Gary Simmons has been stirring up the world for about thirty years. “Public Enemy,” his first comprehensive career survey, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), is a testament to that. Since the late 1980s Simmons has played a key role in situating questions of race, class and identity at the center of contemporary art discourse. Drawing heavily on popular genres such as hip-hop, cult horror, cartoons and science fiction, Simmons exposes and analyzes histories of racism deeply rooted in the U.S. visual culture. Sports, cinema, literature, music, architecture and urbanism—nothing is off-limits in his effort to make a point: the perpetuation of white supremacy is alive and well.
And it starts early. His work, “Disinformation Supremacy Board” (1989), a classroom installation featuring ten whiteboards, five chair-desks and white chalk, brings education into the spotlight. White text disappears onto white walls. Writing would be futile. Across the room there’s “Six-X” (1989), a row of child-size Ku Klux Klan robes on hooks. Whiteness is blinding; suffocating. Elsewhere, a set of white boxing gloves embroidered with the words “Everforward…” and “Neverback” (“Everforward…,” 1993) conveys a powerful message: fight back. A boxing ring sits amid the gallery inviting a closer look. “Step Into The Arena (The Essentialist Trap)” (1994) addresses the exploitation of Black individuals in sports, performance and other forms of popular mass entertainment, and “Lineup” (1993) puts gold-plated sneakers onto an unexpected pedestal: a police height chart. Stereotyping Black youth as violent and criminal might seem like old news, but how far have we really come when Simmons’ work is still more relevant than ever?
Cartoon characters stare directly at you as you walk through the museum floor—”Black Chalkboard (Two Grinning Faces With Cookie Bag),” 1993, “Green Chalkboard (Crazy Conductor),” 1993, to name a few. Reintroducing Bosko and Honey from the original Looney Tunes cartoons and the crows from Walt Disney’s “Dumbo” resurfaces their problematic racial baggage. In the early 1990s, Simmons began experimenting with images rendered in chalk on chalkboards. He soon developed what would become his signature technique: erasure. The effect, achieved by completing a drawing and then smearing it with his hands, forces the viewer to face their own biases and stereotypes—both personal and collective. The symbolism is striking. The image is still there but you can’t clearly see it just like stereotypes continue to haunt us no matter how hard we try to get rid of them. “His desire to erase them results in erasing the image itself,” as René Morales, chief curator at the MCA, puts it. In a series of white, green and black chalkboard works, Simmons presents more images drawn from vintage cartoons. Horror film-inspired vignettes—think: drive-in theater marquees, infamous haunted houses, and ghosts from abandoned pasts—add to the blurred realities he creates.
And then, there’s burning. “Hollywood” (2008) shows the Hollywood sign set ablaze. Other landmarks share a similar fate. Everything becomes fiery red. Destruction, impermanence, tension, confrontation—all themes within Simmons’ work appear necessary to bring change. Depicting the image of a cartoonish explosion, where characters disappear in a cloud of dust and smoke, “boom” (1996/2003) is a life-size painting (white pigment and pastel on blackboard-paint primed panel) occupying an entire wall. “It exists in the place between explosion and implosion,” says Simmons. The lines (and images) once again blur.
Approaching his subject matter from a conceptual standpoint, the artist comfortably moves across mediums—from painting and drawing to sculpture, video, sound and site-specific architectural environments. “The Reading Room,” for example, situated in between galleries on the museum’s fourth floor, is a library-like setup where one can flip through books—a necessary reading list covering subjects like architecture, education, sports, horror and music—handpicked by influential creatives. But Simmons doesn’t want to be didactic. Instead, he urges you to take the time to do the work—the only way to dismantle racial, social and cultural politics is to understand them.
As the exhibition comes full circle, Simmons’ work unexpectedly returns to cartoon figurative imagery after a hiatus of almost thirty years. “In a way, it marks the interval between the police beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the 2020 murder of George Floyd,” Morales points out. His characters are depicted piloting a boat in a storm, throwing up their arms while yelling in distress while others are typing furiously (“Honey Typer,” 2021)—a plea to creatives to respond to the inevitable moments of upheaval and transformation.
Simmons is by nature nonconforming, critical, emotionally riveting and above all, fearless. He confronts trauma head-on and he urges you to do the same. He knows the only way out is through. “It takes you down the rabbit hole of the past to connect to the present,” says Morales, about “Public Enemy,” an exhibition titled as such to remain open to interpretation (it brings to mind the legendary NewYork hip-hop group, the 1930s film starring James Cagney, the criminalization of the Black male by society and so much more) much like Simmons’ work. “If you just follow the breadcrumbs, you’ll find out more about the stories being left out—and why,” Morales adds.
