Simpson, Lorna 1960–
Lorna Simpson 1960–
Juxtaposing photographic images of an anonymous black woman with incongruous captions, artist Lorna Simpson gives a contemporary twist to territory mapped out by her conceptual forbearers. In the spirit of Belgian painter René Magritte’s L’usage de la parole #1 (“The Use of Words #1”), a painting that depicts a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”) emblazoned below, Simpson questions the nature of language as symbol. But, while Magritte was content to explore the philosophical relationship between word and image, Simpson goes one step further. Focusing on the impact of cultural preconceptions on language, her photographs address issues of race and gender.
In Easy for Who to Say (1989), Simpson shows the repeated image of a black woman’s face, her features obscured by plaques bearing the letters “A,” “E,” “I,” “O,” and “U.” Beneath each portrait is a word corresponding to the lettered plaques—“Amnesia,” “Error,” “Indifference,” “Omission,” and “Uncivil.” Typical of the artist’s style, the piece is large in scale and utilizes a serial format. The monotony of that format in combination with the work’s partial abstraction evokes a sense of the Kafkaesque—a bizarre and frustrating feeling reinforced by the use of engraved, office-style plaques. Faceless and clinically labeled, Simpson’s image offers none of the clues the viewer seeks to “read” a portrait. “The viewer wants so much to see a face to read ’the look in the eyes,” or the expression on the mouth,” the artist said in an interview with Trevor Fairbrother for The Binational: American Art of the Late 80s. “I want viewers to realize that that is one of the mechanisms which they use to read a photograph. If they think, ’How am I supposed to read this, if I don’t see the face?’ they may realize that they are making a cultural reading that has been learned over the years, and then perhaps see that it is not a given.”
Bom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1960, Loma Simpson was the only child of Elian and Eleanor Simpson. Attracted to art at an early age, she pursued her passion at the High School of Art and Design, a competitive secondary school in New York City, and, as a college student, at the School of the Visual Arts. Although she received sound technical training, Simpson found her formal education lacking. “While going to art school in New York,” she told Balcon magazine, “I realized that very little was said about artists of
Born August 13, 1960, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Elian and Eleanor Simpson. Education: New York School of Visual Arts, B.F.A. in photography, 1982; University of California, San Diego, M.F.A. in visual arts, 1985.
Participated in group exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Studio Museum in Harlem, 1989; joined Josh Baer Gallery, 1989; became first African-American woman to show in the Venice Biennale, 1990; had solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, 1990. Works include text and photo pieces such as Easy for Who to Say, Flipside, and Bio, and the interactive multimedia composition Five Rooms.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Management Fellowship, 1985; AVA 9, Awards in the Visual Arts, 1989; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1990.
Addresses: Dealer —Josh Baer Gallery, 476 Broome Street, Third Floor, New York, NY 10013.
color in any program.” To compensate for that deficiency, she took courses outside her curriculum and became involved with the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I had an internship there while I was going to undergraduate school,” she said, “in order to meet African-American artists and get to know what was going on in that contemporary set. That experience was really much more important than the ‘being educated and going to school route.’”
As an undergraduate student Simpson’s interest shifted from painting to photography. “I first started out as a painter,” she explained, “but in undergraduate school I realized I wasn’t a very good painter. I was more interested in technique and was finding it difficult to know what to paint.” Her fascination with technique led Simpson to documentary photography, a medium she would explore for several years, documenting street life in Europe, Africa, and New York City.
By the time she had entered graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, Simpson had become disenchanted with the voyeurism implicit in documentary photography. “I was frustrated by the viewer’s assumptions as to how one should read the work and the photographer’s intentions,” she told Fairbrother. In search of a less problematic medium, she turned to film and performance art, an influence that would be felt in the theatrical quality of her mature photographic style.
Still drawn to the social issues at the heart of her documentary photography, Simpson began to experiment with photo text, combining photographic images of anonymous black women with written copy. Working on a life-sized scale, she would take the objectification of the image implicit in documentary photography to an extreme. Zooming in on her subjects, studiously posed with faces obscured, Simpson would recreate them as abstractions. Minimal in composition and cold in mood, they became black “every women”—blank slates for the artist’s social commentary.
“All the information or clues that point to a particular individual are eliminated from the image,” Simpson explained to Essence magazine. “From there, I insert my own text or my own specific reading of the image to give the reader something they might not interpret or surmise, due to their educated way of looking at images.”
To enhance the anonymity of the image, Simpson pointedly employs the same model, actress, singer, and performance artist Alva Rogers. Although she refers to Rogers as her “alter ego,” the artist insists that her portraits are inspired by her own identity, but are not autobiographical. “My work comes out of personal experience,” she commented in the interview with Fairbrother, “but I abstract it so that the viewer will not take it as an autobiographical story.”
