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Inside Lorna Simpson’s Tireless Pursuit of Transformative Images

Jewels Dodson
Sep 28, 2021 10:12PM
Lorna Simpson
Midnight Daylight, 2019
Hauser & Wirth

Rihanna graced the cover of the January/February 2021 issue of Essence magazine. We saw her in ways we’d never seen her before, transformed by contemporary artist Lorna Simpson. Instead of her usual bad gyal glamazon look, the mogul appeared as an intergalactic ice goddess—so cool, she’s ice cold. It marked the first time in the publication’s 50-year history that an artist was commissioned to collaborate on a cover story. In a 12-page spread, an extension of Simpson’s ongoing collage series “Of Earth & Sky,” Rihanna was transmuted into Simpson’s world. Through the artist’s lens, Rihanna became a vixen Venus de Milo and a feathered flamenco dancer on the Brooklyn Bridge. Simpson did what she’s been doing for more than 30 years: creating work that challenges and changes the parameters of representation for Black women.

In 2010, Simpson stumbled upon old copies of her grandmother’s Ebony and Jet magazines from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. The iconic publications so clearly captured the zeitgeist of what it was like to be Black in America at that time. Simpson found herself unwilling to tamper with the editorial content—dismantling a Diana Ross feature seemed sacrilegious—but she was interested in the imagery and messaging of the editorials and beauty advertisements.

Lorna Simpson
Between blue & yellow, 2020
Hauser & Wirth
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Simpson began her collage process by reappropriating and manipulating the imagery and messaging in those beauty ads. She centered Black women from those vintage magazines as her primary subjects. In earlier iterations of the “Of Earth & Sky” series (2016–present), she replaced the subjects’ hair with vibrant watercolors. Depending on the color, the subjects look as though they’ve been crowned by various elements—her choice of green is reminiscent of foliage, while orange is comparable to fire, and the blue calls to mind both ocean and sky. Simpson catapults the found images of Black women beyond terrestrial beauty standards. Through her lens they are exquisitely ethereal, the perfect protagonists for a Marvel comic.

In other images from “Of Earth & Sky,” she replaces subjects’ hair with collaged images of geological structures extracted from science textbooks. The minerals of marcasite and pyrite look so tantalizing they could make Queen Elizabeth’s tiaras jealous. Through Simpson’s alchemy, these models, formerly the faces of Black beauty, are now immortalized as royalty. She makes a carcass of the persistent subtext of assimilation and inadequacy that so often characterizes Black female identity.


Developing conceptual photography

Lorna Simpson
Recall (From: Exit 8: Exit Art Portfolio, 6 of 8 in the Portfolio), 1998
Hauser & Wirth
Lorna Simpson
Counting, 1991
Brooke Alexander, Inc.

Lorna Simpson, a Brooklyn native, was born in 1960 to an Afro-Caribbean father and African American mother. She spent her childhood surrounded by artists and realized early on that she, too, could create whole worlds. Later, Simpson did her undergraduate studies at the School of Visual Arts and completed her MFA at the University of California, San Diego. She began as a documentary photographer chronicling the outside world. But after undergrad, she pivoted to conceptual art rooted in photography, recording her own internal dialogues and examining the inner workings of society. Her work now spans studies on identity, memory, representation, gender, and race.

“We see Lorna Simpson very much as an interdisciplinary artist,” said Sarah Krueger, the head of photographs at Phillips in New York. “She’s working across mediums in a really creative way, while holding onto her core central themes of memory and identity and representation with her race and her being a woman.” Krueger continued: “In the 1980s, even though she is a multidisciplinary artist, the core of her work was very much photographic. It also coincided with the building of the [contemporary] art market, too.”

When Simpson entered the scene in the 1980s, the genre of conceptual photography was burgeoning. Her contemporaries Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, and Carrie Mae Weems were garnering traction, exploring themes of power, identity, representation, sexuality, class, and race. In 1990, Simpson had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, in 1993, became the first African American woman to have her work shown at the Venice Biennale.

