Summary of Lorna Simpson
As an African American woman growing up in the United States, Lorna Simpson has kept her artistic gaze fixated on investigating the complex and convoluted permutations of what her particular identity ingrained upon her personal psyche and the communal consciousness of a nation bred on systemic racism. With a pioneering approach to conceptual photography and film, pairing images with narrative bits of text, she asks us to see beyond face value into the deeper layers of what it means to be a Black female, utilizing both her own memories and our shared history to make poignant remarks about the nature, power, and problems of representation. Above all, Simpson compels others to examine how they confront imagery and representation in their own lives. She asks us to view a picture beyond face value and removed from education, to probe further into its emotional, psychological, and sociological values.
Her interrogations into race and gender issues further a long lineage of artists who investigate the political and critique the societal in efforts to highlight and evolve our unconscious, or conscious, human shadows.
- Collage based on portraiture, tableau, and repetition are common motifs in Simpson's work; the use of these traditional artistic techniques become co-opted and subverted in her hands as a way to emphasize the ages-old objectification of Black bodies.
- By juxtaposing language with imagery, Simpson's work contributes to "intertextuality" -a mode that relies on the artist's coupling of each in ways that spark the viewer to reconsider their original perceptions of what a picture or a word means. In her oeuvre, this technique is often employed to re-evaluate the past.
- Simpson has been connected to the Post-Blackness movement, in which artists strove to intentionally make work seen through their own particular life lens, which broke out of being pigeonholed as solely reminiscent of the universal Black experience. She accomplishes this by utilizing her personal memories to inform her art, even as her presentations of the Black female resonate deeply with the concerns and experiences of her female, Black sisters.
Important Art by Lorna Simpson
The Water Bearer
In this starkly lit, monochrome scene, a young woman dressed in white pours sparkling water from two vessels onto the ground below. Her identity is concealed from view, but we can discern from skin color and hairstyle that she is a Black woman, while her floating white gown lends her an ethereal, ghostly quality. One container is an old metal relic while the other is plastic; these conflicting references collapse together past and present into one.
The ambiguous passage of text below the image, "She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory," is taken from a longer passage by the poet Phillis Wheatley, a former slave and the first Black woman to publish a book in America. Removed from a wider context it has a strange ambiguity here, hinting at a disturbing narrative involving a missing man, but also points towards the isolation of this female character, who tries to speak what Simpson calls "her truth," only to be disregarded and ignored. Art critic Holland Cotter observes of this enigmatic character in the New York Times, "Even when she is willing to share herself, it turns out, she is devalued."
Simpson made this work early in her career as a photographer, when she was experimenting with how the juxtaposition of image and text could invest greater emotional, narrative, or political meaning into an image, echoing the charged textual art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Later in the 1980s, Simpson focused increasingly on documentation of women, injecting loaded passages of text that open up discussion on issues around discrimination and marginalization.
Simpson often deliberately photographed women from behind in these early career photographs to highlight the horrific dehumanizing objectification of racism, echoed by the strange clinical gowns that adorned all her characters. But Cotter argues there is a certain liberation in leaving these women anonymous, arguing, "Because her face isn't visible, she retains a degree of control." Although Simpson's archetypal women in works such as these are mysterious and unknown, there is a suggestion that Simpson is replaying events from the past to suggest a better future going forward. Curator Joan Simon highlights this theatrical staging in Simpson's work arguing it is "built on the juxtaposition of gestures and re-enactments."
The abstract concept of memory and its personal intimacy hinted at in this work would come to play a more vital role in Simpson's later video work.
Gelatin Silver Print with Vinyl Lettering
In this chilling sequence of photographs six women are lined into a row with eerily similar appearances. But closer inspection reveals small differences between each person; some have their feet positioned differently, while in others their heads and torsos are misaligned, creating an uneasy dissonance. Beneath them the phrases SEX ATTACKS and SKIN ATTACKS are repeated with the same ordered precision as the images above, but the allusion to racist and sexist violence adds a deeper level of nervous tension to the artwork.
