interview by GLENN O’BRIEN
portrait by SANDY KIM
All images courtesy of Salon 94, New York
Laurie Simmons is a photographer and filmmaker, one of what Prince — the musician, not the artist — might have called the “new power generation” of women artists. She is also identified with the “Pictures Generation” of artists exploring the role of imagery in an era of mass media. Her photographic work started with dollhouse pictures. She created tableaux using dolls and dollhouses, toy cowboys, dummies, and props, resulting in microcosms of commentary on domestic roles, situations and stereotypes. In 2001, with the architect Peter Wheelwright, she created her own ideal dollhouse decorated with miniature art and furniture provided by contemporary artists and designers. In 2009 she began a series called The Love Doll featuring a state-of-the-art adult doll from Japan. It was classic Simmons, but almost 3D/HD in intensity.
In 2006, Simmons directed her first film, Music of Regret, an incredibly eclectic work that featured among many other elements Meryl Streep, Alvin Ailey dancers, puppets, and Ed Lachman, the star cinematographer.
In 2009 Laurie’s daughter, Lena, now one of HBO’s biggest stars, made the film Tiny Furniture, featuring her mother as one of the stars and definitely as a muse. She kindly went along with the gag. I first met Laurie Simmons because we were both represented by the agency Art + Commerce, which, as its name suggests, straddles the line. She has never shied away from making fashion pictures, or collaborating with designers like Thakoon and Peter Jensen. I’ve gotten to know Laurie and her husband, the impeccably provocative painter Carroll Dunham, much better since we became neighbors in Northern Connecticut, and I take great solace in their energetic eccentricities. I talked to her at my house in the woods on a hot summer day. She had just come over so her dog Dean could have a swim in my pool. Dean is really sweet and has degenerative myelopathy. He doesn’t walk so well anymore, but he really motors around the pool and loves it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So here we are, like Dante, in a dark wood, midway on life’s highway. You’ve just returned from the Venice Biennale. Tell us about your experience there as a veteran of the art wars.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Venice is like everyone you’ve ever known crowded onto one small island. And it can get claustrophobic. But the beauty of Venice is that you can always turn a corner and be completely alone. So at your lowest point, where you’re the most saturated with people and art and events, you can find yourself in the middle of a place you’ve never been before, even if you’ve been to Venice 100 times.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I wonder if there’s ever been a Biennale that was flooded out.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, this one almost was. It was cold. It was rainy. It was wet even when it wasn’t raining. People seemed kind of miserable. But I would take that Biennale over the one that was 110 degrees.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you think eventually the Biennale will be held on barges, floating over where Venice used to be?
LAURIE SIMMONS — That’s a really good question. Because the climate seems like one of the only issues worth discussing right now. It’s amazing it doesn’t get discussed more. But all of our favorite places by the sea, where are they going to be?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Maybe that’s why we’re hill people. Your beautiful home here — what’s the altitude? It’s about 1,000 feet. Maybe 900 feet? We’re at almost 1,300 feet here.
LAURIE SIMMONS — In 100 years it will we be a seaside town. Is that possible?
GLENN O’BRIEN — No, but we’ll be more like Greenwich. So, tell me about your summer project… You’re going to make a movie?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I started… I shot the first scene on May 7th. I went to Yale and shot a scene with my students, because I knew they were going away. Then I decided that I would look at the first scene, and see if I wanted to go on. Now I want to make the movie, but I have to get the money, the actors… This film has to be shot in the summer. But I have to shoot it or forget about it, because I can’t be obsessed with it. It’s interfering with everything else.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Are you writing the script yourself?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yes, entirely myself. Lena said she would help, but she didn’t have the time. The script is done. I have to get it out of my system.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Why would you not?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Just knowing the basic, almost monumental, mythological explosion that shooting a movie causes in your life — your personal life, your creative life, your psychic life. It’s probably like a drug addiction.
GLENN O’BRIEN — But everybody in your life is so good at improv. I would think that you could make a good feature in about a week.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, I have a script. I wish that I could make it in a week. That would be the best thing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s the story?
LAURIE SIMMONS — The story is about a woman of a certain age…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Is a certain age … your age?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yes. It’s about a woman who goes away for the summer to make her art. Her work is a kind of series of stills that involves her dressing up like characters, but she’s very anxious to point out that it’s not like Cindy Sherman, it’s her own thing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So any resemblance to Cindy is just purely coincidental.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, she’s definitely not Cindy because she hasn’t had success in her life. Her whole life, she’s been making work. But her goal at this point in her life is to have a show and a review. It’s not how many shows I’m having this year and how good the reviews are. It’s like one show and a review in a magazine where her work is acknowledged. She showed her work maybe a dozen years ago. But now she’s a very beloved teacher. She has tons of friends. She’s not married; she’s not in a relationship.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Are you going to show her work?
