AGAINST A STORMY BACKDROP, the 2019 J. Paul Getty Medals were presented to Mary Beard, an author and classics professor at the University of Cambridge, and American artists Ed Ruscha and Lorna Simpson. The recipients were announced in January and a dinner was held in their honor Sept. 16.

Simpson’s recent paintings have been dominated by deep-blue expanses, plumes of cloudy gray, and glacial masses—natural phenomena referencing unease and change, as well as the power of endurance. Enlarged and transformed into a wall installation, her work set the scene for the celebration held at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.


Sept. 16: Thelma Golden introduces 2019 Getty Medal recipient Lorna Simpson. The artist’s work is installed on the back wall. | Photo by Sarah Waldorf, Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust


The institution’s highest honor, the annual Getty Medal recognizes distinguished individuals for “their extraordinary contributions to the practice, understanding and support” of the arts and humanities.

The Getty described Brooklyn-based Simpson as “a pioneer of conceptual art whose multimedia works challenge conventional views of gender, identity, and culture.” The foundation of her 35-year career is a boundary-pushing photography practice that has fueled new chapters—an ongoing series of collage portraits and studies inspired by images in Ebony and Jet magazines, a commitment in recent years to painting executed on a grand scale, and explorations with sculpture.

In a video made on the occasion of Simpson receiving the 2019 Getty Medal, LeRonn P. Brooks, associate curator of the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative, and Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones, a senior consultant to the initiative, discussed her work.

“I first saw Lorna’s work in a book by bell hooks called ‘Art On My Mind,’ and it was a work called the ‘Waterbearer’ and it just was the first time I actually saw the sort of dignity and humanity of a black woman photographer actually speaking through black women’s forms to speak about just the reality of what burden can be. But through the lens of giving her humanity,” said Brooks.

“I think the key thing you want to know about Lorna Simpson’s work or Lorna Simpson as an artist is that she’s always experimenting. She’s always on to the next thing.” Jones said.

She later added: “Lorna’s work always makes me laugh because when I see it it’s just like, of course she would do that, of course she would make large paintings, of course she would put text in them, of course she would make sculpture out of Ebony magazine. But could I predict? No, not in all these years that I’ve known her.”

“I think the key thing you want to know about Lorna Simpson’s work or Lorna Simpson as an artist is that she’s always experimenting. She’s always on to the next thing.” — Kellie Jones

LeRonn P. Brooks of the Getty Research Institute and art historian Kellie Jones discuss the work of 2019 Getty Medal recipient Lorna Simpson. | Video by The Getty


Artists, curators, museum leaders, collectors, and philanthropists were in attendance at the dinner celebration. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made remarks and Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, a 2018 Getty Medal recipient, presented the honor to Simpson. Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin did the honors for Ruscha and former British Museum director Neil MacGregor recognized Beard.

A relatively new award, the Getty Medal was established in 2013 to pay tribute to achievements in the areas of museology, art historical research, conservation science, and philanthropy, the foundational interests of the Getty Trust. The medal has been bestowed previously on 11 individuals, including Golden, Agnes Gund, Frank Gehry, Ellsworth Kelly, Mario Vargas Llosa, Yo-Yo Ma, and Richard Serra.

When the 2019 recipients were first announced, James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said of Simpson: “She is at once a photographer and multimedia artist whose work is both trenchant in its critique of race, gender, and identity, and exquisite in its formal beauty and technical execution.”

The latter qualities were on display for all to see throughout the evening. CT


IMAGE: Above, at left, Lorna Simpson. | Photo by James Wang


Lorna Simpson’s work was recently presented in Los Angeles, where “Lorna Simpson: Summertime” was on view at The Underground Museum (July 13-Sept. 8, 2019).

FIND MORE about Lorna Simpson on her website


In “Lorna Simpson Collages,” the artist’s layered portraits inspired by black-and-white images from Jet and Ebony magazines fill nearly every page with scholar Elizabeth Alexander providing a poetic introduction. A comprehensive monograph documenting her three-decade career, “Lorna Simpson” was published in 2013 and accompanied a traveling exhibition presented at Jeu de Paume (Paris), Haus der Kunst (Munich), and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy (Andover, Mass.). Authored by Joan Simon, the fully illustrated volume features contributions by Naomi Beckwith, Thomas Lax, Marta Gili and Elvan Zabunyun. “Waterbearer” (1986) by Lorna Simpson, the photograph referenced by LeRonn P. Brooks in the video above, graces the cover.


Sept. 16: With her work setting the scene, Lorna Simpson accepts 2019 Getty Medal. | Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for The J. Paul Getty Trust


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.