In Conversation: Laurie Simmons

Visitor in the exhibition Laurie Simmons: How We See. © The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo by Will Ragozzino/ Art © Laurie Simmons, courtesy the artist and Salon 94.

A prolific photographer, filmmaker, and performer, Laurie Simmons has exhibited her artwork widely since the late 1970s. With the Jewish Museum’s exhibition Laurie Simmons: How We See, on view through August 9, the artist marks her first solo exhibition at a New York City museum. We teased an excerpt from our Q&A with Simmons in the Museum’s recently released Spring & Summer 2015 Members’ Newsletter. In the following complete interview, the artist discusses the process and inspiration behind How We See.

The Jewish Museum: Congratulations on your first New York museum show. What does it mean to exhibit your work here?

Laurie Simmons: New York is really where my career began, so it’s an honor. I remember coming to the Jewish Museum as a young artist — there’s so much history here. I’m proud to be a part of that.

JM: Photographing live models for this series was a new direction for your artistic practice. What brought you to this point?

LS: On a visit to Japan in 2009, I had my first contact with Kigurumi. There were all these communities of people dressing up in masks and costumes, inhabiting these fantastic personas. There was a fluidity to their identities that I was attracted to. After shooting a life-size love doll I acquired on that trip, and seeing the potential there, I felt it was time to move on to the real thing. It was the first time that I could photograph in human scale without working with a real person. It changed everything.

JM: Considering that How We See is on view at the Jewish Museum, how would you describe your connection to Judaism?

LS: I grew up in a post-World War II Jewish suburb — it was a gentle, almost picture-perfect environment. It felt like a particular time and place in American Jewish history. I think I could sense my family’s gratitude for the home that the United States had provided. My parents were patriotic — my father fought in World War II and my parents took American holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July very seriously.

Laurie Simmons, How We See / Ajak (Violet), 2015, Pigment print, 70 × 48 inches (178 × 122 cm). © Laurie Simmons, courtesy the artist and Salon 94.

JM: Thinking back to the beginning of your career, what first inspired you to take on photography as your medium?

LS: I first picked up a camera in 1975. Before that I had thought very little about photography. I felt odd picking up a camera. I certainly didn’t think it was a tool for art-making. I found that what I had studied in art school — painting, sculpture, and printmaking, in my traditional art education — was not really happening in New York. Or, if it was happening, it was being upended by conceptual art, process art, film and video. I know this is hard to comprehend now, but it seemed like at the center of everything new there was a camera.

JM: Did you study photography formally or were you self-taught?

LS: Well, once I picked up a camera, I decided I had to backtrack and educate myself. It was tedious but I did set up a darkroom: I taught myself how to develop film. I decided that I literally had to put my money where my mouth was. I had to learn about the history of photography. Granted, this was 1975 and the first photograph was made around 1833, so it’s not like I made a huge scholarly endeavor to figure out what happened in those hundred some odd years, but it was part of my process. When I made a print, I made it 50 ways. It was almost as if the prints became abstractions to me — I printed them and stared at them until they sort of became devoid of meaning.

JM: How do you feel about a photograph’s relationship to truth — what Susan Sontag called the “presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority”?

LS: I’ve said and written this ad nauseam at this point: Cameras were often considered a tool for truth-telling. But I saw the camera as a fantastic tool for lying, for misrepresentation, for being a trickster. When I set up my first miniature empty rooms, with no dolls or people, I thought there was a good chance that people would look at these pictures and think they were real rooms [laughs]. This seems preposterous now. But I was intrigued by the idea that I could set up these small worlds, which felt magical to me: I would look through the viewfinder and feel like they were real places. It was much like my experience of being read to as a child — like I could enter the pages of the picture book.

JM: How do you feel about playing with toys?

LS: Well, there are lots of levels and layers to that. There are toys, and there is toying. Toying with someone may seem kind of diabolical; it implies a certain kind of manipulation. In terms of my work, I’m nothing if not a grand manipulator.

JM: You mention your experience with fantasy as a child — is “fantasy” a word that you associate with your work now?

LS: “Fantasy” isn’t a great word for me in terms of visual art, or at least it wasn’t in the past. When you think about fantasy, you think about Walt Disney and fairytales and dress up. It’s one of those words I would always push away, along with “humor” and “surrealism.” I wasn’t comfortable when those words were used to describe my pictures, at least in the first 20 years of making work. Now I’m comfortable talking about what I do on many levels. I realize more and more that it’s all there, and those words aren’t reductive. There are many layers for me to examine, and many ways in which I can discuss my work or my work can be interpreted.

