The man once dubbed the Phantom Surfer is phantom no more.
The tale of Bob Simmons, a pre-beatnik surfer from Pasadena, who dropped out of Caltech and then avoided World War II when he injured his arm in a bicycling accident at Beverly Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, once was an underground legend. Now La Jolla's Richard Kenvin, a surfing legend in his own right, has resurrected the man, the myth, by curating a new art show.
Pacific Standard Time, the regionwide initiative celebrating the postwar art of Southern California, has taken on Simmons via “Hydrodynamica: Remember the Future,” beginning Jan. 28 at San Diego's Loft 9 and Space 4 Art.
The idea, as Kenvin explains, is to celebrate the impact the original L.A. beach bum had on the world of surf culture, which is no small splash. Simmons pioneered the modern surfboard, taking it from a solid-wood plank of near-Titanic proportions to something portable and, most importantly, maneuverable. As pre-eminent surf historian Steve Pezman puts it, the board from then on became a tool of “the dancer,” a “mode of expression.”
While young men were at war, Simmons was traveling the SoCal coast in his modified '37 Ford beater, pioneering then-unknown spots, eating canned soybeans and evolving and perfecting the surfboard by using his Caltech smarts and a concept he picked up in a book meant for naval engineering: hydrodynamics, the liquid equivalent of aerodynamics. His boards had fins and foils, edges and curves. Employing balsa wood and later foam and glass, Simmons made wave-riding vehicles accessible to the Gidget generation to come. He helped take surfing from two-man-carry redwood planks to vehicles light enough to be called “girlfriend boards.”
Unfortunately, he wasn't there to see it: He drowned surfing La Jolla's Windansea Beach in 1954. “He's a colorful guy who is a symbol of surfing,” Pezman says, “which in itself symbolizes a lifestyle that has become a huge industry. Of all the characters at Malibu in the late '40s, he was by far the most interesting and conflicted.”
Simmons' boards are now arguably the most collectible in the sport. But do planks meant for sheer recreation constitute art? They are beautiful things: curvy, sometimes asymmetrical blades of balsa, based on the form-follows-function ethos but utterly sleek and eye-pleasing in their mission to facilitate human symbiosis with the ocean.
Pezman, publisher of The Surfer's Journal, says that as monuments of contemporary history alone, Simmons' works are museum-worthy. Polynesians used their boards to catch fish, he says, and only in Western culture has surfing become a leisure activity. In the 1950s, the adults had survived the Depression and valued security, but “the children who grew up at that time saw in surfing something that seemed more important — living for an aesthetic, riding a wave. They rebelled against mainstream values, and Simmons was an early role model — a beatnik.”
Andrew Perchuk, co-director of Pacific Standard Time and deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, explains how Simmons' work fits right into PST, noting that PST-era artists such as Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston were accomplished surfers; Price even used an image of himself surfing in Malibu for an exhibition announcement. “Surfboards were precisely crafted, functional and glamorous objects,” he says, “and the artists sought to achieve a similar level of craft, attention to materials and sensuousness in some of their nonfunctional objects.”
Simmons' shapes have been on display at the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente and the Honolulu Surf Museum. Outsized Los Angeles Times publisher and sportsman Otis Chandler proudly owned a Simmons that dated to the 1930s.
There are, however, sometimes opposing schools about who truly invented the modern surfboard. Joe Quigg was a Simmons conspirator who built similar vehicles at the time and who now discounts his friend's influence.
“Simmons was not the sole inventor,” Pezman says. “It was a group effort of himself and Quigg, [Matt] Kivlin and [Dale] Velzy, and they each pushed each other, and it evolved weekly. They went from redwood and balsa to laminated balsa and Fiberglas. When they finally got to Fiberglas-sealed balsa postwar technology — balsa was lighter than redwood by far — all of a sudden they were free. They were set free to explore shape.”
More than an architect of boards, Simmons became a pre–James Dean, pre–The Wild One archetype of the California rebel. He camped out in his car, slept on the beach and rode rare waves, often solo and without a wet suit, in the coldest winter months. The coastal highway was his muse.
What's appropriate about Simmons' inclusion in PST is that he was pan–Southern Californian, known to ride the surf of Tijuana Slough, at the U.S. border, as much as he would dominate that of Windansea or Malibu with a strikingly casual stance and a studied, parallel line down the face of a wave.
“In the late '40s there was crazy interaction between all those places,” says Kenvin, the exhibit's curator, who writes for Pezman's Journal. “There was a lot of interaction between San Diego and L.A.”
Kenvin notes that Simmons, for instance, taught Hawaiian big-wave pioneer George Downing how to repair a board using resin after Freeth banged his ride into Malibu Pier in 1948.
In addition to the San Diego exhibit, Kenvin, a Renaissance man of surf culture who once owned a streetwear company called Stoopid, has been working on a documentary, also called Hydrodynamica, about Simmons and the boards that would follow his lead, including some of the wide, twin-fin “fish” shapes to be included in the exhibit. The fish opened the door to the radical, wave-ripping style of the 1970s and beyond. Surfing went from cruising to slashing via the likes of Mark Richards, Larry Bertlemann and Buttons Kaluhiokalani.
“The fish is really a big part of what I've been working on,” he says. “That's what led me to [Simmons' original documentarian John] Elwell in the first place — wanting to know about boards that came before, the dual-fin boards coming out of San Diego.”
Elwell, Simmons' San Diego surfing pal, kept Simmons' story alive through the last few decades via his collection of Simmons-related items — photos, writings, articles and even boomerangs — some of which are featured in the exhibit along with vintage boards.
The 50-year-old Kenvin, who prefers to surf Windansea, home of the Tom Wolfe–chronicled surfing clan The Pump House Gang and site of Simmons' last wave, defends Simmons' singular influence.
“The Simmons board is like a spaceship. It's an advanced hydrodynamic design,” he says. “Those boards are major building blocks to what became the board everyone is riding today.”
HYDRODYNAMICA: REMEMBER THE FUTURE | Loft 9 and Space 4 Art, 325 15th St., San Diego | Tues.-Sat., through March 10 | sdspace4art.org
Note: George Downing's name has been corrected.