The Outside Artist

How Buster Simpson Turned His Righteous Anger About Development, the Environment, and Seattle’s Economic Disparity into Art

Jen Graves, the Stranger

valerie silver/courtesy of the artistPHOTO-DOCUMENTATION OF AN AGITPROP PERFORMANCE He’s naked and flinging chunks of limestone at the World Trade Center, each chunk blasted with the word “PURGE.”
valerie silver/courtesy of the artist
PHOTO-DOCUMENTATION OF AN AGITPROP PERFORMANCE He’s naked and flinging chunks of limestone at the World Trade Center, each chunk blasted with the word “PURGE.”

The laundry hanging over the alley is pure white. That’s the first suspicious thing about it. Nobody has this much white laundry. Maybe that’s why people are stopping to take pictures. Or maybe it’s because you never see laundry lines downtown. They’ve mostly been banned as unsightly.

This particular alley is a stretch of Post Alley on the Belltown side of Pike Place Market, between Stewart and Virginia streets. One side of the alley is a building of fixed-income housing with a health clinic at street level. The other side is a condo tower. The clotheslines crisscross between the two. Do the people who share this alley share anything else, let alone joint clotheslines?

A posted sign at street level clears things up a little: This is a temporary installation by the artist Buster Simpson, a re-creation of a work of art he made, in the exact same alley, in 1978. The clothes themselves are recycled from a thrift shop and a cleaners where they’d gone unclaimed. The first time Simpson strung clotheslines between these parallel four floors was the start of the redevelopment of Belltown, when the condo tower was brand-new. Back then, most residents appreciated the clothesline, the sign says, but not everyone. “One gentleman from the fixed-income residence took offense to what he considered a reminder of his unpleasant past of being forced to hang his laundry out to dry,” Simpson writes. “Eventually, he cut down all the lines. I learned from this the humility of working in shared space, and the patience such work requires.”

For the current remake, Simpson got permission from private residents on both sides of the alley. Before the sign went up and while he was still finishing hanging the lines, people walking by would ask him what he was doing. Simpson, 71, is a highly approachable guy, built and tall like a hero but with the attitude of an imp. He has a square jaw and a torn-apart cotton-puff of white hair, his glasses are always falling down his nose a little so he can glance roguishly over them, and he slouches. He loves talking to people when he’s installing his art out in public. All he has ever wanted to do is work in public.

“To one person, I’d say, ‘It’s a protest against condos that have ordinances against laundry lines!’ But to the next person, I’ll say something else. Another line, you know? It’s my chance to be a kind of public performer,” he said, mischievously.

Every version of the story he tells is true. The art is a protest. It’s a decorative banner of simple human activity. It’s an experiment in tying together the rich and the poor. It’s a revelation of the context, of economic disparity at close range. There are many Buster Simpsons all at once.

Sometimes you don’t even notice his works. And sometimes when they’re most successful, they disappear entirely. Another work he made in 1978 involved a stretch of street in Belltown that stank of shit because there were no public accommodations. All along the street, he wanted to dig holes in the ground for pooping in. His idea was that after a sufficient accumulation of human waste at each hole, a tree could be planted on the compost. He had no permits, so he bought a Porta Potty case to camouflage the holes. The piece had two different locations—he successfully installed two different pooping holes—before he was shut down by the authorities, who agreed to institute public restrooms. Simpson considered it a win. The ultimate expression of the piece was it vanishing altogether, no longer having a reason to exist.

“See that hand railing?” he said while we were standing under the clotheslines in Post Alley a few weeks ago. He pointed to an unadorned metal bar on a building, the building with the low-income clinic. It’s not marked as art or as anything else, even though he put it there. The long hill to the water is perilously steep, Seattle-steep, and he set out to make a handrail all the way down the hill, in a basic effort to steady people in their environment. But “the property owners at the condos said no,” Simpson said, so the railing spans only one block. “But that’s just what public artists do. Little stuff. God’s work.”

It’s a common stereotype—and often a total falsehood—that artists are rebels; plenty of them are as rule-bound as anyone else. But Simpson really is counterculture to the core. His work is reactive. It has goals in mind. Very few artists these days openly call their work agitprop, but Simpson does—at least some of it.

