Simone Forti. Figure Bag Drawing. 2020. Acrylic and pen on grocery bag. Courtesy the artist

Simone Forti’s Bag Drawings

In this interview, the artist reflects on crawling, art-making, and seemingly arbitrary objects.

Sometime in May, Simone Forti and I spoke on the phone. We chatted about how we were spending our time while stuck at home. Toward the end of the conversation, she mentioned that she had started to make drawings on grocery bags. I was curious to see them. Her collaborator and friend Jason Underhill took some photos of the drawings and shared them with me. The crawling figures on the opened grocery bags conveyed both agitation and solitude, confinement as well as potential motion. I imagined Simone on the floor, on her hands and knees, enacting movements similar to those she was drawing. “What about this?” I imagined her wondering, “Oh, I’ll use those.” The bags speak to her mundane habits and add a playful, diaristic note.

Forti always loved to crawl and to use seemingly arbitrary objects. In Robert Dunn’s composition classes, in early 1960s New York, she responded to an assignment to do something ordinary by using an onion: “I had the onion next to my bed. And I set it on a bottle and then it fell off.” Fellow dancer and friend Steve Paxton recalled how shocking it was to see her crawling across the Merce Cunningham studio after one of his technique classes. Her approach to movement drew upon kinesthetic awareness and improvisation, taught by choreographer Anna Halprin, with whom she studied in San Francisco in the 1950s. Halprin encouraged her to observe nature. Forti recalled, “We did a lot of looking at forms in the environment, like watching very thin clouds cross the sky, and how we saw them move, and try that in our body.”

Ever since, Forti has explored relationships between movement, objects, animals, text, drawings, and sound. In December 2016, MoMA acquired the rights to perform, loan, and care for her iconic work Dance Constructions (1960–61); its sculptures and performances are made of inexpensive materials, such as plywood and rope, and of a set of actions, including climbing, leaning, standing, or whistling. One of the Dance Constructions, Huddle, requires seven to 10 people to stand very close, facing each other. One by one, the participants detach from the group to climb up the outside of the huddle.The piece relies on intuition, negotiation, trust, care, balance, physical closeness, and support. It is a metaphor for group relations, for civic space.

The contrast between works like Huddle, where people engage in intimate contact, stands in contrast to Forti’s drawings on grocery bags, the material results of quarantine. “Empty time scares me, but it’s an important scare,” she said. More than a week ago, Simone and Jason sent me some new bag drawings. She pointed out that these were the Fire Bag Drawings. They looked as if the black meteorite menacing the crawling figures had exploded and left clouds of ashes, or maybe not clouds, but rather birds made of ashes. A version of Forti’s phoenixes, an auspice of a badly needed brighter future.

Simone Forti. Huddle. 1961

Simone Forti. Huddle. 1961

Simone Forti. Fire Bag Drawings. 2020

Simone Forti. Fire Bag Drawings. 2020

Ana Janevski: At the beginning of April, during the initial days of the pandemic, I found your email in my inbox with the subject “masque-culotte” and with the following note: “The masque-culotte is a very simple cotton mask made from a pair of underpants, preferably bikinis. You put your head through the waistband and pull a leg hole down to your nose. It takes a bit of experimentation. One can add a safety pin. I call it a masque-culotte.” It was the best thing I’ve read in forever. It was funny, witty, and very practical. It went viral on social media. Had you imagined that it would become so popular? Were you unhappy with your mask?

Simone Forti: I knew the masque-culotte was a good find and I wanted everyone to see it. I’d originally made it because I needed a mask and for a time I enjoyed wearing it on my walks. My neighbor took a couple of pictures of me wearing it and I sent them out to a dozen or so people who I knew would pass them on to their friends. I knew it was going to be a big hit.

You made Figure Bag Drawings and Fire Bag Drawings during the pandemic as well. Why did you decide to use the bags?

When we couldn’t bring our used grocery bags into the market anymore—and actually I’m having my groceries delivered—I was accumulating all these bags and wondering where to put them and what to do with them. The idea of cutting them open and drawing on them just came to me and I felt right away that it would be beautiful. The color of the paper, the shape, the familiarity. And the context of the historical moment, a time to make do with what’s already in the house. A feeling of possible coming scarcity, as demonstrated by the hoarding of toilet paper.