LAURIE SIMMONS — It’s funny. I was just talking about this very thing with my daughter today, because I made the pictures that the character, Siri, which I played in Tiny Furniture, had in her studio. I remember making these pictures and thinking that they had to be able to be seen on the wall, and I thought, “This is fake art for a movie.” So I’m really thinking a lot about the art that the character that I’ve written makes in this movie, which is called My Art, and wondering…
GLENN O’BRIEN — How good it should be?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yeah … [laughs] how good it should be or if it could stand on its own. And, if it is art that could stand on its own, can it be interesting to a moviegoer?
GLENN O’BRIEN — My advice on her work is that you should make it really fucking kill. Really good. I hate it when I see a movie about a fictional artist, and the work isn’t right for the character. I didn’t even like Rainer Fetting’s Willem Dafoe paintings in To Live and Die in L.A.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, Billy Sullivan made the work for … was it As Good As It Gets?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes, I think so. And that really worked because the Greg Kinnear character was sort of Billy-like, in a way.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yeah. But I want to know what movie you think portrays an artist accurately. I think it’s never, ever done right. Ever!
GLENN O’BRIEN — My favorite is The Horse’s Mouth.
LAURIE SIMMONS — I knew you would say that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Alec Guinness plays the painter in the Joyce Cary novel. And Guinness actually wrote the script.
LAURIE SIMMONS — But what did you think about Basquiat? That would be the only film where somebody could get it right, because Julian Schnabel is an artist and he…
GLENN O’BRIEN — But it’s so not right. It really irks me, that movie.
LAURIE SIMMONS — What did he get wrong in portraying an artist?
GLENN O’BRIEN — I like Julian. I like his work. I like his other films. And he made some pretty good Basquiats, which he had to destroy later. My problem with the film is that I see it as Julian’s pre-emptive strike on art history, making himself Basquiat’s mentor. I must say I think he missed Basquiat’s joie de vivre and the force of his personality.
LAURIE SIMMONS — I know. But portraying an artist on film, a fictionalized version of an artist is such a difficult thing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Pollock was pretty good.
LAURIE SIMMONS — You thought so? I always feel like making art is so over-dramatized. Most of the artists I know have their TVs on while they’re making their work. They’re watching their whatever, morning shows, late night shows…
GLENN O’BRIEN — I used to watch Basquiat paint. He liked company. He had the TV on and the stereo blasting, and he was talking to people, and getting high. It was very cinematic. A lot of the language in the work came from what one might consider the distractions in the studio. Maybe the TV was really an oracle.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, that’s the thing. You’ve seen artists work. Most people haven’t, and they don’t have a clue about what an artist does. GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. An abstract artist, who is a friend, used to stop me on the street and grill me, “What are you listening to, man?” I think for him it was just go in the studio and maybe have a smoke and pump up the volume. LAURIE SIMMONS — That’s one of the ways.
GLENN O’BRIEN — But how’s your artist going to work… What’s her process?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, what I want for her is to actually make art in real time. She’s kind of a mild-mannered character. She’s well mannered, considerate, typical of her generation in the sense that she thinks about being polite, she thinks about being a nice person, and the only time she really exhibits like real aggression or cojones (for lack of another word; what a terrible thing to say about a woman) is when she’s making her work. Then she’s in full control. So the least-scripted parts of my movie are the parts when the protagonist is making her work, because I really want it to feel like she’s doing it in real time. And she will be.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Is that when you most feel your cojones, Laurie, when you’re making your work?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Uh … no.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Like this character?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Not really.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So she ain’t you.
LAURIE SIMMONS — No, she’s not me. But I feel like I know her. I feel like she… I could have been her.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So this is somebody who could have done better. It’s sort of a tragedy.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, I feel like she still has a chance. That’s the kind of thing I think about. When you reach a point in your life — and regret is and always was one of my main subjects — you reach a point, and you wonder: “Have all my efforts not paid off? Do I have to accept the fact that it’s over? The things that I thought would happen… Do I have to retrace my steps and understand what happened, understand that there were certain paths I didn’t take? That it’s just not going to happen at this point.”