In an in-depth conversation that goes back to his days at CalArts and Chelsea gallery Metro Pictures, his early influences and rise to art-world fame, Simmons talks about the complex relationship between memory, history, and the power dynamics of popular culture, his analogue approach to art-making, and, of course, Chicago, a city that has played a pivotal role in shaping his artistic trajectory—from his early experiences at the now-defunct Randolph Street Gallery and subsequent exhibitions to his most in-depth, thirty-year survey—and still holds a special place in his heart.
So here we are.
Here we are.
You know, we planned the show long before the pandemic. So it’s been in the works for a long, long time. And we were chugging along, we had a certain kind of vision for how it would look and who we would work with and then the pandemic hit: half-drunk bottles were in place, the model for the museum was in place—it was like Miss Havisham or something. To be honest I thought that we were just going to either scratch the show or move it back to probably, you know, 2025 or twenty-six.
Did the exhibition change at all?
It changed a little bit. I mean, as you can imagine, if a show goes on the shelf for a little while, in between that time, newer work is made to sort of inject some of that. That last room we walked through, for example, originally that wasn’t even made yet. But something I definitely wanted to avoid was the show ending five years previous or something. We wanted to keep it close to current, so some things were pulled out as I became interested in others, like the Reading Room. Once I started collecting these kinds of banned books and thinking about politics and the ways academia is being assessed and judged, that shifted the dynamic of the exhibition a bit.
It’s been thirty years. Isn’t it kind of scary how relevant your work still is?
Yeah, it’s a little scary. It creates that moment where you’re like, “Well, I was onto something back then, in the broader human context,” but it’s disappointing that we’re still dealing with a lot of those images and those issues from thirty-plus years ago to now and very little has changed. Even the way René [Morales, the MCA curator] made an observation, drawing a parallel from Rodney King to George Floyd—it wasn’t a connection I had consciously made or ever really marked it that way—but I guess it’s an interesting way to look at it. The truth is not a lot has changed. So that’s certainly a disappointment. But looking back, I think as a young artist, I was on to something that had some kind of longevity.
How did you first become interested in the subject matter? Was your point of departure one of sadness or disappointment or anger?
I was fortunate enough to study with a lot of great artists. I had a lot of minimalists. Jackie Winsor was a huge influence on me. Joseph Kosuth was another one. Jack Whitten was massive. Then I went to CalArts for a while and I had people from John Baldessari to Mike Kelley to Catherine Lord. Charles Gaines was there… It was amazing just to be around these incredible artists.
I was lucky in a lot of ways and fortunate to have those kinds of people guiding me as mentors. It wasn’t just about a teacher-student relationship. They also taught me how to navigate the complexities of the art world. Just by trying to manage the way things are going and being around the right people—working with the right art dealer, the right curators—you realize that things don’t just happen when you’re all by yourself, but with the support of really amazing people.
That’s a good ecosystem.
Yeah. I was with Metro Pictures from the time I started looking at a commercial gallery and, you know, they raised me almost like a son. I was so young and I was around Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo and Louise Lawler and all these incredible eighties artists so I could look around and I could see how it’s done. And I could ask questions. That gallery was a very family-like unit. I always had somebody I could ask those necessary questions and they would guide me through it. I would go out to a basketball game with Robert [Longo], for example. In California, I had Baldessari.
I believe much of my perspective comes from the sports background, where I learned the value of having a diverse team of people analyze your game or coaching style: their feedback and insights can make you a better player. The same thing happens in the art world. If you’re unwilling to listen to people who have been around the block a few times, you’re going to be out there all by yourself.
Especially with your subject matter. It must have been challenging to create work that confronted controversial issues head-on, especially as a young artist. I mean, you are critical.
Very critical. I think I was fortunate because when I was emerging as an artist, the art market had just collapsed at the end of the eighties. This collapse, in a sense, paved the way for many of us. With money becoming less of a factor, the doors opened for a lot of installation artists and those creating politically engaged work, or art that was responding to the culture as a whole. It wasn’t about indulging in the hedonistic side of the art world; it was about confronting reality and expressing it through our work.
And that’s when we walked in the door. We literally had to kick it in. But when you’re that young, you don’t really know if this is a short-lived thing. You’re not sure if you’re only going to be here for three years or just have a handful of shows or what. So you want to make some of your bigger statements to leave an impression. And I think a lot of that work really challenged people with the emotionally charged work, like in the school room. That made a lot of noise.
And even now.
And even now. And in some ways almost more now, because I think that people are more sensitive to a lot of imagery now.
Or words. Or what’s politically correct.
Exactly, exactly. Back then, although there was this idea of what was politically correct and whatnot, I think it was a much looser playing field. The restraints weren’t the same.