In the Figure Bag Drawings the figure crawls closer in each drawing. While observing the drawings on my screen I imagined you moving while drawing, and I recalled the paragraph from your recent book The Bear in the Mirror: “I am a dancer of sorts, rather I am an artist and movement has always been my medium ever since as a child I used to roll down in the garden in Hollywood Hill. After observing the movements of the animal in the zoo I would go to the studio and try the moves out in my own body. I loved the feeling of crawling on hands and knees. The weight of my upper body on my hands, the closeness to the ground.” Did the sense of disorientation remind you the animals’ movements?

Sometimes when I draw, not always, I feel like I’m squeezing energy out through my hands and the energy gives support to my heart. The crawling figures came quite naturally, with a strong feeling of disorientation. I felt that the combination of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd had brought us to our knees. I didn’t feel this in words. It was a feeling in my body. Also, the bags themselves opened up into a horizontal shape well adapted to a crawling figure. When, years earlier, I was drawing animals in the zoo it was different. I was focused on the animals rather than on my feelings, and on trying to catch a sense of their movements. I wasn’t so much moving while I was drawing, but it’s true, I must have been imagining the feel of moving like that.

What about Fire Bag Drawings? They seem more abstract.

The fire bag drawings started out as drawings of rocks using black acrylic paint that was thick, like a paste, and applied with a lot of pressure. Definitely kinetic. In this second round of preparing the bags, I had left the bottoms of the bags attached, forming an extension. Kind of like a chimney. Somehow, the rocks ended up looking more like ashes floating up the chimney.

Yes, it’s a very domestic feeling. That reminds of See Saw, one of your Dance Constructions. In See Saw two performers stand on a plank atop a sawhorse. Their balance—or lack of it—reveals their physical and emotional dynamics. You define it as a “domestic drama,” a balancing tool between two people. Negotiating and balancing time and space with members of our households has been a big part of everyone’s life recently. I was wondering, what will happen with the new interpretations of See Saw?

That’s interesting. I like the term “pod” for people living together during the lockdown. I’m sure there are a lot of negotiations about time and space that could translate to a See Saw performance. I’m sheltering in place alone, which makes me think of a solo See Saw performance. It could be good. Maybe humorous or poignant.

Simone Forti. The Masque-Culotte. 2020

Simone Forti. The Masque-Culotte. 2020

Simone Forti. Figure Bag Drawings. 2020

Simone Forti. Figure Bag Drawings. 2020

Your News Animations works take a cue from newspaper reports and newscasts and translate them into improvised movement compositions. It’s been your attempt to fully comprehend the news through improvisations. What is your relation to the news nowadays?

I’m still very much thinking about the world but I’m not moving with those thoughts anymore. It was always a way of communication in the live moment and I can’t imagine doing it without an audience where we can see each other. But I’m writing. I’m writing poetry. There’s a video of me reading a pretty recent writing in The Box LA’s weekly newsletter. And I’ll have something coming out in PEAK Journal soon.

In this moment it is very difficult to come together, to perform and to watch performances. How do you feel about it?

I haven’t been thinking so much about performance. I’m more focused on writing. Not that I’m doing great amounts of writing but it’s my main creative outlet these days. And reading.

What do you read?

On the one hand I’ve been reading James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time, a collection of his interviews, and his novel, Another Country. And Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. And then I’m catching up on a tradition that as an artist I feel has been important to me. Antonin Artaud, Richard Forman, William Burrows. And William Carlos Williams’s long poem, Paterson. Reading, till now, has not been an important part of my life. I haven’t read much. Suddenly, I love to read.

And to conclude, what is your movement practice like these days? Are you still doing tai-chi?

I’m doing some Tai Chi online with Master Chen in New York, but of course the group I’ve been practicing push hands with, in Los Angeles, isn’t meeting any more. Push hands is a Tai Chi contact practice. I miss it. But three mornings a week I do an online exercise class that feels a little like I’m training for the marines. I love it.

Simone Forti. Figure Bag Drawings. 2020

Simone Forti. Figure Bag Drawings. 2020