Lorna Simpson - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer, Video, and Installation Artist
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.