Lorna Simpson is an African American photographer, painter, multimedia, collage, and video artist. Simpson is known for her elegant, high-impact mostly black & white photos with a graphic punch. Her image-and-text work combines photography and text in her photographic installations. Her subject is racial and gender stereotypes, presented in posed scenarios accompanied by evocative text. However, her written text may or may not describe the pictures in her sequences of photographs. To make her subjects elusive she often shows them from the back with their faces and eyes obscured.
Simpson received her B.F.A. at New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1983. She was a member of the Rodeo Caledonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater, a 1980s New York collective that staged just two performances. After graduating from college, Simpson traveled to Europe and Africa and was doing documentary photography. She met artist Carrie Mae Weems, then a graduate art student at U.C. San Diego, who suggested that Simpson come to California.
Simpson spent her formative years studying at U.C. San Diego where she received her M.F.A. in 1985. For her master’s thesis she presented 6 large photos of a young, athletic African American man wearing white clothes. He was pictured in different poses with his face unseen. Texts of incomplete, enigmatic, and disturbing narratives accompanied each photo. The texts offered an incomplete narrative that could be read as vulnerable or powerful. In New York this work “Gestures/Re-enactments” was shown at the Alternate Museum and was the reason she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship that year. From “Gestures/Re-enactments,” according to her, her career was born.
In the 1990s, she also worked with video and sculpture. Her work was shown in the Venice Biennale in 1990, the first African American woman to exhibit there. In 2003, she made a video installation of two women side-by-side: an 1860 servant and a 1960 wealthy homeowner. Both women were played by her friend, artist Wangechi Mutu. Her work allowed for the comparison and contrasting of the women and the relationship between them.
She has worked in sculpture. “They Cheated Death” consists of short stacks of magazines held down by blocks of glass. Since 2010, Simpson has been using found images and photographs from magazines such as “Ebony” and “Jet” and reformatting them for her work. She paints over these source images to make collages, transforming African American hair styles into vividly colored abstractions. Her 1994 piece, “Wigs,” presents a study of hairpieces as agents for physical transformation. Recently Simpson has turned to painting huge ink and acrylic works on wood panels.
Simpson went on to wide acclaim as an artist and was awarded the Whitney Museum of Art Award in 2001. In 2003, she was the Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Colgate University. In 2013, she was Artist-in-Residence at the Aspen Art Museum. In 2019, she received the J. Paul Getty Medal for her contribution to the arts.
She was the subject of a 20 year retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2007. She has had solo exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum, Aspen Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Brooklyn Museum.