collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
At a Glance …
Born on April 14, 1964, in New York, NY. Education: School of Visual Arts, New York, BFA, 1988; California Institute of the Arts, MFA, 1990.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts Grant, 1990; Penny McCall Foundation Grant, 1991.
Addresses: Office—Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011.
A recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Penny McCall Foundation, Simmons was a member of the art faculty at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. He lives and works in New York City.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, Thomson Gale, 1997.
Art & Text, May-July 1997, pp.52-7.
Artforum International, Summer 2002, p. 170.
Art in America, December 1992, p. 116; June 2003, p. 116.
New York Times, December 20, 2002; April 21, 2006.
"Conversations with Cotemporary Artists: Gary Simmons," Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/onlineprojects/conversations/gs_f.html (July 10, 2006).
"Gary Simmons: Criminal Slang," Metro Pictures, www.metropicturesgallery.com/index.php?mode=artists&object_id=16&parent_eid=5 (July 12, 2006).
"Gary Simmons: Exhibition Wall Text," Studio Museum in Harlem, www.studiomuseum.org/gsimmons_walltext.html (July 10, 2006).
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