GLENN O’BRIEN — So you don’t know whether your heroine will succeed or fail in the end of your film?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I do. But I don’t want to give away the ending. I know that she meets some people along the way that help her with her work. She meets a man in particular who helps her with her work. But in a Hollywood movie, the happy ending would be that she found her relationship. I don’t know how many women around my age necessarily see that as the happy ending.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Will there be any inkling of the other side of art? Like the dealers, the collectors, the critics…
LAURIE SIMMONS — Just in a really offhand way… It’s really about her and her journey and her process of making the art. There is a scene where she turns up at an opening, and she has lots of artist friends who she mostly talks to on the phone, because in the world she lives in, nobody ever gets to see each other. They’re too busy. And she has some encounters with some younger artists who are far more successful, so you can see her dealing with that in her face and in her body language. How do you deal with constantly coming up against people that are younger than you and have achieved more. How do you regard yourself in the midst of all that?
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s an interesting subject. I have these issues, I guess. I saw This Is the End and laughed my butt off but was kind of guiltily jealous. Who are the young successful artists she encounters?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, they’re made up. One of them is an artist, another is an actress. Real artists will turn up in the film, like in some of the group scenes where we may not have actors to play various artists. But some artists can act, and if they can, they can be in my movie. I’ve written a part for Laurel Nakadate, for example, and Matthew Weinstein.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you get your cojones off more from making film than photographic work?
LAURIE SIMMONS — No. I like both. My sister is a doctor, and this week I’m going to her hospital to shoot these medical dummies that doctors practice resuscitation on. The pictures will be for a show at Gallery Met that’s opening in September. It’s at Lincoln Center and curated by Dodie Kazanjian. Various artists have made art that pairs with operas. A lot of people have done projects. George Condo and Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons and Elizabeth Peyton. So this week I’m shooting pictures to go with an opera called Two Boys, which is a really crazy Internet (attempted) murder story that took place in England in 2003. Nico Muhly is a young composer, and he made an opera out of the story. It opened in London two years ago, and now it’s opening at the Met in September. So I am going to do pictures inspired by the opera and am shooting those this week. I’m really excited. So both the film thing and the still thing continue to be satisfying.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do the dummies look lifelike at all?
LAURIE SIMMONS — They don’t. They have really strange faces and bodies, and seem like a really good way to interpret this Two Boys story in my mind. But they look about as lifelike as those ventriloquist dummies that I worked with in the ’90s and then again in my movie. There’s a way that the heads are carved, and they have the right hair and the nose and the eyes. They’re life like enough that you don’t get scared, but they’re kind of stand-ins for people in a good way.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Your Japanese series had stand-ins for people in a perhaps good way, too. That was a doll that was designed to provoke desire.
LAURIE SIMMONS — I think she was designed to satisfy desire.
GLENN O’BRIEN — She was pretty. But these things… what emotion do their looks induce?
LAURIE SIMMONS — The medical dummies?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah yeah. Do they have an expression on their face? Do you want them to die or do you want them to pull through?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I think if you’re a young doctor and you’re practicing on those dummies that you definitely want them to pull through. They have a kind of everyman, -boy, -girl look. But at the same time, I have to be careful when I’m shooting them because they are kind of terrifying as well. I don’t know what they were doing before they had these dummies. But it is really weird… I mean, they have lungs that inflate and hearts that beat; they can sweat, shed tears, pee, and they have a pulse.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It sounds to me like we’re in a place where sculpture could go back to Greek representation of the human figure, but you could take its blood pressure, you could actually fuck it, and maybe you could talk to it. Do you think we’ll go there?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, I think we would call that a “friend.” [laughs]
GLENN O’BRIEN — No, but it would be art… an art friend. It could be introduced as art, because it would be very expensive. Right? No, it probably would be mass-produced like the iPod.
LAURIE SIMMONS — I think there’s so much going on with robot technology. I think the kind of thing you just described is not that far away. I was just listening to a show on NPR, and I read a little bit about living infrastructures of cities, cities that can repair themselves, where the materials know when they’re cracked and how to regenerate. Have you read about this?
GLENN O’BRIEN — What if the building gets cancer?
LAURIE SIMMONS — That’s a problem.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It starts taking over the whole block. I don’t know that I want buildings to be that smart. What if they hear they’re being torn down?
LAURIE SIMMONS — But a bridge that has a crack and understands that, and then can rebuild it…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Shouldn’t the bridge just say loudly, “I’m cracked.”