Simpson's repeat statements relate to the two-pronged attacks inflicted upon Black women, who are marginalized by both their gender and race. On the one hand, this dehumanizing group seen only from behind resembles what art historian Beryl Wright calls, "multiple situations of institutional repression and surveillance, such as slave auctions, hospital examination rooms and criminal line ups." But as with all Simpson's photographs, these women are given far greater complexity and respect; each woman has one hand clenched in furious defiance, while their long white gowns give them the spiritual aura of guardian angels, ready to stand up against acts of unwanted aggression.
By the late 1980s Simpson was earning international recognition for her biting commentaries on the ongoing racial conflicts in America. Her work during this period often broke apart women's bodies as seen here, alluding to the jarring violence inflicted upon Black women. Writer Sofia Retta argues, "Simpson's subtle fragmentation of the photographs speaks to the mutilation of Black women's bodies, from the wounds of beatings and sexual violence during slavery to the ongoing killings at the hands of police."
18 Color Polaroid Prints, 21 Engraved Plastic Plaques, and Plastic Letters - Museum of San Diego
Three images of the same woman bristle against one another, revealing different aspects of her neckline, with glimpses of lips and hair, while the rest of her identity is hidden. Below, a play on the word "neck" unravels, each term conjuring various situationist possibilities for the woman from competition to fear to romance to fashion. In descending order, the left box reads: necktie, neck & neck, neck-ed, and neckless while the right reads: necking, neckline, necklace, and breakneck. The serrated edge of her white t-shirt hints at underlying violence, a sentiment echoed in the jarring inclusion of the words "neckless" and "breakneck."
During this time, Simpson made a series of images like this one, exploring Black women's necks arranged into disjointed views. Seen without the words, these images could be read as ambiguous portraits of a mysterious woman, but Simpson demonstrates how even the most seemingly simple additions of language can entirely alter our perception of an image, conjuring up the vast complexity of our history. Highlighting fragile women's necks allowed Simpson to push forward into the horrifying territory of America's past, when lynching was common practice, forcing us to look at issues that have so often been brushed under the carpet. This direct confrontation of America's dark history has had a profound impact on artists since, particularly African-American artist Kara Walker, who similarly forces viewers to walk directly into the horrors of the past.
Along with the overt reference to violence, undercurrents of female strength and authority are also suggested by the woman's defiant stance and closed, set lips. Paper magazine described this visual complexity as a "striking commentary on Black female sexuality, lynching, and ideas of supremacist propriety."
Gelatin Silver Prints and Engraved Plexiglass Plaques - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
A series of twenty-one wigs are laid out in a haphazard grid formation, arranged like scientific artifacts in a museum display. Each illustrates a different hairstyle, including Afros and braided hair, alongside blonde, wavy tresses and even wigs for dolls. Simpson printed these images onto panels of white felt, a soft material which itself has a hair-like quality. Alongside these images a series of short, cryptic statements are interspersed, each telling anecdotes relating to various themes including slavery, drag, celebrity, and the stereotypical perceptions we cultivate toward others. For example, one story relates how a slave couple were able to escape by having the lighter skinned wife pretend that her darker skinned husband was her own slave. Even though she couldn't read, she had memorized the mannerisms of her arrogant owners and was able to bypass trouble along the way due to her gestures that mimicked this white arrogance.
This artwork delves into the history of African-American hairstyles, revealing how varied they have been through the ages. Laying them out in this way allows Simpson to highlight just how politicized hair can be; the blonde wig alludes to the oppressive pressures on Black women to change their natural appearance, while the Afro styles could be read as an empowered act of defiance in embracing one's true essence.
On the one hand, Simpson's works such as this can inevitably be read as a commentary on the issues around African-American culture and the pressures to conform, but the broader themes around inclusion and self-acceptance are universal ones to which we can all relate. Likening her practice to the Post-Blackness work of artist Glenn Ligon and writer Thelma Golden, in which artists want to move beyond being understood solely for the color of their skin, Simpson argues, "For me, the specter of race looms so large because this is a culture where using the Black figure takes on very particular meanings, even stereotypes. But, if I were a white artist using Caucasian models, then the work would be read as completely universalist."
