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Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994. Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches (215.9 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Nor ton Family Foundation. Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994 (detail). Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches (215.9 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Nor ton Family Foundation. Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994. Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches (215.9 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Nor ton Family Foundation.
Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994. Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches (215.9 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Nor ton Family Foundation.
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Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994 (detail). Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches (215.9 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Nor ton Family Foundation.
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Step in the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), 1994. Wood, metal, canvas, ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, shoes, and taps. 85 x 120 x 120 inches (215.9 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter Nor ton Family Foundation.
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Gary Simmons

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 territory 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.

Bio
American, born 1964, lives in New York City and Los Angeles
Gary Simmons grew up in New York City and upstate New York. He attended the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he earned his BFA in 1988, before moving to California to study at The California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (MFA, 1990). He first became known for his “erasure” drawings, in which he applied blackboard surface to walls, drew an image with chalk and then partially erased it with his hands. His 1993 wall drawing for the Whitney Biennial, Wall of Eyes, is a monumental example of this signature technique. Simmons’ work has been presented in many one-person exhibitions, including a major exhibition in 2002 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago that traveled to SITE Sante Fe, New Mexico, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The Saint Louis Art Museum (1999), the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (1997), and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (1994) have also presented solo shows of Simmons’ work.