Agitprop gets attention. In the 1980s, when Simpson threw large, soft limestone disks in the Hudson and Nisqually Rivers to neutralize acid rain, he created a media spectacle, with commentators dubbing it “River Rolaids.” You can see video of him dumping the disks in the river at the first full retrospective of his work, now up at the Frye Art Museum, which frames his career through his sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, and installations, some new, some just newly framed. Seen splashing around in videos with the limestone disks—see page 19—Simpson looks like he’s having a blast. The video is projected in split-screen style with a video from another performance, for which he stripped naked and played David to the Goliath of the World Trade Center. With a sling, he flung little chunks of limestone toward the towering symbols of American greed. He was located at an enfeebling distance, but the gesture carried its own power even if no stone hit its target. Each chunk of stone was blasted with the word “PURGE.”

“I think of my work as political, yeah, but it’s like in the ’60s, we said, ‘If there’s no dancing in your revolution, we don’t want any part of it,” he reflected the other day, sitting across a worktable in the Leschi neighborhood grocery store that he converted into a studio and home. His wife is artist Laura Sindell, and they have a grown daughter, Hillela. “There were a lot of dogmatic communists running around in those days, and they didn’t have parties or know how to dance. I love to dance. Shit, I mean there has to be joy to this.”

Art wasn’t on his mind early in life. Like the Johnny Horton song says, Simpson was born in Saginaw, Michigan. He was a slow reader and an unremarkable student, probably an undiagnosed dyslexic, he thinks. Didn’t think he’d go to college, but when he went to sign up for the army, a recruiter was unfriendly, so he changed course. He took a job at a sign-painting company to pay for school and spent three years commuting to the junior college in Flint. Only the art department saw him as special and encouraged him, or that’s how he remembers the way he officially became an artist. He transferred to the University of Michigan to study art.

He continued to be chased by Vietnam, nearly getting drafted several times—enrolling in grad school when being an undergrad was no longer an exemption, and finally just barely aging out. At art school in Michigan, Simpson became friends with a guy who went on to be one of the organizers of “An Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, N.Y.,” also known as Woodstock. Yes, that Woodstock. Woodstock became famous for the music, of course, but it was called the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, and Simpson—back in that postschool period when he was still alternating living out of his van and crisscrossing the United States on his motorcycle —was invited to be codirector of Woodstock Art.

Simpson’s original idea for the festival was to wrap Dutch elm trees in a covering like foil. By 1969, Dutch elm disease was well-known to be infesting the area, and in fact causing the great elm decline of Europe and North America, devastating many species. Simpson’s reflective coverings would not have actually protected the trees, just suggested protection. They were intended to alert people to the fact that there was a major problem deep in these woods. But the organizers wanted something “that smelled like patchouli oil, that was back-to-nature”—so foil was out. They wanted nostalgia. He would have preferred what he would later come to call “poetic utility.”

He tried to keep as much poetry, and as much utility, as he could in his second idea for Woodstock. Because the festival was at a dairy farm, he decided to design and build a mini-farm there. It had 200 little chicks, kept in an enclosure with heat lamps, and a playpen for people, including a jungle gym and a labyrinth. The whole thing was intended as an escape from the wildness of the music stage, a place where people could go to recharge and maybe bring the kids, see the animals and plants, and notice how far they had come from the city.

But then Woodstock went aggro in the other sense. The art was forcibly overcome by the hordes, and Simpson was briefly stunned. He had to adjust quickly. He dismantled the art and distributed its components as firewood and sleeping mats. He got the animals out of harm’s way and went to serve as security at the harrowing front of the stage. After the crowds left, he stayed to clean up, which included literally mending farmers’ fences.

As an artist, he never had a white-cube phase.

Another of the Super 8 videos at the Frye is unlike most video you’ll ever see in an art exhibition. It shows a bunch of people sitting around a table, tucking in for a long meeting in the sort of drab, cramped conference room that could kill even a born middle manager. There isn’t a hint of irony. The video is pure boredom.

The point is that behind Buster Simpson’s art, there are meetings. And more meetings. But it’s not just that. He filmed the meetings. He is proud of surviving the meetings.

As counterculture as Simpson is, to get his work done, he bends to pressures that most artists find completely distasteful, toiling alongside powerful people who want him to be their decorator, or who have essentially no real interest in art. And yet it would be hard to say which he despises more: merely decorative public art or esoteric private art.

Simpson’s coming-of-age and the invention of American public art coincided exactly. Simpson, Sherry Markovitz, and Andrew Keating were the first-ever team of artists to be included at the start and throughout all phases of a public construction project—a process that was nationally heralded and widely adopted after Seattle’s example in 1979. The revolutionary idea was that art should be more than a plopped-down afterthought, and like most revolutionary ideas, it created new conflicts while solving old ones.

