21 Questions: Laurie Simmons

Photo-Illustration: Bordered: Photo: Danielle Barthélemy

New YorkThe “21 Questions” column is back with an eye on New York creatives. Laurie Simmons is an American artist, photographer, and filmmaker whose work tells stories of the inner lives of her characters in domestic settings she creates in dollhouses or other interiors of her own making. Simmons is part of the Pictures Generation, which rose to fame in the 70s and 80s by staging their work with props such as mannequins and dolls. His first movie, The music of regretwas a musical made with a coterie of friends that included Meryl Streep and a cast of Alvin Ailey dancers.

Last name: Laurie Simmons

Age: 72

Piece: Flatiron District

Occupation: Artist, photographer, filmmaker

What’s hanging above your couch?
Well, the couch moves around a lot, but in the recent past it’s been under a Kyle Staver, an Ellen Berkenblit, an Alan Turner, and a Guillaume Copley. We really move the couch a lot, but it’s the last move.

What was the first job you had in New York?
I once heard Leo Castelli giving a talk, and he said, “Real artists don’t have real jobs,” so I made sure I was just doing odd jobs – let’s call them jobs. surreal – all at once, like keeping a Bedlington terrier, wallpapering people’s houses à la Lucille Ball, working in a backgammon shop when I couldn’t play the game, having drinks, alone drinks, with businessmen. Can we even write that? To say I’ve always been broke is an absolute understatement.

What color are you always drawn to?
I am such a red person. I never got over the thrill of this color. I love a clear, true red, but I love all reds, and right now I love it paired with a robin blue.

What work of art or artefact are you most surprised to own?
We have a beautiful little drawing by Lucio Fontana in an old gold leaf frame that my husband bought at an auction years ago. I love him so much.

Which New Yorker would you like to date?
I would have loved to know Stephen Sondheim, but I’m just another die-hard fan. But I love every New Yorker I hang out with, my friends!

What’s the last thing you did with your hands?
Oh, that’s so funny because I was going to say I made the bed! I just made slime for my job, and I just made a collage with all the food accessories I’ve collected in my life, so I had to say goodbye to all that stuff.

Is there something you have multiple versions of?
Yes. Christy Rilling deconstructed silk pants in every color that blend in with my hubby’s identical pairs. I wear mine, but he wears his in the studio.

Which museum in New York do you always go to?
My first date with my husband, Carroll Dunham, was at The Cloisters, so I have a special feeling for this place. I love the Museum of the City of New York, where years ago I photographed the Stettheimer Dollhouse for Nest magazine. When I walk into the Guggenheim, I get as buzzy as the first day I saw it. The Studio Museum in Harlem is always fantastic. I resist giving a sentence about every museum in New York, but I will say that my visits are generally determined by the exhibits, rather than a single visit.

What do you always have next to your computer?
My coffee, my iPhone, my iPad and my dog, Penny.

Where is the best view in town?
An apartment we had in Williamsburg had a view of four bridges, and all I did when we lived there was watch the river and the skyline. I had a Marine Traffic app to identify boats; I had the Star Walk app to look at the stars, and I had the Slice app to find pizza in Williamsburg. Did you know there was a Slice app so you could find a slice anywhere?

What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?
Manhattan’s perimeter and its relationship to the river could certainly be redesigned; this one is always very frustrating for me. And on a micro level, I wish all my shoelaces were replaced with zippers and Velcro.

What is one thing you would change in your field?
The fusion of artistic brilliance and commercial success is truly the vomit emoji, and the art market doesn’t tell the story of great art.

If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?
When I was a kid I saw the musical evening primrose on TV. It was a made-for-television musical about a group of characters who lived secretly in the windows of a department store, and they’ve been pretending to be models all day and they’ve been out partying and playing cards and having elaborate meals all night. I just realized when I said that, it must have really had another influence on my work. And you know what’s amazing about that is that Stephen Sondheim wrote the music.

What would you do in reserve if it ceased to be produced?
On a personal level, Freya coffee from Oslo and No Place Like Chrome silver nail polish from Essie, which I’m already hoarding. For the studio, color gels for lighting and colored plexiglass, I would be lost without them, because color in a photograph is absolutely crucial in my work, and light is my painting, in fact.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I just live my life and wait. And sometimes I lay on the studio floor, and that’s the truth.

Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?
Oh my, it was on the Bowery between Broome and Spring, and the rent was $100 or $150.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
There’s such a long list because I’ve been finding places to be alone for so many years. I’ll just throw a few. There was Genroku conveyor belt sushi at 35th and 5th; I used to go there every Friday night and then go shopping alone at $10 Macy’s. Then for years it was always the Century 21 department store, wandering around, thinking, people watching, and there was this McDonald’s townhouse there with a pianist in a white tuxedo playing a white piano in the mezzanine, and you could sit there and listen to it and sip a McCappucino. I would stay away from the kids there.

On a slightly more elegant level, I love the Astor Moon Garden at the Met and the indoor-outdoor courtyard feeling of the American Wing at the Met. Honestly, I would wander around for days looking for accessories for my work, but with eBay and Etsy, I have no reason to go buy these things in person. But now I go to stores in 125 and buy braids and ponytails as accessories in all these colors that don’t exist in nature.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
My first painting teacher in art school told me to quit art because I was a girl with no promise. And then years later, he came to me and asked if I could help him find a gallery representation.

What have you given someone that you wish you could get back?
Nothing. I really love giving things away, and my favorite relocation project was donating my dad’s old, obsolete dental tools to sculptor John Newman. I can only think of something I gave and was thrilled to give.

What is your favorite New York restaurant and your usual order?
Hollywood Diner, grilled cheese and tomato, or turkey burger.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?
The one that comes to mind is “She died with her boots on”.