Diane Simpson, installation view of “1977–1980,” 2024. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle, © Diane Simpson, 2024, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York

Diane Simpson

New York

James Cohan

In a photograph taken during the installation of Diane Simpson’s first solo exhibition, presented at Chicago’s Artemisia Gallery in early 1979, the artist kneels on the floor, surrounded by scattered stacks of variously shaped, slotted cardboard panels. An earlier picture shows similar fragments lining the walls of her dining room studio in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois. Simpson used these flat, interlocking segments of triple-ply cardboard to form imposing, angular structures that jut out from the wall to address viewers obliquely. That they allow for easy disassembly and storage was crucial not only for her live-work situation, but also for carting them into the city for exhibitions. Even when constructed, and despite their formidable size, these sculptures give the impression that they can flatten instantly, easily returning to their two-dimensional origins. Some, like Leaning Lookout and Corrugated Drawing #2 (both 1978), seem as though they could fold into the wall, like illustrations in a pop-up book. One, from 1980, is even titled Fold-Up.

“1977–1980,” Simpson’s current exhibition (on view through March 23, 2024), brings seven of her early corrugated sculptures to New York for the first time since Phyllis Kind exhibited the series in 1980. Also included are two wall-bound precursors, Constructed Painting #1 and #2 (both 1977), one of which resembles a Brutalist highchair or throne. Previously unexhibited, these works demonstrate Simpson’s transition from rendering box-like forms in drawing and collagraphy—a printmaking process of layering materials onto a plate to produce a relief—to constructing them in the round. Essentially collagraph plates that were too large for the printing press, the “Constructed Paintings” are axonometric renderings that embrace the idea of depth without illusion. This idealized rather than optical perspective is one that Simpson has employed throughout her decades-long career. Yet, in both pieces, she punctures the flatness with panels that subtly extend into space, like doors flung open, to reveal implied inner volumes.

Diane Simpson, Chaise, 1979. Corrugated archival board and crayon, 84 x 81 x 43 in. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle, © Diane Simpson, 2024, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York

Simpson often draws directly on the surface of her sculptures, which has the puzzling effect of both reinforcing and masking their materiality. In the gate-like Corrugated Drawing #3 (1978), she combined three different treatments: painting the boards a muted gray; rubbing them with crayon to accentuate their ribbed structure; and applying shading to achieve the illusionistic effect of slatted fencing. The triangular fins drawn onto the top section of the sturdy, architectural Pleated Column #2 (1978) resemble the cardboard wedges that slice through the work, but their perspectives do not align, as if the volumetric structure still partially resides in two dimensions. This kind of distortion is playfully Cubist, providing two different views of the same sculpture from one angle. It also exemplifies how each of Simpson’s constructions suggests, even demonstrates, the range of its potential forms—folded, pivoted, collapsed.

Simpson initially resisted moving into sculpture on the grounds that there was nothing wrong with illusion. With her cardboard sculptures, she was clearly trying to put illusion and actual form in tension. Chaise (1979), a warped lounge chair in powder blue archival board, is one of her most extreme and successful efforts along these lines. The shaded grid on the board’s surface imitates tufted leather upholstery (with real and hand-drawn screws in place of buttons), and fabricated shadows create the impression of depth, a fold or joint where there is none. This might seem too decorative for some (apparently it was for Phyllis Kind), but these embellishments, combined with a skewed extension from the wall, only enhance the work’s dynamic contortions. From certain viewpoints, Simpson’s sculptures can underwhelm, mainly due to their planar construction, frontality, and roots in axonometric drawing. But this is also a strength—the views that might disappoint are often those that contradict expectations, enticing us to explore every angle. After this series, Simpson moved on from cardboard, but she retained the lessons of this humble material and has continued to employ, throughout her career, a planar language that operates somewhere between drawing and sculpture.