Laurie Simmons’s first major success as an artist came in 1987, when she began shooting inanimate objects — guns, cakes, perfume bottles, an accordion — on human legs. That work earned her a gallery and a place in the MoMA’s permanent collection, and she and her friend Cindy Sherman were dubbed “The Pictures Generation.”
Simmons has always loved things and been fascinated by the way we become the things that we love. But after a photo exhibition called “Walking Objects,” she left the legs behind for 15 years, turning her focus to Japanese dolls, domestic scenes, and, famously, tiny furniture — which became the title of her daughter Lena Dunham’s first feature film. In the movie, Simmons plays a version of herself, which made her famous outside of the New York art world for her ability to combine high art with humor.
But the legs had always stuck with Simmons. In 2006, she brought them to life in The Music of Regret, a short film starring Meryl Streep. Now, ten years later, we’ve collaborated with Simmons to bring the legs back again, this time decorated with the season’s craziest accessories: the embellished handbags, the decorated shoes, the earrings made from enormous cloisonné lemons. Together we chose 42 items, which were photographed in her Brooklyn studio. A week later, she gathered dancers and choreographers from the chorus of Chicago at NYU’s Skirball Center, where she directed them in this short film.
The first object on legs was called the Walking Camera I (Jimmy the Camera) and it was a prop that I’d seen in the movie The Wiz. I went to great lengths to figure out how to get that prop, and I had my friend, the photographer Jimmy DeSana, wear it. We both knew that he was dying of AIDS, so it started as an homage to him. He was my best friend, my mentor, my teacher. I didn’t know it was going to grow to be a whole series, but it did, and I worked on that until 1991. I revisited the series in The Music of Regret, and this project is exactly ten years after I made the film.
When I first shot those objects [between 1987 and 1991], I always imagined them dancing. I always imagined them moving, but I make still photographs. I think about my work very cinematically, so a chance to really take all the characters that I’ve used, all the images that I’ve used, and meet them through time-based work was really exciting. When I made my film in 2005, we actually built objects that the Alvin Ailey dancers could wear. They were a little bit unwieldy, but the objects were a house and a gun and a cake, and we had a ballet dancer and a tap dancer and a tango dancer.
There are so many things that I love about film. I think that I have a storyteller’s turn of mind, and that’s something I’ve always tried to push away in my work because it never felt appropriate for the kind of work that I was trying to make as a visual artist. I had this profound experience of being in my daughter’s film [Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture] and watching that whole production. It was amazing. I feel like that was my film-school education.
Now I just made my first feature film. I am a young director! Being involved in visual art for so long and making work that is decidedly non-narrative, suddenly there was a story that began telling itself in my head. I started thinking a lot about how women my age are portrayed in movies, how artists are portrayed in movies, and how I felt about it. To portray people my age in movies, the subject is most often aging, even though of course there are other aspirations. I started thinking about it almost six years ago, and began writing it. There were times when I tried to push it out of my head. I thought, This is really interfering with my day job.
The film is about a woman artist in her 60s who hasn’t quite found herself in her work and is really trying to understand what her next work will be. I am playing the woman, but I am not myself. It’s a sort of amalgam of women I’ve known. There’s so much in the film about an artist and her process. There’s a lot of cutting and pasting and building and walking around in jeans and thinking, so I thought that casting a real artist would benefit the film, although whether to play the role myself or cast another actor was a big question right up until three months before we started shooting.
The night that the film wrapped was one of the happiest moments of my life. My still photographs will end up either in my storage or hopefully in a museum or someone’s home, but film takes up such little space! I love the kind of attention that you have to pay to your own film — how many times I’ve watched it, how well I know every single frame, how much I can focus on it — it’s all a new experience.
And of course, I’ve always loved fashion, and I don’t always get an opportunity to work in fashion. I’ve loved it since I was young. I grew up in a household with three sisters in a community where there were girls whose mothers would buy them anything they wanted, and my mother just couldn’t do that. So I was always in a constant state of longing for clothes and shoes I couldn’t have. And I would just beg her on a school night to take me to Alexander’s or Ohrbach’s where they were knocking things off. I still remember when I got my first Courrèges knockoff Mondrian dress with little white boots. It was the best. Not that I looked good in it. That had nothing to do with it. So I developed a great appreciation for fashion out of a deep longing.
Fashion moves really quickly. It’s so tactile and exciting, and visual. I don’t understand how anyone can keep up with the pace of the fashion world. I’ll work on an exhibition for two or three years. But I still love to be an observer and I really love the history of fashion and the social connections. I take it super seriously, and I also think it’s absolutely light and wonderful and all these terrible words like breezy, fluffy, or whatever.
That said, I’m really glad I’m not in the middle of the fray. Loving it from afar is much better for me. We live in a culture and a society where everybody loves the things that money can buy. It’s not the most spiritually rich time in history. When I was a kid and I wanted these things, my mother would always say to me, “Laurie, you love the things that money can buy.” And I remember thinking, Well, what other things are there? So much was about appearances, and that’s so much of what my work has been about, the idea of this absolutely perfect façade with no idea that there might be a dark undercurrent running through it. It was all about the way things looked. That’s how I grew up. And I feel like that’s been the subject of my work since I started making my first photographs.
It was really great for me that the accessories this season are so theatrical and over-the-top. I’ve always been interested in the idea that we become what we love, we become where we live, that the boundaries between ourselves and our possessions are so fluid. I love how much we self-identify by what we wear, where we live, and not always in the best ways. These accessories, these things that we long for, these things that we wear can almost overtake us and become us. These objects actually say all the same things that I was trying to say when I made the work in the late ’80s into the early ’90s. “I am a boot, I am a purse.”
Because of the direction that my work’s gone in the last few years, I understood that I could make two-dimensional objects look three-dimensional, and I thought it could be just photographic images like sandwich boards that the dancers wore that would look even more real than the walk-arounds from The Music of Regret. I thought, This is the time to really take it to this level, to revisit that imagery, and see if this idea works.
So although I felt 99 percent sure that the idea would work, I didn’t know for sure until I showed up at the theater that day. I remember telling my assistants that day, “I think I may be the only one that knows how this is supposed to go down, so if I don’t show up, nothing’s happening!”
These Fosse movements that the Chicago dancers do — and the fact that I could work with these two choreographers who could get them to do dances on the spot — was really amazing. I would ask the choreographer, “Get two lemons, get two girls,” and they would just make a dance on the spot. They were helping to invent dances that had everything to do with the accessories that the girls were wearing. It was a really kind of great marriage between the dancers from Chicago and these objects. If this were a minimalist year I can’t imagine what we would have done!
*A version of this article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.BEGIN SLIDESHOW