Chalk It Up to Blackness

John Haber
in New York City

Gary Simmons

Gary Simmons has become the ghost of painting's Great White Hope. Chalk clouds, cartoon explosions, a liquor store, a roller coaster truly named Ghoster—the images have in common moments of joy and release dimly recalled. Much of the time, he has himself effaced them. In a solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, one can see him refusing to embrace black stereotypes and refusing, too, to forget America's past.

Three years later in Chelsea, Gary Simmons again erases blackness, and he again offers some wild rides, but this time in living color. He lets a viewer of any race share a return to the old movies, more rides from a World's Fair, and a moment of emergence for black history. In the end, however, the associations of the medium or of history speak up for themselves. Gary Simmons's Ghoster (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001)

Ghost buster

A decade after the Whitney annoyed practically everyone with an exhibition on "The Black Male," and half a century after Jackson Pollock, size still matters. In the first full room at the Studio Museum, a wall-sized work floored me. Yet it has little to do with stale mockery of black men and macho artists.

Two white shapes lean away from each other, just off the vertical. I thought of bells, in time for the holidays and far too decorative for male dominance. I thought of a stop-action photograph of a single bell, ringing out in the dark silence of indefinite space. Mostly, though, I kept thinking of paintbrushes. The sweep of the loose, horizontal white drawing carries their motion, as it mimes the origins of the work itself.

Do not, however, expect a repeat of action painting and late-modern formalism. For one thing, the paired shapes refuse the hint of symmetry, just as they refuse to sit still. For another, if the artist has entered this ghostly work, he does so more as a disappearing act than as a presence. Where Pollock's drips put him right in the viewer's space, one imagines Simmons on the far side of the canvas, hidden by the slate-gray background as if by a stage curtain. Where Pollock gave painting the immediacy of a preparatory sketch, Simmons evokes its transience. He draws in chalk, and the appearance of broad brushstrokes comes from smudging the initial drawing with his bare hands.

In a sequence of manipulated photographs, a star grows, hovers in the sky, and goes blurry. A bare-bones, black-and-white video offers the act of drawing in silence and without the draftsman, refusing one's expectations for the medium as well as for the artist. In a sculpture painted white, a ridiculously intricate whiskey still deprives white lightning of its long-past pleasures. Elsewhere, he writes I wish a few times, only again to efface the image.

Decaying neighborhoods, alcohol, and broken hopes may confront one with memories of black experience or stereotypes of it. So may the image of blacks and police as animals in Here Piggy, Piggy. They suggest a lesson, from a world that treats blacks as children. So may associations of chalk with graffiti or old lessons, and sometimes Simmons works on actual blackboards, displayed side by side in a charmingly haphazard arrangement. Then again, the work may refuse to offer a tidy lesson, just as slate gray can never equal blackness. Simmons delicately refuses to say, but he obliges one to ask.

The pop imagery and gestures of erasure have modernist roots, too, particularly in Andy Warhol. However, Warhol shows his enduring love for popular culture and for virtuosity in paint. At the same time, his erasures upset easy judgments about representation or an artist's responsibility. Simmons, in contrast, may not like this stuff, but he knows that it belongs to him—even as he knows, too, that he has earned the right of refusal.

When I'm 1964

Actually his refusal has grown more insistent over time. The show in Harlem dates almost entirely from the preceding five years. Early work sticks more closely to the look of graffiti, down to provocative language that outdoes even the street artists of today. Call it his personal odyssey, like that of David Hammons, out of blackness and into invisibility. Sad to say, the art scene may prefer it that way.

Simmons gets space at the Studio Museum, a good candidate for smallest and most isolated art museum in the city. Its chief curator, Thelma Golden, gained notoriety precisely for "The Black Male," but in Harlem she discarded assumptions to see black art swim "Freestyle," and a second look at emerging black artists did much the same. The press dutifully flocked to Golden's first big show, but when white readers did not follow, the instincts of pack journalism faded. The New York Times weekend section did not see fit to list Simmons. Now wonder that, when Gary Simmons looks around three years after attaining museum stature, he finds only degrees of whiteness. He also finds himself in 1964.

Gary Simmons's 1964 (Bohen Foundation, 2006)Simmons covers three walls at the Bohen Foundation in red, green, and blue. Each serves as the ground for a large image, painted boldly in white. As with his work on a gray or black ground, one can mistake 1964 for chalk drawing, and one can imagine its broad, smeared lines as the result of erasure. His method shares a great deal with erasure, too. He must, I imagine, have started with a more sharply etched image, then dragged a long, dry brush through still-wet paint. Its arcs suggest the impulsive movement of a superhuman arm, as if the god of the Sistine Ceiling had taken up gestural abstraction.

