Diane Simpson’s sculpture finds beauty of a different kind


I looked at the works in the exhibition Diane Simpson: Point of view, at the JTT (September 9 to November 13, 2021), when I realized that Diane Simpson, like Richard Hunt, who was also born in 1935, is little known in New York and that neither artist exhibits here regularly. Hunt, who had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971 – the first time the museum showed sculptures by a modern black artist – was not known in the New York art world. Currently, Simpson, who obtained her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 43 in 1978, had her first exhibition in New York in 1980 and has not exhibited in the city for nearly 35 years. is currently not in the museum’s collection.

There are many reasons for this neglect, starting with the publication of Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” (1965), the advent of minimalism and the reliance on fabrication and prefabricated objects. From 1977, while still studying, Simpson worked with flat shapes, initially with cardboard. At one point – I don’t know exactly when – she began using different densities of fiberboard along with other materials, including gatorboard, plywood, and various types of screws, rivets, felt, and canvas, all of which become visual components in her work. It has no assistants and does not rely on manufacturers to do its job. Given the unique collection of sculptures and drawings she has created over the past 40 years, and her independence of thought and action, it is high time a great institution gave Simpson the kind of in-depth consideration its work has long deserved .

Diane Simpson, “Roof Shape (Ise)” (2019), painted and stained LDF, perforated aluminum, canvas, colored pencil, 56.75 x 59.50 x 13 inches (Photo by Charles Benton; courtesy of the artist, JTT, New York, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Herald Street, London)

In the early 1980s, Simpson made a series of groundbreaking sculptures inspired by the armor the samurai wore in feudal Japan, working in a way that was unlike any other. Like two other Chicago sculptors I can think of – Margaret Wharton and Richard Rezac – Simpson belongs to a school of one.

Your process is a way of making art that we don’t honor enough. It starts with a photo she took. Using photography as a source, she translates what caught her attention into an axonometric projection drawing on gridded paper. This basically allows her to draw a pictorial drawing of a three-dimensional object that is rotated about one of its axes to reveal multiple pages. In Simpson’s drawings, the front and back of the sculpture always run parallel to the plane of the picture. By tilting the shape in the space of the drawing, she can determine the exact angle of the planes connecting the front and back, as well as conveying how the piece will look in space.

Installation view of Diane Simpson: Point of view at JTT, New York (courtesy JTT, New York)

Eleven sculptures and four drawings can be seen in the exhibition. Three of the drawings were started in either 1980 or ’81; the fourth, “Drawing for Costume # 2 (Architecture in Motion),” dates from 2019. Of the other three, “Drawing for a Roof Shape” (1980–2019) was completed almost 40 years after the first start – even though you would never know when looking at it. In the dating, you can feel that Simpson has many plans for sculptures, but not all of them, and that she is going back to earlier ideas.

In the two drawings for the sculpture “Two Point Enclosure” (2020), Simpson meticulously records the angle and size of the fiberboard she used for this two-dimensional work. On one of the drawings there are mathematical notations that seemingly leave nothing to chance. In the other drawing, the “rear view” of the work, she described it from a different angle. It’s like having to see the entire object in a drawing before moving on to the next step, which requires cutting the fiberboard into precise geometric shapes.

The result is puzzling. I sensed it was based on something Simpson had seen, but I had no idea which didn’t matter in the end. The fact that it defied definition was one of the reasons I kept walking around the piece and noticing the angles, the sharp contours, the internal relationships of the shapes, all in contrast to the browned surface of the fiberboard and the spacing the narrow vertical stripes delimiting the outer and inner planes.

Diane Simpson, “Two Point Enclosure” (2020), LDF, canvas, stain, paint, crayon, 62.25 x 50.75 x 11 inches (Photo by Charles Benton; courtesy of the artist, JTT, New York, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Herald Street, London)

“Two Point Enclosure” exists on a continuum between a three-dimensional shape made up of sharp-edged geometric shapes and a two-dimensional shape made up of intersecting planes. It is reminiscent of an unnamed architectural object that one could see on the outside of a building or in a factory without even realizing it. I imagine it serves as some kind of protection, but beyond that, I’m lost and more importantly, I don’t mind. As you walk around the work, your view changes radically, almost as if it existed in a slightly elongated angular space that is about to flatten out into a two-dimensional shape. This combination of two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality enlivens “Two Point Enclosure” by making the viewer aware that many of his views hover exactly between form and flatness despite all planarity.

In other works such as “Gridded Window” (2020), “Roof Shape (Ise)” (2019), “Portico” (2020) and “Three Windows (NYC)” (2020) the architectural reference can be more direct, but in Simpson’s translation into sculpture, something always happens. The title “Roof Shape (Ise)” suggests that the work was inspired by the time Simpson spent in Ise, Japan, where the Ise Grand Shrine, a complex of Shinto shrines, and many other Shinto shrines are located. Shrines are located. In many cases, the public is denied entry and can only see the roofs of these large glued-wood temples that do not use nails.

Installation view of Diane Simpson: Point of view at JTT, New York (courtesy JTT, New York)

And yet, even if that is the source, I never felt that Simpson was meant literally or metaphorically. Based on a photograph and a subsequent drawing, an associative transformation emerges that eludes any reductive reading. In a way, the procedures and humble materials she uses (wood fiber board, perforated aluminum, canvas, crayon, paint, and stain) honor the original builders of the Ise Grand Shrine without falling into imitation. I find your choices deeply moving. Her work conjures up a world where seeing something doesn’t mean you can own it. She recalls the anonymous work that went into many of the things that inspired her while creating formally impressive and inventive works of art. Simpson’s free work and ingenuity with their simple materials have something in common with the Shakers. In a world that is enthralled and entertained by material excesses, it shows us that there is another possibility.

Diane Simpson: Point of view continues at JTT (191 Chrystie Street, Manhattan) through November 13th.

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