Lithographs on Felt - MoMA, New York
A young, bright-eyed woman looks out with hopeful optimism, while her hair sweeps upwards high into the sky to form a dreamy swirl of iridescent blue light. Black and white photographic material is combined here with the loose, aqueous language of watercolor, lending it a dramatic, theatrical flourish.
In the 1990s Simpson first began making collages with material sourced from her grandmother's vintage collection of African-American Magazines from the 1950s including Jet and Ebony; the advertisements aimed at women fascinated her, particularly the pressures on women to conform to the Caucasian American ideal with skin lighteners or hair relaxants. Since 2011 Simpson has been adding painterly passages to these collages, transforming her protagonists with fantastical, bouffant hairstyles that defy logic and gravity. Much like her earlier artwork Wigs, Simpson explores the political implications tied up in hair with this series, suggesting the act of letting their natural hair go wild as an act of liberation for Black or African-American women.
Poet, scholar, and author Elizabeth Alexander sees Simpson's treatment to these women as a powerful form of emancipation, observing, "In Lorna Simpson's collages ... hair is the universal governing principle. Black women's heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors. The hair she paints has a mind of its own. It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive. It is forest and ocean, its own emotional weather. Black women's hair is epistemology, but we cannot always discern its codes." Alexander also sees Simpson's choice of vividly toned, fluid paint as conceptually important, lending these women a sense of mystery, intrigue, and free-spirited independence that was impossible for them in the 1950s, noting, "Watercolor is the perfect medium for Simpson here because of how it holds light and appears to be translucent. But it is also a wash, a shadow cast over what we cannot know in these women."
More recently, African-America artist Ellen Gallagher has adopted a similar trope of reworking imagery from vintage African-American magazines, particularly in relation to Black hairstyles, adding a range of unconventional materials such as glitter, gold-leaf, coconut oil and plasticine to collages to elevate them beyond conditioned stereotypes into the whimsical and fantastical.
Watercolor and Collage on Paper
In this two-part, seven-minute long video, a striking group of golden dancers emerge, twirling and pirouetting in front of a stark white backdrop. Each figure wears an identical gold leotard and has gold spray-painted onto their skin and huge Afro wigs, making them difficult to distinguish from one another. As well as dancing, the figures are also filmed as they wait and prepare for their performance, while cuts and loops in the film create a disjointed, non-linear sequence.
Simpson drew inspiration for this video from a memory of her own performance at the Lincoln Center in New York when she was around 11 years old. Much like the performers seen here, Simpson was adorned in head-to-toe gold paint and performed a ballet routine with a group of others. But she found the experience painfully difficult, learning that she was better suited to be behind, rather than in front of the camera. She recalled how it was "like performing from a black hole - I knew immediately it was not for me."
Simpson replays this important coming of age moment in her early life to demonstrate its importance in discovering her sense of self. Although she does not appear in the film, the group of male and female dancers acts as a refracted metaphor for her past selves, while breaks and repetitive elements of the film re-enact the fragmentary nature of memory. Writer Thomas J. Lax notices how "In Momentum, Simpson transforms the memory of a bygone moment into a legible form." Much like her previous artworks, Simpson creates a series of repetitive archetypes in this video, while the golden skin color and gender fluidity of her dancers suggests a moment of transcendence beyond gender and race made possible through the power of art, a sentiment echoed in the work of various Post-Black artists including Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickaline Thomas and Kalup Linzy.
2-Channel Video Installation
This video installation is composed of three adjacent projections; on one screen a man plays chess, on another a woman plays chess, while the third documents the musician Jason Moran playing the piano music he composed to accompany the work. Refracted views break apart each figure into five parts, creating the strange sensation of entering a hall of mirrors where nothing is as it seems. As the video unfolds, it becomes clear the chess players are in fact playing the game against themselves. The characters grow old as the story unravels, which Simpson calls "a dissolve that indicates the passage of time."
