“I think, as an artist, if I can say I have heroes, he would definitely be one of them,” Gary Simmons told me last month, referring to Muhammad Ali, the boxer who died a few days before, at the age of 74. “The marks that he made, the statements that he made, the inroads that he made, I think, are things that any young artist wants to make with his work. He was big, he was brash, he was beautiful and dangerous. He was sexy.”
Simmons’s best work exudes exactly those qualities, and boxing has figured prominently in it. In the 1990s, he made a string of unforgettable sculptures and installations, like the 100-square-foot boxing ring Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994, a work that precisely presents urban streets as a place of combat—it has shoes slung over its ropes, as they would be on telephone lines in an inner city. And just two years ago there was the soaring mural at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Frozen in Time (2014), in which he painted the painful nicknames of long-past boxers—like Boston Tar Baby and Mahogany Mauler (Sam Langford, 1883–1956, and Joe Louis, 1914–81, respectively)—in white on a black field, the letters streaked in his trademark style so that they appeared to be dissolving, being brushed away like chalk on a chalkboard.
The act of forgetting—the quiet violence of it, even just the threat of it—is at the core of Simmons’s work. His art is about how memories and histories fade—how architecture and names, even seemingly simple words, hold traces of triumph and trauma that may be hiding in plan sight, waiting to be recalled.
In his current show, on view at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco through July 15, Simmons’s focus is on underground music, and the once-thriving communities within it that have disappeared, victims of time and new technologies. He has papered the walls of Meier’s stately townhouse gallery with wildly colored versions of posters for concerts from the past few decades—“pieces of London, New York, San Francisco, L.A.,” Simmons told me, speaking by phone from the gallery.
Simmons collected posters from all over, both online and on the street, to make the wallpaper, as well as a few discrete paintings. “The images get scanned, I move some stuff around, I’ll use different filters,” he said of his process. “At that point, it’s almost like one of my drawings.” Indeed, as in his “Erasure Drawings,” which he sometimes does directly onto walls—there’s a wide, glorious one at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium—the text swirls and blurs in these posters, as if someone is trying to picture the image in her head but only conjuring a color or a shape, a fragment of the real thing. He affixes the posters one on top of another with wheatpaste—“It’s done quite literally like you’d poster on the street,” Simmons said—and tears them in some places, resulting in fields of paper that recall the hunks of advertising that artists like Jacques Villeglé and Mimmo Rotella grabbed from the walls of European cities mid-century.
Many of the band names that appear in the gallery will be familiar only to aficionados of particular genres—they include Youth of Today, Eric B & Rakim, Freak Vibe, 7 Seconds, and Jello Biafra, the leader of the storied San Francisco punk band the Dead Kennedys.
Growing up in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, Simmons said, such concert flyers were a vital source of information. “I would discover things that were going on on the West Coast, like Black Flag and Flipper, by seeing posters on the street or listening to a mixtape,” he said. “Art was so localized. You knew the Detroit sound, you knew the D.C. Minor Threat stuff, you knew house music out of Chicago, you knew L.A., the Circle Jerks. It really resonated for me that you could say, ‘I want to listen to that surf punk stuff or hardcore hip-hop from up in the Bronx or Queens,’ and there was a way you received information. That fascinated me.”
His project could be seen as a memorial, of sorts, to those informal networks—small groups of fans, writers, concert bookers, and the like who traded tips, passed along records and cassettes, and offered up a couch for visiting bands to sleep on—the things that these days tend to happen strictly online, where ideas and trends are circulated throughout the world by Soundcloud rather than incubated in a single city.
Where were those posters taking him? “Everywhere from CBGBs to Danceteria,” Simmons said. “I remember seeing the Beastie Boys at Danceteria when they used to have this alternative band identity called Joe’s Jug Band. They were playing this weird Appalachian, washboard stuff, just bizarre music. At the same time we’d go to Funhouse and see Doug E. Fresh. Music, and the subculture, was so small and connected you could be at a straight-edge punk show early in the evening and then a hip-hop show at 1 a.m., and no one would bat an eye.”
But though there is a note of elegy to the work at Meier, there is also an element of celebration in the works. The explosive colors are as
radiant as the lights at a crowded club, and the text on them is a reminder of all these bands, as well as the concerts and the stories they generated,that are waiting to be unearthed.
As it happens, the project grew out of Simmons’s own recent foray into helping stage concerts. For the Prospect 3 triennial, in New Orleans in 2014, he presented a majestic sound system, a towering stack of speakers, in an abandoned warehouse along a highway in Tremé. He titled it Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, and during its run, a variety of musical acts used it. It was one of the highlights of the sprawling exhibition. “I think that that piece kind of became the springboard for a lot of this stuff, because a lot of the speakers and stuff were made out of found materials,” Simmons said, referring to his poster works.
Since the end of Prospect’s run early last year, the sound system has traveled the world, visiting other venues and amplifying other musicians, letting them play their music, of whatever type. Later this year it will come to the Southern Exposure arts space in San Francisco. At the end of each show, once the last band finishes and the power is switched off on the stack, it goes back to being a sculpture. Simmons said, “They leave the speakers in place and that becomes the memory, if you will, of the performance.”