LORNA SIMPSON, “Untitled (Two Necklines),” 1989


WASHINGTON, D.C. — TWO DAYS AFTER her new exhibition of paintings opened at Salon 94 in New York, Lorna Simpson gave a talk at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She offered a visual journey of her practice over the past three decades, sharing the concepts behind some of her most recognized projects. The program was the inaugural presentation of the National Gallery’s Arnold Newman Lecture Series on Photography.

Simpson opened the lecture by explaining, as she described it, who she is as an artist. “I’ve had always throughout my life a very strong interest in photography and artistically that was my starting point to a certain extent. I was trained as a painter, as most foundation art school artists are, but quickly gravitated toward photography,” she said.

lorna-simpson-by-george-pittsBased in Brooklyn, N.Y., Simpson earned a BFA from the School of Visual Arts (1983) and an MFA from the University of California, San Diego (1985). She is a conceptual artist who has primarily expressed herself through photography and video, using the human figure and pairing images with text to explore and challenge conventional views of gender, culture, identity, history, and memory. Throughout her career, she has taken her practice in new directions. For more than two decades she has been printing on felt. She began exploring drawing and painting again about 10 years ago. More recently, she has been inspired by vintage images from Ebony and Jet magazines, and the archives of the Associated Press.

At the National Gallery, “Untitled (Two Necklines)” (1989) by Simpson is on view in “Intersections: Photographs and Videos from the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.” The exhibition is organized around five themes and “Untitled” is featured in the Identity section alongside works by 20th century photographers James Van Der Zee and Roy Decarava and contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas. Simpson’s work—consisting of two circular framed photographs focusing on a woman’s mouth, clavicle, and the neckline of a plain white garment with a list of words on plastic plates displayed between them—is representative of her unique approach to image making.

AFTER ASKING FOR THE LIGHTS to be turned down, Simpson talked through a selection of her photography and video works projected on a large screen at the front of the half-filled auditorium. She discussed how she thinks about her work, which she said may not give the viewer all the information they want, the very precious details that are usually present in photographic portraits. In exchange she said, she delivers something else, brings something else, to the viewer’s attention. She developed this approach early on.


Lorna Simpson spoke about her photography practice at the National Gallery of Art on Sept. 10, 2016.


As an undergraduate, she paid her tuition with student loans, and said she used any excess funds to travel throughout the United States, Europe and North Africa, her camera in tow. And then she had a desire present what she captured.

“Before I got out of college, …I would participate in shows. But then after a while I felt these kind of documentary, street photography shows, all the work is presented in the same way. And the way that the viewer walks through the exhibition is with the same tools of reading one image from the other, and with the same assumptions about the photographer’s intentions about who is pictured in the frame,” Simpson said. “I wanted to create some other kind of dialogue between the viewer and myself, about what they are looking at, and why they ask certain kinds questions, or make certain kinds assumptions.”

“I wanted to create some other kind of dialogue between the viewer and myself, about what they are looking at, and why they ask certain kinds questions, or make certain kinds assumptions.”
— Lorna Simpson, National Gallery of Art

DURING THE LECTURE, Simpson revealed where she created “Waterbearer” (1986), which graces the cover of “Lorna Simpson,” a comprehensive volume documenting her practice. She said curator and art historian Kellie Jones helped her get a job as a secretary in small private museum in Soho that no longer exists. Simpson stayed late in the evenings utilizing the offices to surreptitiously photograph the work.

Currently on view in “30 Americans” (opening Sept. 24 at Tacoma Art Museum), “Wigs” (1994) features images of dozens of wigs printed on felt displayed gallery style. She bought them all at Fulton Mall in Brooklyn. “I just went to all these different shops and found as many different kinds of hair pieces, wigs that I could possibly find in an effort to build this template of personalities based on these fanciful hairdos that are wigs,” Simpson said. “But also to then examine the construction of femininity through this idea of the way one wears their hair, the way one adorns themselves, so that would then be the construction not only of gender but also sexuality.”


Lorna Simpson, Wigs (Portfolio), 1994, waterless lithograph and felt. © Lorna Simpson
LORNA SIMPSON, “Wigs (Portfolio),” 1994 (21 lithographs on felt with 17 lithographed felt text panels). | Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami


Simpson presented “Easy to Remember” (2001). The video installation is a mosaic of mouths, 15 male and female vocalists humming the jazz ballad of the same name. She screened a portion of “Corridor” (2003), a double-channel video documenting side-by-side the mundane activities of two black women—a servant in 1860 and a middle-class homeowner in 1960—each going about their day in a domestic setting. Both are portrayed by artist Wangechi Mutu. While their actions loosely mirror one another, they are separated by 100 years and vastly different circumstances. She also gave backstories on “9 Props” (1995) and “Chess” (2013), a collaboration with composer Jason Moran.

Before concluding, Simpson commented on a few other projects, including “Untitled (Necklines),” which is in the museum’s collection. She described the image as “sparse” and said it was executed in a studio set up that involved a couple of her girlfriends, Alva and Diane. More than 25 years after she made the work, it remains incredibly relevant.

She likened the text in the work to a concrete poem and recited the words: “Ring, surround, lasso, noose, eye, areola, halo, cuffs, collar, loop, feel the ground sliding from under you.” The unease and instability referenced in the final text plate she said is about one’s condition or status and “what would that mean kind of in a private sense or a public sense.” Simpson added, “So therefore, the kind of climate we have been living in for the past few years, either in terms of police brutality or gun violence, I feel that it’s a piece that speaks very clearly to that in many ways.” CT


“Intersections” is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 2, 2017. In New York, a gallery show of new paintings by Lorna Simpson is being presented at Salon 94 Bowery (Sept. 8, 2016–Oct. 22, 2016). Opening in November, “Focus: Lorna Simpson” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas is the first museum exhibition to feature the artist’s large-scale acrylic, ink, and silkscreened paintings.


IMAGES: Top, LORNA SIMPSON, “Untitled (Two Necklines),” 1989 (two gelatin silver prints and eleven plastic plaques). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2005; At right, Lorna Simpson by George Pitts.


To further study Lorna Simpson’s work, “Lorna Simpson” is a comprehensive catalogue documenting artist’s body of work over the past three decades. Accompanying an exhibition of the same name, “Lorna Simpson: Works on Paper,” explores her collages and drawings. An earlier monograph simply titled “Lorna Simpson” accompanied a tour exhibition and includes contributions from Okwui Enwezor, Helaine Posner, Hilton Als, and Thelma Golden.



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