Not every one of Simpson’s more than three dozen public pieces quite survived the meetings. “There are a lot of projects, and they all have their varying degrees of it,” he said, it meaning what he wanted, without compromise.

His greatest disappointment—aside from the pieces that were never built—can be found at the University of Washington Tacoma. A pretty neat piece of his there rings the top of an 1891 brick building in the center of campus. It’s called Parapet Relay because the words that appear on it change depending on your viewing angle; they seem to hand off to each other. They alternate between “GATHER,” “LABOR,” “IDEA,” “WISDOM,” “STORAGE,” “TACOMA,” and “UW.” It’s subtle but cool, and it references the ghostly historical signage in that part of downtown. But Simpson had envisioned far more than a skin-deep intervention when he was commissioned by UWT. He’d wanted to help shape the way the entire campus relates to history, and to the steep grade of the hillside. “I’d wanted acknowledgements of the new overlays on these historical buildings, to be obvious about it, to let accretion happen,” he said. “They wanted to make it look like a campus. You do what you can do, and you move on.”

Then there are the pieces that just have no budget for maintenance. At Seattle’s convention center downtown, there’s a wind-powered topiary that’s nothing but rusted metal now. (It was installed in 1989.) The vines are supposed to grow on a structure shaped like the profile of Chief Sealth, then be cut by a wind vane shaped like the profile of George Washington. It’s a great idea. Even the gardener there, an immigrant himself—reimagining Washington as an immigrant is one of the thoughts in the piece—said when I visited on a recent afternoon that he hopes it gets fixed soon.

Simpson’s latest public commission is a massive curtain of steel mesh wrapped around a helical parking-lot ramp at Sea-Tac Airport, flashlit by colored LEDs. The twisted wire mesh is the hexagonal kind used in road building, referencing both highways and the chemical structure of carbon. With its lights, the piece is visible from the street, from a car, and from the air, drawing together the three systems already at play in the airport environment.

But he doesn’t just make local work: Around the world, Simpson is still trying to convince various decision makers—a college dean in Maine, the leaders of Qatar—to implement crazy ideas he cooked up years ago. Since 1996, for instance, he’s been laboring on something having to do with the Magna Carta and a yew tree.

“The whole public art movement, it’s been our movement and it’s been our patronage,” he said. Sometimes he uses the royal “we,” and when I asked him about it, he earnestly spoke about how much collaboration it takes to make his art, and he made a convincing case, so it sounded less pompous.

In this case, he was also referring to public artists in general.

“It’s made us more responsive to communicating,” he continued. “We have to communicate on a lower discourse, or maybe not lower, it’s a populist discourse. When you talk to a developer, they can just shut you out, even though there’s public money. So we’ve had to develop our wit in another way. We’re very political.”

Another Super 8 video. It’s grainy and it shows a street with Elliott Bay in the foggy background. In the center of the frame is a two-story building whose second story is off-kilter, as if it’s about to fall. This is 1978, at 2001 First Avenue, where there are still old sailor bars with 6 a.m. happy hours in the neighborhood, but all that is about to change. Somebody is inside this building, up in the big bay window on this tilted second floor. Suddenly, the building crashes down. There’s only a pile of rubble. With somebody inside.

The somebody was a silhouette that Simpson made. He cut it out of sheet metal just so he could film it, so he could capture the image of somebody standing while old Seattle fell.

Around this time, his silhouettes materialized again and again out on the streets of what was then referred to as the Denny Regrade neighborhood. They stood on the roof at the abandoned Pine Tavern, acting as weather vanes. Inside the tavern, where Simpson could rent a huge studio for peanuts because the building was about to be razed, he rigged an apparatus so that whenever the wind blew, the figures on the roof activated other metal figures down in the bar, and the wind swept rows of bottles off the bar and onto the floor. Broken glass was collected and sold for cash to donate to the clinic.

Photos from the time show that there were a lot of empty bottles, especially fortified wine bottles. The people, like the neighborhood, were wobbly, in transition. Many were indigenous people stranded on stolen land. Around this time, Simpson also set up gates around individual trees that he fashioned out of crutches and the headboards of beds salvaged from torn-down old hotels. He was trying to steady both people and plantings in the midst of Seattle’s rapid change.

