Installation view of “Diane Simpson” (2016), Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago (all photos by Tom Van Eynde)

CHICAGO – I was in Chicago for two days and wanted to see as much art as I could. On Saturday, a friend and I went to the exhibition Diane Simpson at Corbett vs. Dempsey (September 9 – October 15, 2016), which I didn’t want to miss, as her work is seldom shown in New York. The next day, the same friend and I went to Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago, where I saw a group of sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, including “Golden Bird” (1919-20) on a pedestal (1922) that was added later, and “Leda” (1920), which is an elegantly carved white marble form (a swan) resting on a round concrete base.


Whoever thought that Carl Andre’s joyless, hug-the-floor sculpture was the logical culmination of Brancusi got it wrong. This kind of thinking strikes me as macho, competitive, and prescriptive. It’s an authoritarian narrative that brooks no discussion. There are myriad narratives spinning out of Brancusi (not just one based on purely formal issues), and the idea, as expressed in the combinations of his sculptures and bases, that one thing could be put on top of another. That is to say, when one artist talks to another through his or her work, the conversation doesn’t have to be one-sided and parsimonious, or male and bullying.

Installation view of “Diane Simpson” (2016), Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago (click to enlarge)

A number of sculptors didn’t follow the line of thinking supposedly integral to Minimalism. Rather, they coaxed sculpture — which seemed to have nowhere else to go — into the uncategorizable field of discrete objects, and they didn’t give up on craft. I am thinking about Diane Simpson, Martin Puryear, Richard Rezac, Robert Gober, and Patrick Strzelec, just to name a few. They are the elephant in the room of contemporary sculpture and it seems that few people want to talk about what they have in common.

As I stood in front of the installation of Brancusi’s work, all gathered on a white surface that isolated the gaggle from the museum’s wooden floors and added reflective light to the variegated surfaces and textures of wood, bronze, marble, and concrete, I was reminded of the thoughtful installation of Simpson’s sculptures, which was on a similar white surface at Corbett vs. Dempsey.

Among the various reviews of Simpson that I have read, none mention the complex dialogue she is having with Brancusi. Why is that? Are we so stuck in hierarchical thinking that we have decided that — as a late arriver — she is doomed to lose? Think again. As I see it, Simpson more than holds her own with Brancusi (as does Martin Puryear). Their dialogue has to do with art, not with who did what first — which can quickly become a tiresome conversation.

Simpson, who is eighty, has been exhibiting her sculptures and drawings for more than thirty-five years, mostly in Chicago. Since the 1970s, working without assistants, she has been constructing sculptures that explore the echoes between clothing and architecture, both of which are enclosures that are supposedly meant to liberate us. Her materials include fiberboard, copper, plywood, galvanized steel, rivets, aluminum, linoleum, canvas, Velcro, high density foamboard, pencil, and acrylic. No marble or bronze. No carved wood.

Installation view of “Diane Simpson” (2016), Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago

Here is where I think the dialogue between Simpson and Brancusi gets more interesting. Brancusi’s was “not [interested in] the outer form but the idea, the essence of things.” Simpson, on the other hand, is interested in the outer form — the muff Elizabethan women once wore to keep their forearms and hands warm; tunics; Samurai armor, catcher’s mitts. Brancusi was focused on the idealized form, the purest expression of a thing, while Simpson is interested in garments and architecture — what we use to protect ourselves against the elements and others. Function and decoration are entangled both in clothing design and building facades.

The five freestanding sculptures and one wall piece, and their accompanying drawings, in Simspon’s current exhibition are collectively titled “Peplum” and numbered. In ancient Greece, a peplum was a loose-fitting outer garment or tunic worn, draped in folds, by women. In the modern era, it can mean a short skirt or full flounce attached to a bodice or jacket, and meant to cover the hips. In all of the freestanding sculptures, Simpson establishes a lively conversation between the pedestal (or legs) and the peplum (or outerwear encasing the body), which comprises most, if not all, of the sculpture. The subject is the torso, and how it is hidden and uncovered, simultaneously imprisoned and stripped bare, revealing, in Simpson’s case, an absent body.

In the wall sculpture “Peplum III” (2014), the subject is simultaneously a pleated skirt and an architectural ornament. The sharply angled hem of the gray pleats — jutting planes — evokes severity, while the black interior of a shallow, box-like form above it, which is mounted to the wall and open on the right side, invites inspection. Severity, voyeurism, curiosity, and planarity mingle together with a subtly worked surface. In Simpson’s domain, there is no ideal form but there are many kinds of containers, forms that both adorn and shape.

Diane Simpson, “Peplum VI” (2016), screws, enamel. spunbound polyester, crayon, plywood, and oil stain, 65 x 57 x 21 inches

Simpson’s materials are essential to the meanings she literally and metaphorically folds into the work. The rows of screws in “Peplum VI” (2016) are simultaneously functional and decorative. The scored and folded planes of the LDF in “Peplum V” (2016), or the fiberboard in “Peplum I” (2014), underscore the stiffness of the form framing the body. The angled planes thrusting outward at the tops of her sculptures suggest open lids, as well as dress patterns (diagrams for a seamstress) turned into three-dimensional objects. I would also suggest that, in the way her sculptures are sectioned into planes, that she rhymes seamstress with sculptor, pattern maker with carpenter and architect. Her use of blacks and grays with metallic and earth tones furthers the connection to architecture, even as the mesh surfaces and sharp angles underscore a lightness of touch. Her use of mesh and perforated planes underscore both the body’s absence and rigidity. At times, the shapes recall robots, Hugo Ball’s dada costumes, or the art deco furniture you might see in a Carole Lombard comedy.

In order to create these sculptures, which require precise planning, Simpson works everything out on graph paper. Merging the talents of a fashion designer and an architect, she makes drawings that resemble instructions on how to build a model out of a kit, or, as in origami, fold a sheet of paper into a fantastical creature. Unfolding, opening, and revealing — none of Simpson’s pieces is solid or completely enclosed. We are invited to peer in, look through, and examine. Simpson compresses so many kinds of looking and reflection into a single piece. I cannot think of many artists who can do that.

Diane Simpson continues at Corbett vs. Dempsey (1120 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 15.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...