New York

Gary Simmons

Metro Pictures

“Everything,” Michel Foucault once wrote about Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe, “is solidly anchored within a pedagogic space.” In “The Forest for the Trees,” Gary Simmons’s most recent New York show, the scene was set by four large-scale C-prints installed in the front room of the gallery. A seminar room, a lecture hall, a chemistry auditorium, a large classroom: Each photograph placed the viewer squarely before a typical university space. These classrooms, however, were empty. Moreover, they appeared outmoded—one’s eye settled on the flaking ceiling paint in the seminar room, the missing characters from a row of numbered chairs in the lecture hall, the faded periodical table in the chemistry auditorium. The space of pedagogy is old, it seems. It creaks.

With the photographs, Simmons seemed at pains to underscore a crucial foundation on which his ongoing series of “Erasure Drawings” stands. Executed in partially erased chalk on slate-painted surfaces, these works have continually focused on what we could call the scene of pedagogy. In this exhibit, one passed from the photographs of empty classrooms into a room completely filled with portable blackboards, dispersed randomly throughout the space at sharp angles to each other. Covered in Simmons’s ghostly, erased drawings, almost all the boards contained on one side an image of pine trees. The trees then framed the viewer’s encounter with the other drawings, most of which presented architectural fragments: a church, perhaps; a tower, maybe; boarded-up windows; a building replete with a courtyard, like a castle or, fittingly, a dormitory.

Much has been made of the supposed precursors for Simmons’s erasure technique: Robert Rauschenberg’s famous erased de Kooning; Cy Twombly’s and Joseph Beuys’s chalk scrawlings; Gerhard Richter’s blurred paintings of appropriated photographs. One might as well add Francis Picabia, who once had a chalk drawing that he made publicly erased—entitling the work, with a sneer at his audience, Riz au Nez (Laugh in Your Face), 1920. Simmons’s drawings, by contrast, seem deeply involved in a project we might still call poetic, with its evident attraction to the outmoded and auratic. From this vein stem some of the drawings’ most suspect qualities: a rhetoric of monumentality, expressionism, and faith in “process” that the art of the last twenty years has struggled to render untenable. Simmons’s current exhibition, however, displayed none of these shortcomings. Instead, we were treated to a marvelous demonstration of the signifying powers of Simmons’s chosen “medium.” Of course, the artist does not embrace a traditional medium. However, with the random sculptural arrangement of the two-sided blackboards, an absolute fragmentation was forced on the space of the gallery and the viewer’s experience alike. In a game of obstruction and unveiling, one could never see both sides of a single blackboard at the same time, nor could all the drawings in the exhibition space be seen at a single moment. This literal, experiential fragmentation echoed and deepened the obfuscations of the erasure drawings themselves, producing the reflexive quality usually associated with the notion of a medium. In stark contrast to “pedagogic space,” with its aims of absolute knowledge and totalizing positions, Simmons allowed no total views, offering up a machine for fragmentation and partial, situated, even disorienting perspectives. Not unlike Magritte—whose project might serve as a more compelling precedent here than the morphologically similar art so often invoked—Simmons does violence to the pedagogical function of representation, subtracting its foundational imperatives, suggesting that what is most important about representation is what one pilfers from it. What is most important is what one takes away.

George Baker