The name he gave his silhouetted figure was Woodman. At the Pine Tavern, Woodman turned wind into medicine. He became Simpson’s most romantic alter ego. The other figure to appear repeatedly in his work is the crow, the urban adapter who takes whatever he can get and finds a way to use it.

In many ways, Simpson has lived the myths of his alter egos. His mark is still visible in northern downtown, where he was based from 1974 to 1987, moving from doomed location to doomed location and using the conditions of real estate as the basis for his work, just as Gordon Matta-Clark was doing in New York at the same time. Sometimes he was directly pragmatic. When a cherry tree was going to be removed to make way for a new condo, he tried to save it by building a nest in it and occupying the nest. When that failed to stop the tree’s destruction, he managed to get his hands on the tree and carve its wood into a ladder that he’d use to climb into the next tree that needed saving in the demolitions.

It’s worth pointing out that Simpson’s early works in Belltown came long before the terms “relational aesthetics” and “social practice” were coined, terms that are now ubiquitous in artspeak. They refer to the belief that art should instigate connections in the real world, not just provoke gaping and gawking. Simpson’s experiments also long predated the proliferation of farmers markets in cities, the spreading of the gospel of the locavores.

Coexisting with a willful environment that refuses to fade into the background is in Simpson’s blood. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father a storekeeper, and they lived along Michigan’s Cass River. Every spring, the river flooded. The water would rise up into the basement and flood the coal stove. Filling the stove, in cold weather, was Simpson’s job mornings and evenings. It was the kind of town where, when the river ran red, that meant the slaughterhouse was killing. Close to the land. Then came Silent Spring. He was situated to be part of a new Hudson River School of art, a polluted Hudson River School.

In the very early 1970s, it was Dale Chihuly—also known for his exuberant ways—who brought Simpson to Seattle. Chihuly heard Simpson give a talk at the Rhode Island School of Design and drafted Simpson into a plan for a dream school based on the model of the interdisciplinary Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina. In those early days of what became Pilchuck Glass School in the woodsy wilderness of Stanwood, Simpson was head of media, basically video and sound. When the school soon narrowed its focus to glass, Simpson dropped out. “It just didn’t interest me.” What did was the young, transforming city of Seattle.

In what’s maybe his biggest project yet, the City of Seattle just recently chose Simpson as lead artist for the re-creation of the seawall that separates—and connects—the urban core and the whole underwater world of Elliott Bay. He’s still in the idea phase, hasn’t made drawings yet. But whatever he creates, it won’t try to blend in, act natural. After Simpson is finished with the seawall, maybe people will notice, maybe for the first time, that there’s a seawall there at all.

No vinyl letters were printed for wall labels in the Frye show. Instead, all of the wall text was handwritten on chunks of drywall salvaged from past exhibitions. In keeping with reusing, reducing, and recycling, some of the sculptures even sit on platforms created out of folded-down sections of the Frye’s own walls, exposing beams behind the drywall and creating new views between galleries.

Museums typically keep Simpson outdoors—as at the New Museum in New York in 1983, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, in 1989, and the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in 2000 (he doesn’t have a dealer or a gallery)—but not the Frye.

He didn’t adjust to go inside at the Frye—the Frye adjusted to him.

“We wanted to be Buster while doing Buster,” said Frye curator Scott Lawrimore, who likes to call Simpson “the spiritual father of our city.” A museum guard said, “We’ve been Busterized.” “Bustified,” Simpson interjected, his hands thrust deep inside the wire frame of what he calls his “Venus de Gabion,” where he was engaged in a shape puzzle with some chunks of white limestone.

A “gabion” is one of those terms only an engineer or Buster Simpson knows: It refers to the rock-stuffed cages that keep hillsides in place along roads. Simpson has a whole borrowed vocabulary from the utilitarian built environment that he’s just waiting to turn into art.

But Simpson’s two sides—”poetry” and “utility,” as he puts it—are rivals as often as partners. His work is, productively, torn between the two. Take what I see as the “readymade room” at the Frye, a gallery where several of Simpson’s sculptures stand alone on pedestals in a clean modernist display befitting Brancusi or a hardware store—meaning they seriously resemble an exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades from a century ago. The readymades were already-made utilitarian objects Duchamp placed in a gallery, rendering them useless, scrambling their meaning entirely, and infuriating everybody, all by doing nothing to “make” the art except adding an art context.