Chess is said to take influence from the five-fold composite portraits, or multigraphs, that were in fashionable in the 1890s. The technique, which Simpson called "a Surrealist trope of trick photography" had shown up in a famous self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp and a portrait of Francis Picabia taken by an anonymous photographer. Another source of inspiration for this film came from another image, sent to Simpson by the art historian Sarah Thornton, featuring what Simpson described as "a beautiful portrait of an unknown man of African descent in a white straw hat ..."
Made for a solo exhibition in 2013 at Jeu de Paume, Paris, Chess expands on ideas Simpson first developed for the photographic series 1957-2009, in which she re-enacted scenes taken from vintage photographs, dressing herself as both male and female characters. Both the photographic series and this film work were a new point of departure for Simpson in which she moved beyond issues around racial tensions into broader territory, questioning the fragmentary nature of identity and memory.
Ultimately the work takes on a strange ambiguity that mirrors the complexity of our identities in a fragmented society, when issues of race and gender are more complex and divided than ever before, mirroring the same language that has been explored by Adrian Piper since the 1960s. Curator and writer Joan Simon asks "In Simpson's project - in which one plays chess with oneself - how does one extract oneself from oneself to outwit oneself? Who wins? Technically it would end in a draw and or extend into a Borgesian infinity. How does one become one's own doppelganger?"
Three-channel Video Projection - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Dark, angry clouds gather and swarm over an icy cold terrain, while vivid blue puffs below suggest mountains or freezing rocks. Combining monochrome, near photographic elements with painterly passages and shockingly bright color. This sublime image of devastating beauty echoes the formal language in Simpson's earlier watercolor collages of African-American women.
Landscapes are new territory for an artist who has focused on socio-political commentaries for much of her career. But much like her recent video installations, landscape paintings are a less overt means of addressing wider social concerns about life in contemporary America; Simpson compares these icy, inhospitable terrains to the current culture in America, which is still rife with discrimination, and segregation. Some of her landscape paintings also feature ghostly, African-American women's faces dissolving into her indistinct, mountainous blurs, emphasizing the hidden issues of racism that still haunt the American dream. She likens the plight of people like her to these frozen scenes, commenting, "There's something about ice that has come into the work that indicates either freezing or endurance."
Known predominantly as a photographer, painting is a radical new development in Simpson's practice, one which was not without its risks, as she explains, "At first I was a little intimidated about working in this way," she commented, adding, "It seemed a little absurd ... and then I thought ... you fail, you fail. So what?"
Ink and Acrylic on Gessoed Wood Panel
Biography of Lorna Simpson
Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Lorna Simpson was an only child to a Jamaican-Cuban father and an African-American mother. Her parents were left-leaning intellectuals who immersed their daughter in group gatherings and cultural events from a young age. She attributed their influence as the sole reason she became an artist, writing, "From a young age, I was immersed in the arts. I had parents who loved living in New York and loved going to museums, and attending plays, dance performances, concerts... my artistic interests have everything to do with the fact that they took me everywhere ...."
Aspects of day-to-day life lit up Simpson's young imagination, from the jazz music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, to magazine advertisements and overheard, hushed stories shared between adults; all of which would come to shape her future art. The artist took dance classes as a child and when she was around 11 years old she took part in a theatrical performance at the Lincoln Center for which she donned a gold bodysuit and matching shoes. Though she remembered being incredibly self-conscious, it was a valuable learning experience, one that helped her realize she was better suited as an observer than a performer. This early coming-of-age experience was later documented in the artwork Momentum, (2010).
Simpson's creative training began as a teenager with a series of short art courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, where her grandmother lived. This was followed by attendance at New York's High School of Art and Design, which, she recalls "...introduced me to photography and graphic design."
