American Photographer, Video, and Installation Artist
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.
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 ...."
Important Art by Lorna Simpson
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.
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."
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."
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
- Lorna Simpson: There are Days When I Cry Four Times in an HourBy Tom Seymour / The Guardian / May 7, 2020
- Artist Lorna Simpson Is Turning '50s Ebony Magazine Portraits Into Heavenly Collages Under LockdownBy Hayley Maitland / Vogue Magazine / May 4, 2020
- Daring as a Woman: An Interview with Lorna SimpsonOur PickBy Heidi Zuckerman / Paris Review / November 10, 2017
- Artists at Work: Lorna SimpsonBy William J. Simmons / Interview Magazine / August 23, 2016
- Acclaimed artist Lorna Simpson on courage, race and genderBy Julie L Belcove / Financial Times / February 23, 2018
- Lorna Simpson InterviewOur PickBy Coco Fusco / Bomb Magazine / October 1, 1997
- Lorna Simpson, America's Most Defiant Conceptual Artist, Makes A Radical Change - To PaintingBy Dodie Kazanjian / Vogue Magazine / February 9, 2018
- Lorna Simpson talks about her recent paintings and solo exhibition in Fort WorthArtforum Magazine / November 26, 2016
- Lorna Simpson's New Hong Kong Show Explores Life Under TrumpBy Oliver Giles / Hong Kong Tatler / June 4, 2020
- Representing the Black Body: Lorna Simpson in Conversation with Thelma GoldenOur PickThe Phaidon Folio / By Artspace Editors / Artspace Magazine / March 17, 2017
- Lorna Simpson Creates Haunting Meditations On The State Of Blackness In AmericaBy Priscilla Frank / HuffPost US / October 4, 2016
- Exploring Identity as a Problematic ConditionBy Holland Cotter / The New York Times / March 2, 2007
- Lorna Simpson's Glowing Collages of Women and Heads of HairBy Monica Uszerowicz / Hyperallergenic Magazine / June 12, 2018
- Lorna Simpson: Haus der KunstBy Raimar Stange / Frieze Magazine / April 9, 2014
- Interview with Lorna SimpsonAperture Magazine / June 25, 2013
- Lorna Simpson Maps the Complex Galaxies of Black Women's HairBy Hannah Giorgis / The Atlantic / June 10, 2018
- Mirror Images: Lorna Simpson interviewed by Alison GreenArt Monthly Magazine / June 2014
- Artist Lorna Simpson Returns to Her Favorite Subject - Hair - With Exclusive New WorksBy Mackenzie Wagoner / Vogue Magazine / March 31, 2016
- Lorna Simpson: 'Gathered'By Holland Cotter / The New York Times / June 30, 2011
- Lorna SimpsonBy Sara Knelman / Frieze Magazine / Junу 6, 2014
- Lorna Simpson artist talk at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, 2010Our PickLorna Simpson talks about her career, including her recent practice of appropriating and restaging mid-20th-century photographs.
- Lorna Simpson artist talk at Brown University, Rhode Island, 2015Lorna Simpson discusses the ideas underlining her artistic practices.
- Lorna Simpson discusses her exhibition at BALTIC, Gateshead, UK, 2014Our PickAn artist talk generated to celebrate Lorna Simpson's first European retrospective, which presented more than 30 years of Simpson's work across the mediums of photography, film, video and drawing. The exhibition was co-organised by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis, and the Jeu de Paume, Paris, in association with the Haus de Kunst, Munich, and in collaboration with BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, curated by Joan Simon.
- Why Black Art Matters Now: Lorna Simpson and Robin Coste Lewis presentations and discussions at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, 2017Poet Robin Coste Lewis and visual artist Lorna Simpson each give presentations on their work and praxis. Center for African American Poetry and Poetics Co-director Dawn Lundy Martin leads follow up discussion and Q&A.
- In Conversation: Lorna Simpson and Thelma Golden at Hauser & Wirth, London, 2018A conversation between the artist Lorna Simpson and Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, on the occasion of the exhibition 'Lorna Simpson. Unanswerable,' at Hauser & Wirth, London.
- Looking for Lorna Simpson talk by Lisa Jarrett, Blue Sky Gallery, Portland OR, 2017Artist and educator Lisa Jarrett explores embodiment by discussing influence, visibility, and possibility within Simpson's work, to accompany the exhibition Lorna Simpson: from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer.