Gary Simmons

Gary Simmons, Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) (detail), 1994. Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches. Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Norton Family Foundation. Photo Credit: Aaron Igler.

Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) is a quarter-scale boxing ring that ruminates on the themes of boxing, dance, and the spectacle of entertainment—especially those forms of entertainment in which black men are valued for their prowess and grace. Simmons also brings music into the fold, borrowing a portion of the title—Step in the Arena—from the title of a song by the hip-hop group Gangstarr, in which the world of young black men is depicted as a dangerous battleground.

The floor of the ring is canvas printed with a dance instruction pattern, and tap shoes are hung from the ultrasuede-covered ropes. Simmons sees these elements as related to boxing in the way that great boxers like Muhammad Ali literally danced around the ring, using this graceful movement to evade their opponents and triumph in “battle.” The printed pattern is smudged—in a style reminiscent of Simmons’ erasure drawings—suggesting movement and the flurry of feet. The dance diagram shows step-by-step instructions for a waltz, a dance that emphasizes the class distinction between social dancing and the world of boxing, while the tap shoes recall the common practice of young urban kids marking their territor y by throwing their sneakers over telephone wires.

Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) was included in the exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art, curated by Thelma Golden for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1994). This groundbreaking exhibition examined the stereotypes and myths of the African American male in contemporary culture.

Artist Bio

Gary Simmons (American, born 1964)