Early Training and Work
After graduating from high school Simpson earned a place at New York's School of Visual Arts. She had initially hoped to train as a painter, but it soon became clear that her skills lay elsewhere, as she explained in an interview, "everybody (else) was so much better (at painting). I felt like, Oh God, I'm just slaving away at this." By contrast, she discovered a raw immediacy in photography, which "opened up a dialogue with the world."
When she was still a student Simpson took an internship with the Studio Museum in Harlem, which further expanded her way of thinking about the role of art in society. It was here that she first saw the work of Charles Abramson and Adrian Piper, as well as meeting the leading Conceptual artist David Hammons. Each of these artists explored their mixed racial heritage through art, encouraging Simpson to follow a similar path. Yet she is quick to point out how these artists were in a minority at the time, remembering, "When I was a student, the work of artists from varying cultural contexts was not as broad as it is now."
During her student years Simpson travelled throughout Europe and North Africa with her camera, making a series of photographs of street life inspired by the candid languages of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy DeCarava. But by graduation, Simpson felt she had already exhausted the documentary style. Taking a break from photography, she moved toward graphic design, producing for a travel company. Yet she remained connected to the underground art scene, mingling with likeminded spirits and fellow African-Americans who felt the same rising frustrations as racism, poverty, and unemployment ran deep into the core of their communities.
At an event in New York Simpson met Carrie-Mae Weems, who was a fellow African-American student at the University of California. Weems persuaded Simpson to make the move to California with her. "It was a rainy, icy New York evening," remembers Simpson, "and that sounded really good to me." After enrolling at the University of California's MFA program, Simpson found she was increasingly drawn towards a conceptual language, explaining how, "When I was in grad school, at University of California, San Diego, I focused more on performance and conceptually based art." Her earliest existing photographs of the time were made from models staged in a studio under which she put panels or excerpts of text lifted from newspapers or magazines, echoing the graphic approaches of Jenny Holzer and Martha Rosler. The words usually related to the inequalities surrounding the lives of Black Americans, particularly women. Including text immediately added a greater level of complexity to the images, while tying them to painfully difficult current events with a deftly subtle hand.
Simpson's tutors in California weren't convinced by her radical new slant on photography, but after moving back to New York in 1985, she found both a willing audience and a kinship with other artists who were gaining the confidence to speak out about wider cultural diversities and issues of marginalization. Simpson says, "If you are not Native American and your people haven't been here for centuries before the settlement of America, then those experiences have to be regarded as valuable, and we have to acknowledge each other."
Simpson had hit her stride by the late 1980s. Her distinctive, uncompromising ability to address racial inequalities through combinations of image and text had gained momentum and earned her a national following across the United States. She began using both her own photography and found, segregation-era images alongside passages of text that gave fair representation to her subjects. One of her most celebrated works was The Water Bearer, (1986), combining documentation of a young woman pouring water with the inscription: "She saw him disappear by the river. They asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory." Simpson deliberately challenged preconceived ideas about first appearances with the inclusion of texts like this one. The concept of personal memory is also one which has become a recurring theme in Simpson's practice, particularly in relation to so many who have struggled to be heard and understood. She observes, "... what one wants to voice in terms of memory doesn't always get acknowledged."
In the 1990s Simpson was one of the first African-American women to be included in the Venice Biennale. It was a career-defining decade for Simpson as her status grew to new heights, including a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1990 and a series of international residencies and displays. She met and married the artist James Casebere not long after, and their daughter Zora was born in the same decade. In 1994 Simpson began working with her grandmother's old copies of 1950s magazines including Ebony and Jet, aimed at the African-American community. Cutting apart these relics from another era allowed Simpson to revise and reinvent the prescribed ideals being pushed onto Black women of the time, as seen in the lithograph series Wigs (1994). The use of tableaus and repetition also became a defining feature of her work, alongside cropped body parts to emphasize the historical objectification of Black bodies.
In more recent years Simpson has embraced a much wider pool of materials including film and performance. Her large-scale video installations such as Cloudscape (2004) and Momentum (2011) have taken on an ethereal quality, addressing themes around memory and representation with oblique yet haunting references to the past through music, staging, and lighting.
