Simpson, Lorna

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Simpson, Lorna

Selected Solo Exhibitions

Artist and photographer

B orn August 13, 1960, in New York, NY; daughter of Elian and Eleanor Simpson; divorced; children: Zora Simpson Casebere (with artist James Casebere). Education: New York School of Visual Arts, B.F.A., 1982; University of California at San Diego, M.F.A., 1985.

Addresses: Home—Brooklyn, NY.


P hotographer, video artist, and mixed-media artist, New York City, 1985—; invited to participatein the Venice Biennale, 1990; works acquired by several major museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Walker Art Center of Minneapolis; a 20year retrospective of her work was mounted by the American Federation of Arts and toured several North American cities before arriving at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2007.

Awards: NEA Fellowship, 1985; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1990; College Art Association grant, 1994; American Art Award, Whitney Museum, 2001; Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2006.


M ultimedia artist Lorna Simpson was feted witha career retrospective at the Whitney Museumof American Art in 2007 that also brought her compelling photographs and video installations to several major American cities. Simpson’s newest works often premiere at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which in 2006 made her the inaugural recipient of its new Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize. “Simpson’s photography is provocative and con-frontational,” declared Essence writer Jorge Arango. “It deals with the way society treats Black women— ignoring them, refusing them credibility, despising their hair. Her videos grapple with people’s tendency to lie about their identity to lovers, friends, and acquaintances, and with the less-than-noble impulses that motivate those lies.”

Simpson was born in 1960 in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, and spent her early years there and in California. She earned her undergraduate degree from the New York School of Visual Arts in 1982, and was drawn to the medium of photography thanks in part to her interest in the work of Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava, whose work captured African-American life in New York City from the 1950s onward. Simpson went on to the University of California at San Diego for her graduate degree in fine arts, and returned to New York after graduating in 1985. Just five years later, she earned a place in art history as the first African-American woman whose work was selected for in clusion in the prestigious Venice Biennale, a contemporary art exhibition held every two years in Venice, Italy.

Early in her career Simpson worked almost exclusively in still photography, and for a time used only an African-American female model, clothed in a white shift, for many of her images, which were combined with text to prompt the viewer into examining his or her assumptions about race and gender. One of these works is the four circular portraits, all identical, in Twenty Questions (A Sampler), which dates from 1986. The quartet of photographs, which depict the model from behind, pose the questions: “Is she as pretty as a picture”; “or clear as crystal”; “or pure as a lily”; “or black as coal”; “or sharp as a razor?”

Simpson also created large-scale works with the help of the Land camera developed by Polaroid, which weighed more than 200 pounds and was able to make 4’ x 5’ prints of exceptional quality. One of these is Waterbearer, also from 1986, which depicts a woman, shown from behind, with both arms outstretched pouring water out of two different vessels. The accompanying text reads: “She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.” Wigs, which dates from 1994, is a series of lithographs of women’s hairpieces of varying colors and styles, which “prompt us to speculate about the women who might have worn these hairpieces,” explained Sarah Valdez in Art in America. “Simpson thus teases out the pernicious reality of stereotyping according to genetic traits. The work makes viewers realize that racial profiling goes on all the time.”

In the 1990s, Simpson began a photography series depicting a woman wearing a traditional man’s suit. Later in the decade, she showed photographs under the collective title “Public Sex,” which were devoid of figures and instead depicted dark cityscapes, with text that seemed to hint at illicit liaisons. She also began working in short film and video, and one acclaimed work in this genre was Call Waiting from 1997, shown in exhibitions as a DVD projection. It consists of multiple and simultaneous phone conversations carried on by several different actors. “Romantic intrigue connects the entire lot with an eerie prescience,” noted Valdez in the Art in America article, “evoking at once the way electronic communication allows people to connect with one another, all the while driving them apart and encouraging deception.”