Simpson does make things, and what look like readymades from him are functioning tools. At the Frye, a honing wheel mounted on feet that loudly echoes Duchamp’s bicycle wheel on a stool is an actual knife sharpener. His shovel is a shovel is a shovel: Simpson wanted to put one into the hands of each incoming freshman at a snowy college campus in Maine as a response to the college’s call for a public commission. Simpson’s idea of a monument is a shovel in use.

If Duchamp’s readymades signaled that art environments aggressively remove function from objects, Simpson’s insistence on functioning art signals the return of the repressed. It is no longer fashionable for a museum to be a rarefied environment, and it is not a coincidence that Simpson is appearing at the Frye in the moment during the museum’s life when it’s reaching out into the world the most. In recent years, the Frye has hosted performances and installations that have broken through its walls, taking place down the block or out in its reflecting pools. The Frye’s Simpson exhibition is a tribute to the person in Seattle who most single-handedly—even if he was working collaboratively—started all this.

And just as those experiments have been thrilling in part for their awkwardness in a traditional museum setting, there’s a necessarily awkward fit between Simpson and the Frye. Despite the fact that his installations spill out into streets and head all the way down to the shared clothesline in Post Alley, parts of Simpson can’t be contained even in a deconstructed museum. Or they’re in there, but you’d have to dig through hours of videos and documentary photographs and written histories and plans to find them.

The same can be said of many late-20th-century artists who don’t fit cleanly into categories but attract institutional admiration, attention, and canonization—like Gordon Matta-Clark (sculptor of doomed buildings before they were demolished), Robert Smithson (creator of Spiral Jetty, a swirl of rocks deposited on a remote edge of the Great Salt Lake), and Robert Irwin (whose chaotic garden at the Getty Center in LA is designed to subvert Richard Meier’s Valhallic architecture). Those names come up when Simpson talks about his heroes, as does Robert Rauschenberg, the late great pop artist who was an ardent recycler of materials. This spring, Simpson was selected as one of the pilot artists-in-residence at Rauschenberg’s 20-acre estate on Captiva Island in Florida.

Simpson’s aesthetics are essentially modernist and postmodernist; he speaks of “honesty,” of using art to pull back curtains, tell truths. If there’s one truth he’s interested in, it’s probably this: “No matter where you go, it’s always turf,” he said. “It’s always somebody’s turf.”

Sounds basic, until you consider the difference between, say, Simpson’s idea to wrap the Woodstock Dutch elms in silvery material, and the silvery tree made 40 years later by another artist, Roxy Paine, that stands prominently in downtown Seattle today, prettifying the manicured landscape of Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park overlooking Elliott Bay. It’s a cool sight, but somewhat blank. Simpson was not included in the park, and he still bemoans its lack of “boogie-woogie,” meaning flux, movement, life. The landscape he wants to change, anyway, is your mind.

In the hours leading up to the Frye opening three weeks ago, Simpson was not getting ready. He was running around putting up illegal art at a construction site near the museum. He tacked up a stretch of orange construction netting stamped with the words “POETICALLY CORRECT” in the same font as “DANGER DO NOT ENTER” tape. It was torn down almost immediately, as he later put it, by “some unknown level of authority with a lack of poetic appreciation.”

Again, the man is 71 years old.

The same week, 175 miles south of the spot where this fleeting statement was thwarted on the eve of his museum show, something unknown was growing on a Simpson installation in Portland—an installation that’s really an endurance project. It’s a nurse log he put up in 1991. He had it trucked into downtown from the city’s watershed and stationed outside the convention center, where it meets other visitors to the metropolis.

Years later, another nurse log appeared at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, with some significant differences. Still, plenty of people squawked that Simpson got there first. In Seattle, New York artist Mark Dion laid his own nurse log—lifted from another watershed and trucked into this city—inside a glass container. As time goes by, the house grows tight. “It’s gonna be one hell of a bonsai project,” Simpson said. His only wish to change the Dion log would be to situate it, rather than in the park, at the base of a high-rise tower, “near the citadels of capitalism and commodity, as a perversely nice complement” making its own subversive commentary.

Simpson’s 1991 nurse log in Portland sits unencumbered outdoors. Its new growths are free to shoot up into the air as far as they want to go. The original log, meanwhile, gradually disintegrates to form new ground. Natives and invasives are so mixed up together that the habitat is like a new planet; forestry students keep an eye on it for their own research.

Simpson visits it, too. The way he talks, it’s clear that he loves his nurse log sculpture, maybe more than any other single thing he’s made.

“It continues to feed me,” he said. “It’s on its own logic. There’s a work of art that won’t be finished for a thousand years.”