As her style matured, Simpson began to hone her images further, extracting complex meaning from even the smallest detail. Hair, a recurrent motif in her most recent works, is featured prominently in the 1990 piece 1978-1988. Picturing disembodied black braids blown up to larger-than-life scale, the piece incorporates intermittent plaques—some bearing consecutive dates, others engraved with words such as “knot,” “part,” “twist,” and “tear.” As an indicator of gender and racial identity, the braids take on political significance; as markers of the passage of time, they speak of personal development and nostalgia. According to the Museum of Modern Art’s curatorial assistant Jennifer Wells in Projects 23: Lorna Simpson, the text refers not only to the more obvious manipulation of hair, but also to the “tension that can exist between people and the stages of a dissolving relationship.”
A later piece, Flipside (1991), combines the hair motif with another recurring theme, the mask. A diptych (or two hinged pictures), Flipside shows the rear image of a model’s head and shoulders juxtaposed against a frontal view of an African mask. Beneath the photographs, a plaque reads, “The neighbors were suspicious of her hairstyle.” A sly commentary on pervasive racial prejudice, Flipside also questions the verity of the photographic image. “Photographic portraiture,” Simpson explained to Fairbrother, “only reveals the facade of the subject, no matter how detailed.”
Greeted with widespread critical acclaim, Simpson’s work has been exhibited extensively. Although “confused” by her success, the artist attributes it to the unconventional venues she initially sought to display her work. “I never looked toward galleries or white institutions to support my work,” she told Balcon magazine. “I went through either individuals or institutions that had a much more pluralistic sense of what they wanted to show at a time when it was not, especially in New York, popular.”
Following her first solo exhibition at New York City’s now defunct Just Above Midtown Gallery in 1986, Simpson turned to Soho dealer Josh Baer to represent her. “The response to her work was immediately explosive,” Baer told Newsday in reference to her 1989 sell-out solo exhibition at his gallery. By 1990, the artist was well established in the exhibition circuit. In that landmark year, she became both the first African American woman to show in the prestigious Venice Biennale and the first to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art’s Painting and Sculpture Gallery. In the early nineties, Simpson ventured into the interactive mixed media forum, entering her slave cabin exhibit Five Rooms at the Spoleto Festival USA. Successful at an unusually young age, Loma Simpson promises to make a lasting mark on the conceptual landscape.
Fairbrother, Trevor, The Binational: American Art of the Late 80s, The Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1988.
Gelover, Cheryl, Lorna Simpson, Tyler School of Art Galleries, Temple University, 1992.
Wells, Jennifer, Projects 23: Lorna Simpson, Museum of Modern Art, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 1990.
Artforum, March 1990.
Art in America, November 1989.
ARTnews, December 1989.
Arts, December 1989.
Artscribe, March-April 1990.
Balcon, Spring 1990.
Essence, December 1990; September 1992.
Newsday, January 1991.
New York Times, September 29, 1989; July 20, 1990.
Voice, September 25, 1989; July 17, 1990.
Simpson, Lorna 1960–
Lorna Simpson 1960–
Cutting-edge visual art of the 1990s and early 2000s, though given various stylistic names, reveals several consistent characteristics. One of these is political content aimed at challenging viewers to re-examine, both figuratively and literally, their own perspectives as art consumers and as players of roles in society. Another is the blurring of genre boundaries—both among the various media of visual art and between visual art and other media, such as print and film. Lorna Simpson, one of the most widely exhibited contemporary American artists and the first African-American woman ever to have her art exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale, expertly manipulates these themes and approaches them from a distinct African-American perspective.
Simpson was born in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Crown Heights on August 13, 1960. She was an only child, and her artistic abilities were encouraged starting at an early age. Simpson attended the High School of Art and Design, one of a group of New York City schools which educate the city’s most talented students. For her undergraduate education Simpson moved on to New York’s School for the Visual Arts. A painter at first, Simpson did well in school and earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1982.
But Simpson was disenchanted with the largely white-dominated world of contemporary art, which offered her few African-American role models. During her undergraduate years she sought out an internship at the Studio Museum of Harlem in order to interact with other black artists. She also switched from painting to photography, and after graduation she traveled through Europe and Africa with camera in hand all the way.
Taking documentary photographs had a twofold effect on Simpson’s developing sensibility: it deepened her interest in social issues, and it forced her to think about the perspectives implicit in traditional photography itself. For Simpson, the traditional photographer (and the traditional, often male, artist in other forms) is something of a voyeur, observing life from a privileged perspective but not really interacting with it or asking the viewer to do so. Simpson told Essence that she was “tired of the viewer’s approach to looking at documentary images.” Entering the master’s degree program at the University of California at San Diego, Simpson resolved to use the basic materials of photography to challenge this voyeuristic perspective.