Between 2011 and 2017 Simpson reworked her Ebony and Jet collages of the 1990s by adding swirls of candy-hued, watercolor hair as a further form of liberation. She has also re-embraced painting through wild, inhospitable landscapes sometimes combined with figurative elements. The images hearken to the continual chilling racial divisions in American culture. As she explains, "American politics have, in my opinion, reverted back to a caste that none of us want to return to..."
Today, Simpson remains in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, where in March 2020, she began a series of collages following the rise of the Covid-19 crisis. The works express a more intimate response to wider political concerns. She explains, "I'm just using my collages as a way of letting my subconscious do its thing - basically giving my imagination a quiet and peaceful space in which to flourish. Some of the pieces are really an expression of longing, like Walk With Me, (2020) which reflects that incredibly powerful desire to be with friends right now."
Despite her status as a towering figure of American art, Simpson still feels surprised by the level of her own success, particularly when she compares her work to those of her contemporaries. "I feel there are so many people - other artists who were around when I was in my twenties - who I really loved and appreciated, and who deserve the same attention and opportunity, like Howardena Pindell or Adrian Piper."
The Legacy of Lorna Simpson
Simpson's interrogation of race and gender issues with a minimal, sophisticated interplay between art and language has made her a much respected and influential figure within the realms of visual culture. American artist Glenn Ligon is a contemporary of Simpson's whose work similarly utilizes a visual relationship with text, which he calls 'intertextuality,' exploring how stencilled letters spelling out literary fragments, jokes or quotations relating to African-American culture can lead us to re-evaluate pre-conceived ideas from the past. Ligon was one of the founders of the term "Post-Blackness," formed with curator and writer Thelma Golden in the late 1990s, referring to a post-civil rights generation of African-American artists who wanted their art to not just be defined in terms of race alone. In the term Post-Black, they hoped to find "the liberating value in tossing off the immense burden of race-wide representation, the idea that everything they do must speak to or for or about the entire race."
The re-contextualization of historical inaccuracies in both Simpson and Ligon's practice is further echoed in the fearless, cut-out silhouettes of American artist Kara Walker, who walks headlong into some of the most challenging territory from American history. Arranging figures into theatrical narrative displays, she retells horrific stories from the colonial era with grossly exaggerated caricatures that force viewers into deeply uncomfortable territory.
In contrast, contemporary American artist Ellen Gallagher has tapped in to the appropriation and repetition of Simpson's visual art, particularly her collages taken from African-American magazine culture. Gallagher similarly lifts original source matter from vintage magazines including Ebony, Our World and Sepia, cutting apart and transforming found imagery with a range of unusual materials including plasticine and gold-leaf. Covering or masking areas of her figures' faces and hairstyles highlights the complexities of race in today's culture, which Gallagher deliberately teases out with materials relating to "mutability and shifting," emphasising the rich diversity of today's multicultural societies around the world.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Lorna Simpson
- Lorna SimpsonOur PickBy Joan Simon
- Lorna SimpsonOur PickBy Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Suzan Lori Parks
- Lorna SimpsonBy Joan Simon, Naomi Beckwith, Marta Gili, Thomas Lax, Elvan Zabunyan
- Focus: Five Women Photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron/Margaret Bourke-White/Flor Garduno/Sandy Skoglund/Lorna SimpsonBy Sylvia Wolf
- W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black AmericaBy The W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Whitney Battle-Baptiste
- The Art of Feminism: Images That Shaped the Fight for EqualityBy Helena Reckitt
- Lorna Simpson: CollagesOur PickBy Elizabeth Alexander
- Lorna Simpson - Works on PaperBy Hilton Als, Connie Butler, Franklin Sirmans, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Anna Deveare Smith, Lorna Simpson
- Lorna Simpson: Interior/Exterior, Full/EmptyBy Sarah Rogers, Lorna Simpson
- Simpson, LornaBy Okwui Enwezor, Helaine Posner, Hilton Als