“So we have a confluence of things, having her core practice of photography that inspires her work, a young artist growing her work, and there’s a budding stage of the market,” Krueger explained. “We’re going to see prices on a trajectory.” On the secondary market, “we see her emerging in the 1990s as the first decade as someone that’s entering into the auction spectrum at the secondary market with the top price in that decade around $20,000,” Krueger said. “By the early aughts her top price was around $40,000.” That trajectory has continued upward.


An imagemaker and writer

Lorna Simpson, Vantage Point, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and Sotheby’s.

Picture a high-contrast black-and-white photograph. At the center of it is a Black woman dressed in a white nightgown, her back to the camera. On each side of her body she is pouring water from a vessel, a plastic bottle on one side and a metal pitcher on the other. The moment is captured with the streams of water in mid-air. Underneath the image, a text reads: “She saw him disappear by the river, they ask her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.” Simpson’s standout 1986 piece Waterbearer leaves viewers with no definitive answers but myriad thoughts, questions, and feelings.

“As a curator, I’ve had the privilege of engaging with Lorna’s work since I began my career,” said the Studio Museum in Harlem’s director and chief curator, Thelma Golden. “Her art has not only taught me about the potential of a conceptual practice, but also the power of art to shift and shape audiences.”

In the mid-1980s, Waterbearer was new, and not just for Simpson as an emerging artist. She was pioneering a new style in the field of conceptual photography. “Her solo presentation at the Studio Museum, ‘Lorna Simpson: Duet’ [in 2007], which ran concurrently with her first mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, solidified her reputation as a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and thought leader in the field,” Golden said.

Lorna Simpson
III (Wish #1, Wish #2, Wish #3), 1994
MLTPL

Compositions incorporating photography and text became a signature technique for Simpson. Her subjects, often with their backs turned to the camera, are typically unidentifiable, accompanied by arcane text. The abstruse nature of the work makes space for a lot of dialogue between Simpson and the viewers, and among the viewers themselves. By the mid-1990s, Simpson was exploring new materials, printing photographs on felt and creating lithographs.

“As a leader at an institution whose mission it is to present works to the public that probe and investigate the ways in which we see, contemplate, and celebrate our relationship to the world and one another,” Golden added, “in that moment at the Museum I felt there was an understanding from viewers—the audience strongly identified with the new ways that Lorna portrayed mappings of race, gender, and class, whether that be film or the mixing of text and photography.”


Always experimenting

Lorna Simpson
Corridor (Bulb), 2003
Bill Hodges Gallery

Simpson avoids photography’s typical “show and tell” approach and employs the writing philosophy of “show don’t tell.” Looking at Necklines (1989), the allusion to the subject’s zigzag collar being adjacent to a serrated edge is subtle. And what did that implication even mean? Was Simpson looking at Black women in relationship to vulnerability? Pain? Danger? Death? The addition of language further deepened the conversation. The enigmatic nature of the work created an ongoing conversation and continually evolving meanings. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, everytime you return to it, with more age and experience, Simpson’s images reveal something new; the work never gets old.

In 1997, Simpson made another maneuver, this time into moving image work with the video Call Waiting. The black-and-white short runs 12.5 minutes and chronicles the phone conversations of Black, Asian, and Latinx men and women that are all salaciously interconnected. In true Simpson style, the conversations shroud the subjects in mystery and leave viewers meandering about what it all means. Over the course of her career, Simpson has created 11 films. In 2010, she started her ongoing collage practice, which has expanded organically and hit a notable peak with the Simpsonized Rihanna cover for Essence.

Although Simpson is a consummate artist, she’s also something of a scientist, constantly experimenting with materials, media, and methodologies. Her practice spanning photography, conceptual art, performance art, collage, and filmmaking is a direct result of her professors, who included Allan Kaprow, Eleanor Antin, Babette Mangolte, and Jean-Pierre Gorin. One of the pillars of Simpson’s practice is change. When the process becomes too rote or she feels too comfortable, she instinctively starts to move in another direction and explores new processes. Often the new phases in her practice grow over an arc, starting small and safe and with iteration growing, pushing the parameters of her abilities. Unlike most people, Simpson has a very healthy and perhaps even loving relationship with discomfort. She seeks it out often and relishes it when she finds it.


Back to the canvas

“Lorna’s curiosity is the constant change that guides her practice,” Golden said. “She has always moved through different media and approaches toward her work, but it is a curiosity and the ability not to shy away from innovation and experimentation that has sustained her.” She added: “Lorna is one of the bravest artists I know, moving from concept and idea toward media and mission with energy and elegance that has produced—and continues to—significant bodies of work over the four decades.”

A few years ago, Simpson reacquainted herself with painting. Like all her other pivots, this one began by creating small works that grew over time. Although Simpson started out at the School of Visual Arts as a painting major, she hadn’t indulged in the medium in more than 20 years. Even so, she said the muscle memory from her undergrad training was intact, and she stepped into yet another process with relative ease. The result of her return to painting was 2018’s “Unanswerable” and 2019’s “Darkening,” exhibitions with Hauser & Wirth that featured Simpson’s paintings, with glacial, arctic compositions immersed in deep oceanic blues.

Her new exhibition “Everrrything,” on view at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, brings together sculptures, painting, and collage work. It’s a gumbo of all the artistic elements Simpson has been honing, touching on issues of representation, identity, gender, race, history, and womanhood through a mix of two- and three-dimensional formats.

“Her current exhibition is pushing new boundaries and creating new pathways, but resonates with the rigor and beauty that has characterized her work for years,” Golden said. “Lorna has always worked with intention across mediums, and I think the positive response to her work was and is, in part, due to the audience understanding her desire to communicate in the most clear and direct way possible.”


The market catches up

Lorna Simpson
Solar, 2019
Hauser & Wirth

The widespread explosion of interest in Black art has significantly shifted the market placement of many Black artists. Simpson’s market growth has been exponential. The themes she explores—race, identity, memory, gender, and representation—are at the epicenter of America’s shifting cultural ideologies.

“Within the market today, especially amongst young collectors, people want to see their world reflected back in what they might live with within their collection,” Krueger said. “Perhaps there’s an openness in making sure there’s diversity amongst the works that they’re showing.”

With the expansion of the collector base buying Black artists’ work, Simpson, like many of her peers, signed with a blue-chip gallery that could bolster her position and show her work globally. Since joining Hauser & Wirth’s roster in 2017, Simpson has had solo shows at the gallery’s locations in London, New York, Hong Kong, and now Los Angeles. In that time, her secondary-market prices have steadily risen—her top 10 auction results all date from the last three years, topping out with the $375,000 achieved by her large-format ink and acrylic work Day for Night (2018) at a Sotheby’s day sale in May 2018. Simpson’s 1991 work Vantage Point is on offer in Sotheby’s upcoming “Contemporary Curated” sale in New York, with a relatively modest estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. On the primary market, prices for her work can reach higher still: At the 2019 edition of FIAC in Paris, Hauser & Wirth sold Simpson’s ink and screenprint work Pyramid (2019) for $425,000; last week during Art Basel in Basel, the gallery was offering her new work Midnight LA Time (2021) for $495,000.

Lorna Simpson
To Control Fire, 2019
Hauser & Wirth
Lorna Simpson
Slept, 2020
Hauser & Wirth

“Collectors today, looking for an ever-broadening focus to the work that they’re collecting and the artists that they’re collecting, it’s giving the light to photographers and other artists who might’ve been underrepresented at different times in history,” Krueger said. “Lorna Simpson is a photographer, and as a working woman artist, people are very interested in having represented in their collection.”

Simpson’s place in the contemporary art canon is solidified. She has done what all the greats have done: create work that transcends time. Her work is also a vital record of the Black female experience. She explores each layer of humanity like a never-ending cake. The findings, a series of profound insights about a people who were once considered less than human, will be the deepest impression Simpson makes not only on art history but on human history.

Jewels Dodson
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019