Visitors in the exhibition Laurie Simmons: How We See. © The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo by Will Ragozzino/ Art © Laurie Simmons, courtesy the artist and Salon 94.

JM: Are there any words that are applied to your work that make you uncomfortable?

LS: Narrative is a word that I have pushed and pushed away — I’ve always resisted storytelling. I’ve never had any interest in creating work that implies a moment before or a moment after. Even if you see movement in my work, the potential to dance or walk or move or speak, I still don’t see it as a story. In an image that implies a story, there’s a knife on the floor. There’s blood on the knife. There are some clues  — things in the picture that hint that something has happened or will happen. That’s a place I haven’t wanted to go in my pictures.

JM: So the title of your exhibition, How We See, doesn’t suggest a narrative but an action?

LS: What I like about the title of the show is that it reminds me of the books we read in the 1st and 2nd grades. Everything was delivered in declarative sentences: See Jane run, see Dick run, see Spot jump. There weren’t many questions, and we were supposed to take everything we read as absolute truth. I can just imagine having a little book called How We See.

JM: Color, scale, and proportion all seem to play important roles in your large-scale photographic portraits in How We See. How did you hope that visitors would view or interact with your images?

LS: When making this group of work, I was able to go back to the “objecthood” of an artwork. I knew I would make them big, I knew people would stand in front of them, and I knew there would be many different colors. I also knew that they could be dismissed as a one-liner. That was the challenge for me… how to get people to engage with each image and each model separately — to look at each face in the same way that you might look at a portrait or a picture of someone in a magazine. I want people to deal with the scale of the thing in front of them.

JM: In some of your early work, dolls served as ready-made stand-ins for people. In contemporary “Doll Girls” subculture — which your new work references — we seem to see the reverse: young women adopting the characteristics of their play things.

LS: There is an implied relationship to domesticity in many girls’ toys. I was thinking about that a lot in my work from the 1970s and ‘80s. I’m also interested in that place between human and object — the place where a doll seems to move towards being human, or a human seems to move towards being a doll or an inanimate object. These interstitial spaces really interest me. Artifice interests me — that’s where I operate from.

JM: You’ve said that that artifice is what interests you about the internet and, in particular, about social media.

LS: I think that digital internet culture presents the possibility of a new way to tell lies. You can play and shape your online identity. Today, especially through social media, we have the power to show ourselves — and see ourselves — in whatever way we desire. It’s almost too exciting a way to lie because, in some sense, you never have to reveal your identity. It’s liberating on the one hand, but that kind of connectedness — or lack of — also comes at a price. Questions like “what is the true self?” do not seem to be at the forefront of any conversation now.

JM: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?

LS: I’m working on a film project, which is really a narrative. I guess I’ve had this pent-up desire to tell a story that I would never ever let enter into my visual art. So now, after all this time, I’m ready and excited to tell a story — but NOT in my still pictures.

See the artist’s photographic portraits in How We See, currently on view at the Jewish Museum. More information about the exhibition may be found here.

— Julie Reiter, Marketing Assistant, the Jewish Museum, with many thanks to Molly Kurzius, Senior Publicist, the Jewish Museum, and Roger Kamholz, Writer, the Jewish Museum.

In Conversation: Bella Meyer of FleursBELLA

Ranunculus Yellow by Veronica Andre VeronicAndre

With Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Willem de Rooij closing this Sunday, April 19, we thought we would catch up with Bella Meyer, the floral designer who collaborated with de Rooij on the installation of Bouquet IX in our Skirball Lobby. Bella Meyer is the owner of FleursBELLA, the granddaughter of Marc Chagall, and a lifelong devotee of everything flora. In the following interview, she shares with us some of her floral ethos (including “Graffiti Flowers”).

The Jewish Museum: How and when did you get started in the flower industry?

Bella Meyer: About 20 years ago, when I was involved in making puppets and masks, doing costume and textile designs, I had the opportunity to build a chuppah for some friends. I had a vision but no clue how to go about executing it. A talented floral designer in charge of decorating their wedding took me to the flower market on 28th street. This was in the ‘80s — there was still a lot of money around. The shelves exploded with masses of blooms. What a revelation! I was in awe. I always loved flowers — I would go to the street markets in France to buy flowers for my mother, for my grandfather… But never had I ever experienced such an extraordinary visual shock of the rich colors and textures, so alive and vibrant, as I did upon entering each of the wholesale shops. Why would I ever try to ponder up life from a canvas, plaster, or fabric with paints, threads, or even feathers when flowers and their blooms succeeded to do so much better? Right there and then I knew that one day I would work with flowers. It took another 10 years until I had the courage to do so.

JM: You said you’ve always loved flowers. Can you tell us more about growing up in France and the roles flowers have played in your life?

