Danny Simmons: A Critical Path By Howard McCalebb
Danny Simmons is an American artist from Hollis, Queens, New York, who showed a predisposition towards the visual arts at a young age. He earned a degree in social work from New York University and a master’s degree in public finance from Long Island University Brooklyn. He abandoned his career in social work to become a full time artist in 1988. In 2012 Simmons received an honorary PhD in fine arts from Long Island University Brooklyn.
“Go ahead and quit your job and be an artist nobody will let you starve.” – Evelyn Simmons to her son Danny Jr.
Simmons may have persevered for years before changing careers.
The painter Paul Gauguin also entered art practice from another profession. In 1873, around the same time as he became a stockbroker, he began painting in his free time. Eventually he became an artist full time, and ended up in Tahiti where he died in 1903.
In 1915, the sculptor Alexander Calder went to study for a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. However, his father Alexander Stirling Calder was an American sculptor and teacher; his grandfather Alexander Milne Calder was also a sculptor, and his mother was a painter. Obviously, Calder had a foot in the art world his entire life. He did a number of jobs after graduation in 1919, but in the early 1920s he finally gave up engineering to become an artist.
Andy Warhol also moved into the “fine arts” from another paid occupation, after studying Commercial Art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in pictorial design in 1949. Later that year, he moved to New York City and began a successful career dedicated to commercial and advertising art. In the early 1960s, his thriving career as a commercial Illustrator came to an abrupt and unforeseen end, as photography overtook the commercial art field. Confused and worried, Warhol began to look around for an alternative livelihood, ultimately making the risky decision to move into the fine arts. As a fine artist, he carried his past into his new life; by blurring the lines between commercial art and “high” art aesthetics, with a focus on consumer goods. He innovated a hybrid drawing/painting/printmaking technique that distorted brand images of Campbell Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, and Hollywood celebrities. After parlaying his commercial art expertise into a fine art practice he became perhaps the most important artist of his generation.
Jeff Koons worked as a commodities broker. In 1980, he got licensed to sell mutual funds and stocks and began a career on Wall Street. Today, he is a world famous artist.
Simmons’ determined foray into the contemporary art field began with a first group of paintings that were a series of (mostly anonymous) Cubist- Surrealist facial portraits, or what a photographer might call headshots. These facial treatments (mythological conjuring) showed a proclivity for Modernist fragmentation and distortion, what Europeans experienced as the dissonant qualities of African masks. These treatments are reminiscent of artwork by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Roberto Matta, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Bacon.
During a period in the 1950s, Romare Bearden produced a significant body of abstract paintings. Around 1963, Bearden debuted what would become his world-renowned “representational” collages. Simmons did the opposite: after producing a significant body of representational paintings, he decided to re-focus on abstraction, as an area for exploration and development, while maintaining his notion of the ritualistic-magical aspects of African art “I just moved my representation of our culture from figurative abstraction to non figurative abstraction both relate who we are to our African heritage”
His first abstractions employed the “all over” style of composition, and initially, showed an appreciation for the paintings of Alma Thomas and Norman Lewis. Later paintings began to mimic the appearance of an endless roll of highly patterned fabric, resembling Kente cloth (Kente cloth is a type of fabric originated in the West African nation of Ghana). Simmons’ process (modus operandi) of advanced graphical automatism, and his color palette has remained the same with both bodies of artwork. His expressive gestures are based on speed, chance, and intuition (aka Charley Parker), guided by a necessary amount of reflection and artistic strategy (aka Miles Davis). This process is accompanied by his extensive use of earth colors such as Ocher, Browns, and Greens, which are highlighted with areas and splotches of Black and White, as well as juxtapositions of complementary tensions such as Yellow against Blue, or Red against Green. His latest abstractions (late 2019) reveal a new kind of iconic structure, where repeated shapes are enlarged and become more prominent.
These paintings, he “feel” are a subconscious influence induced by the photographs of elaborately adorned tribal people he shared repeatedly on social media.