How has this been in relation to your work? It challenges certain people, provokes certain people…
You have to be careful. You’re not just running around trying to poke the bear, right? Coming from a visual arts background I want to keep this critical distance—it’s a balance between the subject and the personal. That’s why I never really wanted to do self-portraiture or figuration in that way. The figure does enter, but through cartoons and things that are almost like stand-ins. This way it’s not so easy for the viewer to just dismiss it—instead they can fill in the blanks. It becomes their own experience. If you don’t restrict someone who is “other,” different or unlike yourself; if you allow them the freedom to navigate the space on their own terms, they will establish their own unique connections to those images. It’s important to me to keep those avenues open. Instead of telling them the way to think, I leave room for interpretation.
How is your personal experience within this exhibition?
I think that’s where you get jumbled!
I remember having a conversation with Baldessari years and years ago—he and I were very close—and I was at some show that he had and I saw a piece in it and I said: “John, this looks like a piece from the late sixties-early seventies or something, but the date on it is very recent.” And he was like: “Wow, I can’t believe you picked that up. You know, when you get to my age, you have the luxury of being able to go back and reference yourself and your work in a new context. That’s when you know that you’ve created a kind of vocabulary for yourself and you can actually move these pieces around the chessboard.” And I was like: “My God, I can’t wait till I get to that place,” you know? And I feel like I’m now approaching that place. That’s why it’s important for me to go back to a show like this. I definitely need to walk through by myself at some point and just let the work talk to me. I think it’s very necessary.
I’m wondering if the exhibition hits a little different now, as you look back at those thirty years.
It’s not as suffocating as I would have thought. You know, certain mid-career shows can be very suffocating for certain artists. It makes me want to work more! It tells me that I have a lot more to do, which is really interesting. There’s just more ambitious projects to work on and other avenues that I haven’t explored that I’ve always wanted to—having these opportunities is one of the really great things about being at a gallery like Hauser & Wirth.
What’s your process like?
You know, I’ve prided myself on the fact that I’m much more of an analog artist. I don’t have a huge staff that works for me—there’s just two people, it’s a very tight ship. When we do need help, we hire people outside to come in. But I like that it’s just the three of us—it’s a very analog way of approaching things.
This also applies to the materials that I use: everything is very lo-fi. There’s nothing overly determined or overly fabricated. I don’t rely on the heavy tech thing—there’s nothing wrong with that, but for my studio, the choices in materials and how things are put together matter. That’s equally as important as the conceptual framework that the work is about.
When I look at something, I want to break it down—to deconstruct to its simplest form. Take the speaker cabinets from the “Black Ark” [“Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark,” 2014-ongoing] for example: I’ll take something like wood scavenged from post-Katrina New Orleans, something that’s discarded and thrown away that has all this incredible sadness and destruction to it, and then make something positive out of it. But it’ll retain some of the patina of that tragic beginning. Those kinds of things are important to me.
How does it feel to be having that show in Chicago?
When we came up with the show I knew it had to absolutely go through Chicago somehow because I’ve done so many interesting things here over the years. Actually 1996 was not the first time that I did something in Chicago—there’s something that predates that! There was a very DIY nonprofit space called Randolph Street Gallery—it doesn’t exist anymore. This was super-early in my career, probably like 1991 or something like that, and it was the very first wall joint that I did outside of California and New York. They gave me a plane ticket, I flew in, I brought my paint with me, I did the drawing, slept on someone’s couch and then I was out. But it’s still really near and dear to my heart because it was almost like these punk-rock bands that go on tour and they’re in the Midwest, sleeping in the van and they romanticize it a little bit, even though it’s probably awful… [laughs] But yeah, that’s what makes you who you are later on in life.
So I did that and then years later I did the skywriting project here in 1996 [“Sky Erasure Drawings” (1996/2002), airplanes temporarily inscribed vapor stars in the daytime sky in liquid paraffin], and then I came back shortly after, in 2002, and now I’m doing the survey here. So a lot of important cornerstone pieces happened for me in Chicago and I can’t really tell you why. I think that I’ve always been lucky to work with somebody cool. I love Chicago in a weird way. Don’t love the pizza, though.
When do you get a sense of achievement?
That’s a good question. It’s a hard question to answer. I think the achievement comes when the work leaves the studio and arrives where it’s supposed to be shown—when it’s all together. It’s almost like planning a dinner party—it doesn’t really come together ’til everybody’s seated at the table. Then, in a weird way, it takes a life of its own. And that’s why I think we love dinner parties so much. I think we’re at this point now.
We are at the dinner party.
We are at the dinner party.
Gary Simmons’ “Public Enemy” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, on view through October 1.