BM: When I was a little child, like I am sure most of us did, I would run to pick flowers in the fields. I couldn’t wait to go with my mother to the street market and get mounds of flowers, for our home or to bring to friends or to my grandfather. Cut flowers became for me the most simple yet most loving way to offer a gift. And then, when I finally founded FleursBELLA, the real goal for me was to be able to go out into the streets and give flowers to people, to give them a moment of joy. We actually did that for quite a while… We called it “Graffiti Flowers!” Now, not having much time anymore, we always have some flowers cut short, sitting outside on a little chair or bench, for anyone to take along. All this, of course, is not terribly lucrative. But I so much want to share the beauty and wonderment of each bloom with the world.

JM: What is the signature FleursBELLA style?

BM: For me this is such a hard question. What I aim to achieve, really, is to respond to the client’s vision the best way possible — sometimes proposing the most stark and modern look, other times offering a very dainty, lacy, pastoral image, or bringing in a stronger, organic presence. I love working with organic materials and creating big and generous movements, whether through how the lush blooms are arranged within fresh or woodsy vines, or through the natural flow of branches. What is very important to me, essential even, is that each arrangement — whether tiny or 17 feet high — tells a story! That means the arrangement needs to carry the message we, as designers, choose to convey. And colors are crucial! Too many colors thrown in together will inevitably overpower each other. Maybe, here at FleursBELLA, we actually paint with flowers!

JM: The current installation in the Skirball Lobby is quite large. Can you tell us which varieties go into each arrangement?

BM: It was an extraordinary and challenging adventure to work with Willem for his Bouquet XI. There are so many varieties of vegetation. It took me quite a few months to edit the list of items to respect the artist’s concept as well as secure them through the wholesale market. We juxtaposed florals coming from tropical environments with those from very dry, desertlike places. We also used vegetation growing in continental zones. We just had to make sure that they would all exist in Israel and in its surrounding countries — and they all had to be allergenic, in one way or the other.

Installation view of Using Walls, Floors and Ceilings: Willem de Rooij, Bouquet XI, 2014. White fiberglass vase, plinth, flower arrangement of allergenic flowers originating from the Middle East, first version created by Bella Meyer, New York. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photo by: David Heald

JM: The florals in this arrangement are all grown in the Middle East. What are your thoughts on the Slow Flowers Movement? Has it affected your design process at all?

BM: I would love to unequivocally adhere to the Slow Movement when working with flowers. I am happy that spring is upon us, and that we will indeed be able to get flowers from the local growers! But, in order to be the most conscious about our world’s ecological need, I do prefer when necessary to source material within the U.S. That doesn’t avoid plane transportation, though. For example, for Willem’s piece a lot of foliage and florals came from California, while others came from the Carolinas. Indeed, they did not need to be shipped every week from the Middle East, which would also have been quite costly. But there were many fabulous items I would have loved to incorporate, mostly desert shrubs, which I had to forego. I am sure that the floral designer in Seattle will have more luck sourcing these items, being on the West Coast!

JM: How have you approached your previous creations for the Skirball Lobby? What can we expect to see now that your collaboration with Willem de Rooij is ending?

BM: When we were invited to create something for the Skirball Lobby, I spent quite a bit of time there to feel what would make most sense to have in the space. I love to create a dialogue with the creamy Jerusalem-like stone of the walls and have a tall branch dance up towards the sky! You can expect my tears of sadness when the challenging collaboration with Willem comes to an end. But I guess we will then take the opportunity springs brings, and offer flowering branches. And then, once the new artist’s installation is in place, we will have to listen to it, respect it, and respond to it… with flowers.

JM: How is designing an arrangement for the Jewish Museum different from the creations you execute for private clients?

BM: Each environment has its very particular needs. We approach the lobby of the Jewish Museum the same way as when we work within the conditions of a private home or a corporate office. The difference is that the Museum is a public space, and thus a bit more challenging to make sure an arrangement will respect all needs. Moreover, working for the Jewish Museum is, because of my ancestry, a true joy and blessing!

JM: Finally, it is easy to ask a florist what is her favorite flower. Instead, why do you feel so strongly about your favorite flower? What are the qualities that make it so attractive?

BM: Every day I discover something new in a flower. Each day I open my heart and eyes to yet another. Sometimes it may be the most common bloom. The world of flora is so miraculous. I am constantly in awe. But yes, I do love the lushness of the most delicate and round petal of ranunculus, or of a garden rose, and of the peony. I love how the color of the bloom changes as it wilts; I love the fine grasses swaying in the wind; I love the very young leaves just budding, when still most tender and light green. We always have curly willow here, sprouting. I love the signs of all this most ephemeral world.