Simmons chose the path of the self-taught artist. Appointed with his earned university degrees, Simmons chose to forgo studies in a typical art school program. Art schools, as we understand, are situations where an older generation of artists foster their views and ideas upon a younger generation, whose culture and ethos is simultaneously supplanting that of the older generation. School ultimately is what you make of it. In the best scenario, the professor provides for the young artist a foundation in rudimentary aesthetics and precedence.
It has been shown repeatedly through art history, that the most important and vibrant art is germinated within an intra-generational cauldron, where like minded people work through ideas and values that are emblematic of their generation, their culture, their shared experiences, and their expectations. A snapshot of a time, a place and a particular community of people will show that even the simplest gestures will be altered by social and cultural evolution. Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, etc., all speak their own language. Each generation will germinate and fortify their language against outdated influences, as successive generations perform a Hegelian flip of the old agreements to distinguish their ethos from that of the preceding tribe’s (Hegel’s Dialectical Negativity). Of all the factors that transform how we communicate, the more
powerful are the people, who re-steer the (visual) language – to remake the field as they learn it. Simmons, born in 1953, is of the Baby Boomer generation. Most of those born that year would have completed their undergraduate education by 1975. His challenge was to steer his art practice between the culture of his generational peers and the extant reality of the times, when he began his art career in earnest in 1988.
His decision to side-step art school was in proper order. As an educated person, he knows how to choose for himself what to read, and what to go see. He embarked on a purposefully directed path of self-education. Self-taught artists are typically those who do not receive formal training in an academic program designed and structured within an art school’s particularized philosophy, where art practice is framed into a doctrine or a dogma. An art school’s doctrine may have aesthetic and intellectual merit, but a young person interring an undergraduate program (out of high school) generally lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate the various philosophical orientations before choosing a “program” for study. As a mature person, there was no need for Simmons to engage that predicament.
The classification Naïve Art is usually assigned to artwork created by a person who lacks the formal education and training that a professional artist undergoes in an art school program. Naïve art is generally recognized for its childlike qualities. Although Simmons’ artwork swells with an indwelling optimism, the description of the naive artist does not fit him. He shares nothing in common with the French painter Henri Rousseau, nor the American folk artist Grandma Moses. The self-taught African-American artists Horace Pippin and Bill Traylor may be appreciated for their earnest expressions, but they too share little in common with Simmons’ art practice. He has a wide educated cultural exposure in life. Yet his artwork is friendly and inspired, not full of angst, nor brimming with didactic posturing.
All artists are self-taught to a degree, particularly as they evolve beyond their art school indoctrination. “There is no greater education than one that is self-driven” (American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson). Simmons’ strategy for being self-taught was to engage the African-American artists and the “mainstream” art world, as dynamic communities. The strategy was to get out into the world to see what is going on, and to allow for himself a greater perspective on human creativity, in order to make informed decisions as to what would be good choices for his commitment. Intrinsic motivation is the key to learning. One needn’t wait around to be inspired to think for oneself, or to be creative, innovative, or to think critically. The human mind is complex and very creative in forging outlets in order to showcase personal power and broaden personal horizons. The disparate ideas that flow through the global environments promote critical thinking; it promotes looking at ideas and situations from different perspectives. Through Simmons’ approach, every conversation becomes a seminar, and every question becomes a lesson.
Artists challenge one another’s minds persistently, which encourages the thinking that makes a person who they are. Fortunately, many artists embody a generosity of spirit, through which they meet, talk, and argue, about all the important formal and philosophical issues of the day, and the significance of each of their particular art practices. The tendency is to challenge one another to a degree where advanced learning continues as commonplace. The American painter Mark Tansey (The son of two art historians) initiated weekly meetings among his Tribeca (New York) artist friends at the No Moore bar, to just socialize and talk. Simmons was friends with the abstract painter Edward Clark, who along with the artist Jack Whitten, were among the most intellectually generous people in the New York art world. Through these interactions, he experienced and appreciated the art world as a cauldron of intense emotions, agitation, inquiry, and a shared predicament of life, one that is primed for the bubbling of conditions instrumental to a dynamic art practice.
It is firmly within the human condition that Danny Simmons’ art practice resides. His journey is based on individual aptitude, potential, and his mind’s power to extract from the senses. He takes us back to a more imaginative, more primal, more magical mind set where art practice is truly life serving.