Graduating with an M.F.A. degree in 1985, Simpson soon placed work in group exhibitions around New York. Beginning with a show at New York’s Screens gallery in 1986, her works were also exhibited in a rapidly mounting series of solo exhibitions; in the particularly busy year of 1995, there were no fewer than seven. In 1990 that Simpson became the first black woman exhibited at the Venice Biennale in Italy, and her works were featured at such prestigious U.S. institutions as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Every museum and gallery, it seemed, wanted a piece of the Lorna Simpson phenomenon, and in retrospect it was
At a Glance…
Born on August 13, 1960, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Elian and Eleanor Simpson; married and divorced; children; Zora Simpson Casebere. Education: New York School of Visual Arts, B.F.A., 1982; University of California at San Diego, M.F.A., 1985.
Career: Participated in group exhibits at Whitney Museum of American Art and Studio Museum in Harlem, 1989; became first African-American woman to have works exhibited at Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, 1990; solo exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1990; created major film-based installation Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, 1998; exhibition Cameos and Appearances mounted at Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002.
Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, 1990; College Art Association grant, 1994; finalist, the Hugo Boss Prize of the Guggenheim Foundation, 1998; American Art Award, Whitney Museum, New York, 2001.
Addresses: Home —Brooklyn, NY, Gallery —Sean Kelly Gallery, 43 Mercer St, New York, NY 10013.
easy to see why: Simpson joined together a number of new artistic ideas in a synthesis that was multi-layered, entirely her own, and uniquely African-American.
None of the ideas were new in themselves. Simpson used the technique known as photo text—the superimposition of printed text on photographs or the captioning of photographs in unconventional ways; in this she was in line with other widely exhibited artists, such as Jenny Holzer, who experimented with the incorporation of text into visual art. Simpson, like other artists of the postmodern era, radically depersonalized her art; the faces of the human figures who populated her work were never shown, and, Simpson explained to Essence, “all the information or clues that point to a particular individual are eliminated from the image.” And social criticism was not new to modern art. But Simpson forged an elegant and challenging whole out of these various elements.
Many of Simpson’s works of the late 1980s and early 1990s consisted of sets of identical or nearly identical photographs of the same woman, shown only partially; Simpson often used the same model, a friend of hers, for different works. The photographs were then adorned with text or other elements that often commented on race and gender stereotypes or habits of thinking. Simpson’s 1989 “Guarded Conditions,” for example, shows six images of a woman from the rear, with her hands uncomfortably folded behind her back. The set of six images is broken up into 18 squares—a reference to anthropological photographs of Africans that often reduced them to physical characteristics.
By the mid-1990s, Simpson felt the need to go beyond her trademark photo-text format. “People hold certain expectations about my work, but outside expectations can be paralyzing.” Simpson told Essence. “I always feel more confident when I’ve listened to my own intuition.” Over the next several years, Simpson experimented with various media and with new ways of using photography in conjunction with the other arts.
Simpson’s photograph exhibition Figuring absence, shown in 1995 at New York’s Sean Kelly gallery, presented black-and-white urban scenes that had something of the look of crime-scene photographs; devoid of human figures, they nevertheless referred to human activity in accompanying texts that, in the words of Art in America, “hint at anonymous sexual encounters, voyeuristic obsessions and illicit activities.” Some observers noted a lowered emphasis on race in Simpson’s work of the mid-1990s, but she continued to focus on the gaze society directs toward black women. A constant that connected her earlier and newer styles was the tendency to make viewers question exactly what it was they were seeing in an artwork and why they saw it the way they did.
Given the role that action, mystery, and ambiguity played in Simpson’s work, “it was all but inevitable,” noted Art in America in 1998, “that Lorna Simpson would try film.” Simpson’s film-based installation Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, was created in Columbus, Ohio after the artist received a residency award at the Wexner Museum there, and it was later shown at various places around the country. This work exemplified the new ways in which Simpson challenged viewers’ perspectives.
In Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, seven images, running on a 20-minute cycle, were projected on gallery walls, sometimes springing into action. Many of the images—couples meeting in a wooded area, a woman in a slip talking on the phone, two women in hushed conversation—were calculated to excite voyeuristic attention in the viewer, who is left uncertain as to the meaning of another image of two men seated, saying nothing. At the end, the viewer emerges into another room containing a large still print of the wooded area, adorned with Simpson’s trademark photo text. The text describes events that have occurred in the woods, and viewers realize how much they have not seen.
By 2002 Simpson had become one of the most widely talked-about artists in the United States. Married and later divorced, she lived with artist Jim Casebere and their young daughter, Zora Simpson Casebere, in a converted loft in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. Her work had been exhibited all over the United States and Europe, and the list of museums that had acquired her works for their permanent collections included New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, 1990.
Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, 1997.
31, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James, 1997.
Art in America, December 1995, p. 86; May 1998, p. 123.
Artforum International, January 1994, p. 90.
Columbus Dispatch, November 23, 1997, p. F8.
Essence, December 1990, p. 36; May 1995, p. 59; May 2002, p. 172.
Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1990; March 10, 2001, p. F2.
Seattle Times, December 13, 1993, p. F1.
Tampa Tribune, October 24, 1999, p. Baylife-11.
Sean Kelly Gallery, http://www.skny.com
—James M. Manheim