By Samuel Leeds

Repetition and Difference: 10 Not-to-be-Missed Highlights

Installation view of Repetition and Difference, The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by David Heald.

Repetition and Difference brings together contemporary art made in multiples or series and hundreds of objects from the Museum’s Judaica and antiquities collections. The exhibition examines how differences and derivations can reveal significant meaning and, through this stunning installation, illuminates the artistry of the Judaica. Here are ten exhibition highlights to guide your visit:

1.   Menorahs:  A selection of 45 menorahs both begins the exhibition and began the curatorial conversation that led to Repetition and Difference. At first, these brass Hanukkah lamps — produced in Poland and Ukraine in the 18th and 19th centuries — appear identical. Yet their imagery, which mingles deer, lions, and birds with varied scrollwork, is distinctive.

2.   Wallpapers:  Repeated photographs of the Museum’s Warburg Mansion, taken at various times in its history, appear on special exhibition wallpapers. They form patterns derived from ornaments on the original building or from motifs on our Judaica collection objects.

3.   Skullcaps:  These objects visually signify Jewish identity. Their round forms and vibrant, varying details, when seen from above, mirror Amalia Pica’s installation of colorful paper confetti on the floor in front of the case.

4.   An installation by Kris Martin:  To create this selection of busts entitled Heads, Martin gathered cheap polystyrene heads — like those displayed in store windows — and damaged each by way of crumbling or breaking. The artist then cast the heads in bronze, dissolving the polystyrene. In so doing, Martin transforms mass-produced commercial objects into unique works of art, raising questions about originality in our modern technological era.

5.   Shekels:  Standardized in silver content and weight, Tyrian shekels were prized throughout the ancient Near East. They were the only coins that Jews could use to pay dues and services to the Jerusalem Temple. Although the imagery was intended to be identical, no two of the 100 coins in this exhibition are exactly alike — each coin was hammered by hand, introducing chance variations.

6.   An installation by Abraham Cruzvillegas:  In his work presented in the Bloomberg Gallery, Cruzvillegas coats large quantities of paper ephemera in unifying golden paint and mounts them on the wall in a careful composition. The gold leaf in the artwork draws the viewer to the stunning Isfahan marriage contracts hung on the opposite walls.


Installation view of the exhibition Repetition and Difference. The Jewish Museum, NY. Photos by: David Heald. Left: Abraham Cruzvillegas, detail of “Blind Self-Portrait” attempting to mimic Israel Galván’s face, imagining a possible musical link between Daft Punk’s “One More Time” and Eydie Gormé & Los Panchos’ “Cuatro Vidas,” while drinking a large white Beelitzer soup as I read Emmanuel Moses’ “L’Animal,” 2015. Right, Cruzvillegas’ installation is shown with Isfahan marriage contracts from the Museum’s collection.


7.   Mezuzahs:  The mezuzah is an encased rolled scroll that contains biblical verses from Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. A mezuzah is hung on the doorposts of Jewish homes, synagogues, and public buildings, overtly marking a Jewish residence. The many mezuzah cases included in this exhibition are made in an infinite variety of vernacular styles, representing the interaction between Jewish people and the world, and the global nature of the Jewish diaspora.

8.   An installation by Koo Jeong A:  This sculptural installation, Cedric & FRAND, is comprised of 2,400 industrial magnets. The repetition embedded in these minimalist, site-specific works highlight slight variations in otherwise banal objects. By accumulating commonplace materials, Koo reveals the ordered patterns that are hidden within seemingly chaotic everyday life.

9.   Female Pillar Figurines:  As of 800 BCE, inhabitants of southern Israel began crafting these clay female pillar figurines that adhered to a certain image of the female form — for example, fixing a viewer’s attention on their crossed arms supporting prominent breasts. The gender uniformity of the female figures is belied by their differing heads: one kind realistic and mass-produced, the other handmade with abstract features. The distinction between the types of heads may suggest differences in symbolic meaning or formal craft — yet much about these ancient figurines remains a mystery to contemporary art historians.

10.   Spice Containers Used during the Saturday evening Havdalah ceremony, these containers hold precious spices that are passed around to spread a sweet aroma, offering comfort following the loss of the holy Sabbath day to the upcoming secular week. The first Havdalah ceremony is connected to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. Silversmiths imitated the fruit form when crafting these containers, but each form is unique in its organic features.


Spice Containers, Nagalski and Psyk and anonymous artists. Poland and Russia,
c. 1800 – 1939. Silver and gold. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gifts of Dr. Harry G. Friedman and Mr. and Mrs. Albert A. List; the Rose and Benjamin Mintz Collection