Charles Simonds's New York Dwellings and his mysterious absence from contemporary discourse.
At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Charles Simonds were among those artists who applied the principles of Land Art and site-specificity to the contemporary urban context of the East Coast. All three artists were motivated by a similar ambition to do away with the traditional ontology of the viewing experience and to renegotiate the relationship between the artwork and its context. Although close friends who naturally influenced each other (Simonds and Matta-Clark shared a studio building from 1969 to 1971), the artists’ individual positions regarding the phenomenological locus and intentions of their work varied drastically. While Smithson and Matta-Clark geared parts of their art production toward a gallery context, Simonds had a markedly more conflicted relationship with the art establishment and the circumstances in which his work should or should not be experienced. He wanted his work to be encountered unexpectedly out in the streets, beyond an institutional framework pre-conditioning the viewer’s behavior.
In 1970 he began building Dwellings first in the streets of SoHo and then on the Lower East Side—miniature villages in unfired clay, homes to an imaginary civilization that Simonds called “the Little People.” Spending months working in the streets of the LES, he became a recognizable neighborhood presence and created over 200 Dwellings, which usually disappeared days or weeks after their meticulous making. Despite his continued reluctance to show in institutional environments, Simonds rose to fame in the 1970s, and exhibited at the Whitney, Paris, and Venice Biennials, Documenta 6, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Jeu de Paume, and so forth. All the more reason to be struck by the peculiar absence of Simonds’s work in today’s discourse. While Smithson and Matta-Clark have come to represent the status-quo, largely credited with the redefinition of site-specificity and the disposal of the white cube, Simonds is perceived as the somewhat odd dreamer, operating on the margins, whose fantasy world could not withstand the reality of the system. Simonds’s puzzlingly complex, erudite, and radical practice encompassed utopian proposals for alternate ways of living and surrealist (yet realized) community projects, combined with an overarching acute civic responsibility and a formal inventiveness.
Simonds's absence from today’s discourse is not due to a naiveté or lack of ambition of the work. While the artist’s skepticism in regard to the art world certainly plays a part, the actual reasons might reside in the formal nature of his production. At the same time when Simonds started building his Dwellings, such feminists as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and Lucy Lippard observed and theorized a "female imagery” based around central-core imagery and empty centers, sensuously tactile aspects, a preponderance of circular forms, and a tendency for formal fragmentation that they found to be more prevalent in art made by women. Through the invention of a miniature people and their small-scale world, as well as the use of malleable materials, Simonds's production reflects many of the characteristics of Chicago's, Shapiro's and Lippard's findings. His exposure of the works to the elements, and to the often violent, if well-meaning, intervention of passers-by (akin to the situation familiar to all women in which "compliments" are shouted at us in the streets), rendered his works intrinsically precarious.
The work of Smithson and Matta-Clark continues to propagate the image of a mythic artist figure fetishized by proponents of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism: large to monumental scale, clear-cut shapes, and industrial materials employed in the name of an idealized modernity. It is not by chance that Simonds's work turned out to be indigestible to a historical narrative constructed through superlative and hyperbolic notions of power and violent rupture.
Stephanie Weber is an art historian and curator based in New York. She recently organized a screening and discussion around Charles Simonds's work as part of the Modern Mondays Series at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.