“There was a point where artists who made photographs and photographers were like really two separate tribes completely,” the artist Laurie Simmons said this week, minutes before she was honored at the International Center of Photography’s sixth Spotlights luncheon on Tuesday. Art, feminism, gender roles, fashion, and pop culture all changed dramatically during Simmons’s career, which spans over four decades.
“I came to New York after a very formal, rigorous art-school education. It was a time when conceptual art and process art, and video and things were just bursting wide open. My education, which was printmaking, painting, and sculpture, didn’t seem relevant,” Simmons told the Cut. “We’re talking about 1973, 1974. Conceptual art really was about people picking up a camera because they had to document what they were doing. Fashion was really amazingly exciting then, between Deborah Turbeville, Chris von Wangenheim, and Helmut Newton, and on and on.”
“I always had this sort of high school-y feeling about having gone my own way as an artist, used a camera, and being completely left out by places like ICP,” Simmons said. “I’ve still got that feeling like: ‘Oh, they like me! They really like me!’”
Her vernacular — part Sally Field, part Facebook generation, part New York fine-art scene at its height — is fitting for a woman who raised Lena Dunham and chose Molly Ringwald as her conversation partner for the ICP ceremony. As Ringwald and Simmons discussed the art — multiple series of photographs that challenged gender roles, public versus private spaces, an early switch from black-and-white to color — Simmons candidly addressed the particular lens through which women artists have been scrutinized.
“I felt like the generation before me had kind of marginalized themselves by calling themselves feminist artists. Like a lot of women in my generation, I wanted to play with the big boys. I wanted to do everything that was available to do. I wanted to hang in museums, which is what eventually led me to make big prints,” Simmons said, adding: “I don’t think feminist is a bad word. It’s starting to become clear to me that a number of young women do think that it’s a bad word. I’d like to know why. I think that I was making work about memory. Those pictures were not a critique about a housewife being entrapped, enmeshed in her own obsessions, or being trapped in her own home. I feel like my subject is, and always has been, women in interior space.” Click ahead to see a retrospective of her work.