One could interpret his turn to the bright colors as maintaining the metaphoric opposition between colored and white, like a reversal of Kara Walker in her silhouettes or a plea for black abstraction. One could see erasure, too, as a metaphor—for the forced invisibility of black art and black history. I looked for such coded messages in 2002, when I saw his Great White Hope, and 1964, too, points to a provocative context. Simmons has chosen three scenes from a single, significant year. A handout calls 1964 the watershed between a conservative past and a cultural revolution already in the making. Ironically enough, that year marked the opening for a museum in Harlem.

Alternatively, one could interpret the basic spectrum as the components of white alone, like a color wheel set to spin. Simmons's subjects belong not just to the year of the Civil Rights Act, but also to paragons of whiteness, and the orthodoxy hanging on in 1964 pertains to art as well as politics. One wall has twin views of the New York State pavilion at the World's Fair in New York City, its tall, white circles designed by Philip Johnson. Another wall depicts a spare, one-story structure that Johnson also might have designed, Modernism's prototypical glass house—geometric and transparent to the light. The last adds more glass, with a swinging chandelier supposed to have appeared in the film Marnie. Like a video only weeks before by Salla Tykka, it builds on Alfred Hitchcock's obsession with the ultimate prim blond, Tippi Hedren.

Besides working against whiteness and surrendering to it, Simmons has at least a third relationship to it. Simmons uses white not just as absence of color, but also as an escape from categories of color. His outsized gestures compete on equal terms with the usual dead white males, and his wall art reconstructs the gallery as Johnson might never have imagined it. He has become a leading black artist while, as often as not, refusing to illustrate obviously black themes. For all the show's claim to social commentary, he clearly means to do so again.

Ins and outs of history

The very year of the show's title asserts Simmons's stature as an artist beyond category. The handout had me wary of his purported social message. One can call pretty much any year a critical moment, and that supposedly dying conservatism has returned with a vengeance. Sure enough, I found another, perhaps better referent. Care to guess the artist's date of birth? Yes, he turned forty in 2004.

I like Simmons best when he truly refuses to show up. Even the sculpted still—the bulkiest work from his museum show—sits, er, still compared to his drawings. Moreover, the Studio Museum, with its cramped quarters, has no room for his history. To make matters worse, the museum draws lines of its own, but actual ones on the floor. Because of the fragility of chalk, it has to distance the visitor even further from the work, and it risks turning the room of blackboards into an accidental installation. Downtown three years later, he comes out from behind the lines more sharply than ever.

How shall I explain his art—as about black and white, about white and forgetting, or about a black man's independence? Shall I call the opposition between black and white the work's vocabulary and structure, or shall I call it the outer limits of red, green, and blue? Shall I call his erasure self-assertion or a vanishing act? One cannot know for sure, and that gives Simmons a good deal of his interest.

So does the darkness that lies just beneath the white, like the dark subway ride to work in a video by Lorna Simpson. Think of the overtones of erased gestures, of ghostly images side by side as if in a mirror, and of an ominous chandelier—in one of its repetitions, entirely upside-down. They remind one that a ghostly blur can denote the haze of memory or a nightmare, a horror flick or its film negative. To add to fluid border between memory and imaginings, Simmons could not possibly remember 1964.

Mostly, however, I enjoyed the oddly distant images and the illusion of an enormous drawing on three walls. Perhaps I had to relish its sweep: the iconography never really does add up to anything all that meaningful, historical, or pertinent. I remember the World's Fair as more an amusement park for brats like me than a utopia. Johnson's other building here more closely resembles his 1949 Glass House, recently an inspiration in painting to Stefan Kürten, than his 1964 State Theater at Lincoln Center. I cannot recall the chandelier scene, and Hitchcock never bothers to mention it in his book-length interview with François Truffaut.

One can see why some critics call the show a lightweight: they cannot pin down why Simmons found these scenes emblematic or compatible. Yet all that white has pleasures of its own, much like a pretend chalkboard by Cy Twombly. So does puzzling out the white light surrounding all that light weight. If museums and foundations put a black artist in an awkward position, Simmons has the sense to turn on the lights.

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Gary Simmons exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem through January 5, 2003, and his "1964" at the Bohen Foundation through May 26, 2006.


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