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yeah, the bridge should just shriek, “I’m cracked.” I know. It’s less scary.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You’ve pulled together a major exhibition of photographs by Jimmy DeSana who is one of the best-kept secrets of the ’80s. He was huge for my generation but died so young. It’s amazing that his work is so little known. Tell us about your relationship with Jimmy DeSana.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Jimmy DeSana was a photographer and close friend who died of AIDS in 1990. We met on the A train when a group of friends were heading for the Far Rockaway beaches. We decided on the subway we would subdivide a funky loft in Soho. We both had darkrooms, and he basically taught me everything I know about photography. He left all his work to me, and the Jimmy DeSana Trust was created. Before he died I photographed him in a camera suit for my photograph The Walking Camera (JIMMY THE CAMERA).
GLENN O’BRIEN — What did you see in his work?
LAURIE SIMMONS — There is certainly intense content, sexual and otherwise, and I’ve always been aware of that. But there is also an exquisite formalism and spectacular color and a way he made his subjects participate in a kind of rigorous balletic narrative — this gorgeous graceful dance occurs regardless of who they are. I don’t know how he did it. He was so mild-mannered yet he got people to do all kinds of things for him.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What did you take from his work?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Color, color, color!
GLENN O’BRIEN — What did you do with him? Did you pose for him?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I did pose for him, but that was just because I was always hanging around trying to learn things — so it was to his advantage to find a use for me. I never thought of myself as his muse. I was kind of scrawny and androgynous. But now in hindsight I think I may have been some kind of muse. I was just so willing and unresisting and relaxed about it all.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Why wasn’t he revived before you put together a show of his work?
LAURIE SIMMONS — There were several small attempts here and there, but when I received the estate in its entirety I told myself it would take 20 years. We needed younger artists to find their way to him and that’s what’s happening now. I love that in art you really can’t force your agenda on anyone. Eyes need to be ready to see.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Tell me about your dollhouses. I find them really magical, like a voodoo, mojo kind of magical. How did they come to exist?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Do you mean my interest in dollhouses in my work? Some of it is just real estate, meaning you look through the camera lens and start to explore the dollhouse and you’re in a huge new place without ever having to leave your chair — so many new doors, rooms, staircases, windows. I think I was feeling some virtual reality a little before its time. There’s also an issue of control. I can literally knock this entire scene over with my pointer finger — and I often do. And I agree with you. There is something magical and mystical about finding these new places that take up more room in your mind than in your house.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When did you realize that you were a stage mom?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, I’m not a stage mom…
GLENN O’BRIEN — No, I mean when did you know that Lena was going for it?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I think at South by Southwest.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Not before that? She wasn’t like 10 and putting on a show or something?
LAURIE SIMMONS — She and her sister did put on many excruciating plays in the living room — as most kids do. They both had some acting talent, and I took each girl for one audition they’d been invited to, and I sat where there were mothers and kids, and each time I thought to myself: “If they want to do this, they have to do this on their own because I am not sitting here. This is just not right.” But Lena was always a writer. And we still think of her at home as a really, really extraordinary writer. So we still feel like she’s acting out her own plays and directing her own plays. But we see the soul of a writer. I think that’s her identity.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Was she a diarist?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yes. Lots of plays. Lots of stories. Lots of diaries. Lots of plans. She just wrote all the time. Because she didn’t have very many friends, she’d spend a lot of time at home, and she hung out there with lots of time to write and think. But I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what she would be when she grew up — or Grace either. I just figured … whatever will be, will be. I feel like there’s something kind of unseemly about trying to point your kids in a direction…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Is it harder for a husband and wife when they’re both artists?
LAURIE SIMMONS — It’s meant to be hard, but we just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I mean, obviously. You’re a success.
