“I Build Ruins”: Charles Simonds and the Dwellings of his Little People
A review of Dwelling by Charles Simonds
There’s a clay thumbprint on the title page of my copy of Dwelling, the newly published memoir by Charles Simonds. It is an appropriate signature, in that Simonds, a sculptor now in his 70s, has been making works out of mud and clay—often deploying his own body—for more than half a century. This 84-page book, handsomely designed by Leslie Miller of Grenfell Press and containing an afterword by Christopher Lyon, has been published by Walther König, Cologne. The title is apt as well, in that for decades Simonds has been making miniature encampments, out of clay, for a fantasized tribe of what he calls “little people.” Along the way, he is making a sort of home for himself.
Born in Manhattan in 1945, educated at Berkley in the 1960s and then at art school at Rutgers, Simonds has been, by his own admission, rather obsessed with constructing habitats of the mind and the body—early on, he buried himself, naked, in an abandoned clay pit. In those days Simonds was part of the SoHo art scene—he was very close to Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson, and knew Philip Glass and Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. But despite the backing of a collector Harry Torczyner, and support from Holly Solomon, who commissioned one of his first works for her home in SoHo, and even though he was living with art critic Lucy Lippard, Simonds and the scene didn’t fully mesh. With minimalism beginning to flourish, Simonds took another path. A community activist since his Berkley days, he extended his political work with communities into doing art in the streets of the impoverished Lower East Side. Those were where Simonds built his first dwellings, miniature housing complexes, huts and stairways made out of small cubes of unfired clay, shaped by hand in broad daylight, with local kids and workmen curiously looking on–by his own account (confirmed in a film by Rudy Burckhardt), with recognition. In a dialogue recorded on East 2nd Street for another film from that period, an awe-struck street kid, watching Simonds at work, says, “I’ve never seen this before, you know. For the first time in my life I’ve seen this, you know.” Simonds’s fantasies about these havens for an imaginary people enacted a social transaction with real people who themselves might be fantasizing a different world.
The people of the street became witnesses for the migration of the people of the artist’s mind, and he seemed only secondarily interested in a transaction with an art audience. His little people (who are never visible, never material) move, in his understanding, from dwelling to dwelling. There are those who live on the window-ledge dwellings he makes high up (“the Cliff-Dwellers”) and those who live in encampments on the street and gutter (“the “Shepherds”). As soon as he started making these structures, in 1969, Simonds writes, “It was the safest place I’d ever been.” He went on to make them, as his memoir documents in vivid prose, in Paris, East Berlin (in the shadow of the Berlin Wall), Shanghai, Antwerp, Genoa, and many other locales. Although each story told in Dwelling involves community engagement , and the community’s wonderment and at times disapproval of what this soft-spoken, enchanted American is up to, this memoir is more than an artist’s installation notes. Interspersed throughout are candid reflections, including “Riffs and Rants,” that deal with family, friends, and art world acquaintances. For example, he “silently suffers” the presence of a poseur colleague “with his Karl Marx beard and French worker’s jumpsuit” and other “macho artists who couldn’t even drive a car and had to be chauffeured about.” Lucy Lippard (to whom the book is dedicated) is unstinting in her support, but Simonds ran afoul of some “crassly feminist artists” who objected to his eroticized, Adamic works in flesh and mud.
Simonds is the child of two psychoanalysts, and evident in both his practice and his choice of material is a very primal exploration of origins. Samuel Beckett once remarked about his own work, “I take away all the incidentals because I want to come to the bedrock of essentials.” Beckett only found mud, all the way down, which Simonds could have told him! But in mud and soil Simonds finds at least a measure of security. The very first chapter of Dwelling can be read as a reenactment of his first dwelling, the womb, in Birth, arguably the artist’s originary work. Buried in the soft, clinging, wet clay of New Jersey, Simonds at first enjoys his “warm, silent sanctuary.” Then panic sets in, as the “longed-for, imagined womb” becomes a tomb. Simonds stands upright and is “reborn,” he writes. Ever since, “I build ruins, I give birth, create places of absence, abandonment, and death.”
The ephemeral nature of Simonds’s dwellings—they would inevitably be destroyed by weather, by vandals, or indifference—added to his social critique of gentrification, first in SoHo and then the Lower East Side, and underscored his sincerity as an artist trying to build community rather than real estate (or art). As it happens, sympathies for the displaced within their own habitats—the urban poor, predominantly a local issue in the 20th Century—is now among the most critical global issues of our time. People looking for safe havens, for dwelling places, in the face of war and climate upheaval, have never been more numerous. Finding a place for them might well begin with imagining one.
Charles Simonds, Dwelling, with an afterword by Christopher Lyon. (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2016). 84pp, 48 color images, ISBN 978-386335-8204, $29.95