Simpson used the same video medium for 2002’s 31, which featured 31 different television screens showing footage of one woman during the routine of her day. It premiered at Documenta 11, the prestigious art event in Kassel, Germany. “As usual in Simpson’s work, we can’t see the woman’s face straight on, but we clearly see that her reality is made up of many moments, none of which defines her existence,” wrote Valdez in Art in America. “Simpson upsets the very notion of a portrait and once more points up subjectivity. She gives us a sense that identity is something performed rather than fixed.”

Around this same period Simpson began to add music to her video works, such as Easy to Remember in 2001, which New York Times art critic Holland Cotter described as footage of “15 pairs of lips [which] collectively hum a Rodgers and Hart song that Ms. Simpson remembers, in a John Coltrane version, from her childhood,” Cotter wrote, and likened the melody to Beethoven’s enduring “Ode to Joy. ” “When the film made its debut in the 2002 Whitney Biennial a few months after Sept. 11, its poignancy was almost unbearable.”

Simpson’s works have been acquired for the permanent collections of several major institutions, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Walker Art Center of Minneapolis. The traveling retrospective Lorna Simpson, showed 20 years of her work and was organized by the American Federation of Arts. She lives in a restored brownstone home in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn with her partner, the artist Jim Casebere, and a daughter born to them in 1999, Zora, but each work out of separate studios housed in a four-story loft designed by British architect David Adjaye. Reviewing the works shown in the two-decade retrospective at the Whitney, the New York Times’ Cotter noted that despite the inclusion of music in her later works, which seem to add a bit of whimsy, he had already previewed a newer work not included in the exhibition in which the artist “returns to themes—race and control, blackness and whiteness as equally problematic conditions—that she has been exploring with persistent, quiet rigor for more than two decades.”

Selected Solo Exhibitions

Alternative Gallery, 5th Street Market, San Diego, California, 1985.

Just Above Midtown, New York, New York, 1986.

Jamaica Arts Center, Queens, New York, 1988.

Mercer Union, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1988.

Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1989.

Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, 1990.

Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 1990.

Museum of ModernArt, New York, New York, 1990.

University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach, California, 1990.

Josh Baer Gallery, New York, New York, 1991.

Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Art, Buffalo, New York, 1991.

John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, California, 1993.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica, California, 1993.

Josh Baer Gallery, New York, New York, 1993.

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas, 1993.

Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, New York, New York, 1994.

Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1994.

Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, Illinois, 1994.

Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, New York, 1995.

Albrecht Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri, 1995.

Cohen/Berkowitz Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri, 1995.

Karen McCready Fine Art, New York, New York, 1996.

Galerie Wohnmaschine, Berlin, Germany, 1996.

Miami Art Museum of Dade County, Miami, Florida, 1997.

Scenarios: Recent Work by Lorna Simpson, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, 1999.

Scenarios: Recent Work by Lorna Simpson, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, 2000.

Lorna Simpson, Cameos and Appearances, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, 2002.

Lorna Simpson: 31, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, 2002.

Lorna Simpson, The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2002.

Lorna Simpson, Centro deArte Contemporaneo, Sala-manca, Spain, 2002.

Lorna Simpson: Easy to Remember, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC, 2002.

Lorna Simpson, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland, 2003.

Lorna Simpson, Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes, Mexico City, Mexico, 2003.

Lorna Simpson: Corridor, Wohnmaschine, Berlin, Germany, 2004.

Lorna Simpson, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, New York, 2004.

Lorna Simpson: 31, Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 2004.

Lorna Simpson, The College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, Ohio, 2004.

Lorna Simpson: Videos and Photographs, Galerie Oba-dia, Paris, France, 2004.

Lorna Simpson, Walter E. Terhune Gallery, Owens Community College, Toledo, Ohio, 2004.

Lorna Simpson, American Federation of theArts traveling show, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California; Miami Art Museum, Miami, Florida; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York; Kalamazoo Institute of Art, Kalamazoo, Michigan; Gibbes Museum, Charleston, South Carolina, 2006-07.

Lorna Simpson: Duet, The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2007.


Art in America, December 2006, p. 106.

Essence, May 2002, p. 172.

New York Times, July 20, 1990; March 2, 2007; April 1, 2007.

—Carol Brennan

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Simpson, Lorna

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