LAURIE SIMMONS — The reason I think it works is that it would take another artist to understand the sheer misery of an artist who is not doing their work. This is true if you’re a writer or a musician or whatever. Probably for an actor, too … it must be really tough if you’re not getting work. But after a certain point, if you haven’t been going into your studio or writing, practicing, playing, you start to implode in a really bad way. Sometimes you’re dejected, you’re purposely keeping yourself away from your work, and it’s really amazing to have another person say, “You have to do your work, otherwise you’re not going to feel better — that’s why you’re feeling like shit.” So I think in that sense, two artists together sort of works really well, because you understand both the highs and the lows and the rhythm. It’s not like artists go into their studio every single day and pick up a paintbrush or a camera. There’s a rhythm to the way you work. And there are also these really awful times when there’s absolutely nothing — your muse is gone, hidden in the woods somewhere — and that’s really awful. So it’s kind of great to have someone else who picks up on that. As for jealousy or envy, there’s often one person who’s up and the other is down, and how do you negotiate those periods? It’s really hard.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you and Carroll ever talk about one another’s work? Ask for an opinion or a critique? How does that go down?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I often wander uninvited into his studio and look at a picture and just kind of free associate about what I think I’m looking at. He likes that. I appreciate that he wants to know what I see — meaning he wants more of a kid-type spontaneous reaction than a dialogue about the way things are painted or a discussion about historical context. He’s interested in the first raw response.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you ever ask your daughters about work you’re making?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I will more typically e-mail or text them an image and say, “Look what I just made,” and then they’ll say, “That’s amazing, Mom.” It’s a reversal of when they were kids and used to show me their art projects, and I was always like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen!”
GLENN O’BRIEN — Does Lena ever ask you before it’s done or after?
LAURIE SIMMONS — She asks me less and less. I actually don’t think she has the time to ask me. I used to be pretty honest with her about her film work prior to her TV show, because I always feel that when the performances aren’t that strong you just lose people — they’re gone no matter how good the writing is.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think we met because we were both represented by Art + Commerce. You were one of the few artists who did commercial work. Now it’s standard.
LAURIE SIMMONS — I’ve always been all about the interface between art and commerce. I always wanted to shoot fashion. I always wanted to make toys. I always wanted to do all of that stuff, even in the days when it was considered a step down or embarrassing. And back in the day, I never got the amount of fashion work I really wanted to get, and I was like, “I’m desperate to do this; bring it on — just give it to me!” I’ve always supported the crossover. I believe in it. And I feel like all the worlds have come together in a certain way. I mean, those other worlds certainly have flocked to the art world to have fun. All you have to do is go to the Venice Biennale or Miami-Basel, and you’ll see just how many parties, projects, and events are being sponsored by off-worlders.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Artists can give good input to a corporation. They can sort of nudge it a little bit.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, one of the really wild, out-of-control ego things about artists is that we think we’re allowed to do everything. I am allowed to write an article for Artforum, design a toy, design a pair of shoes, collaborate with a fashion designer, write music, direct a movie, write a movie. But I really don’t like it when anyone else tries to make a painting… Artists don’t like other people trying to do what they can do, but they really think that they can do everything. Design a building. Fly…
GLENN O’BRIEN — You don’t make paintings.
LAURIE SIMMONS — No. But I could!
GLENN O’BRIEN — I dare you.
LAURIE SIMMONS — I’ll make you a painting.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s your star sign?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Libra.
GLENN O’BRIEN — And what does that mean?
LAURIE SIMMONS — It means that too many artists have birthdays right around the time of my birthday, so it’s hard to schedule a birthday party because there are so many Libran artists.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s your rising sign?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Scorpio.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, that’s more important.
LAURIE SIMMONS — Yeah. My husband is a Scorpio. But Librans are very fair.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you read any astrologers? Are you a Susan Miller follower?
LAURIE SIMMONS — No. I go to a different astrologer.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Who foresaw a great destiny for you?
LAURIE SIMMONS — Well, when I first came to New York, when I was 22, I went to the Ansonia Hotel, which used to be full of psychics. I went to a woman called Reverend Woodbury, and then I went to a man called Reverend Biaz. They both predicted that I would have a big career. Reverend Woodbury said, “You know, honey, get a good agent, because Picasso had a really good agent.” [laughs] I thought, “What is wrong with this woman?” Then she said, “Join the Camera Club.” She kept saying, “Join the Camera Club.”
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s good. That’s a good psychic.
LAURIE SIMMONS — This is before I ever picked up a camera. And I said, “Why?” Because the Camera Club was where, as far as I knew, men got together to take pictures of naked models. It was gross. She said, “Because you need to meet people.” Join the Camera Club. So I think she just got her wires crossed.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What do you think your generation of women artists accomplished?
LAURIE SIMMONS — The most important thing we did as women was to make strong work at the same time. I always figured, quite simply, that a group of women who didn’t necessarily know each other all decided at the same time not to make paintings.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do Lena and Grace’s generations have exciting artists yet?
LAURIE SIMMONS — I think it’s in the nature of the beast that if our daughters’ generation has what you refer to as a “great undiscovered genius,” or even some exciting artists, they would be invisible to us. We’re not supposed to be able to see that right away. That would be just plain wrong. We have to be led there.
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