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The Many Layers of Lorna Simpson

In January, the artist Lorna Simpson awed readers of Essence magazine with collages featuring photographs of that month’s cover star, Rihanna. The work was a continuation of Simpson’s ongoing “Earth & Sky” series, in which she replaces the hairdos of Black women in vintage advertisements with decoupaged images of precious metals and cosmic matter, challenging notions that our hair is anything less than sublime. The Rihanna collages spanned a dozen of the issue’s pages, in addition to the cover, and in each portrait the artist superimposed photographs she took of the singer over archival images sourced from The Associated Press, decades-old Ebony magazines and even 19th-century geological lithographs. In one work, Rihanna towers over an entire cityscape, larger than life (on set, Simpson directed her to walk and pose as if she were a giant); the contrasting scales of the background and foreground cast the singer in a different light than that in which she is typically portrayed — less musician or paparazzi subject, more mythical being.

Juxtaposition is a common motif in Simpson’s work, one that the artist often uses to present her subjects in ways that evade the white patriarchal gaze. It allows her, for example, to highlight at once in a single work the reductive ways in which pop culture and the media depict Black women, and their true beauty and multiplicity. She first conceived of “Earth & Sky” in 2016, when the election of Donald Trump sparked a national reckoning with America’s legacy of white supremacy; in the weeks and months that followed the release of the Rihanna images, a period that brought the Capitol insurrection and nationwide conflicts over mask mandates and vaccines, the country’s divisions seemed starker than ever. “As a human being,” Simpson told me recently, “the sense of people not giving a [expletive] about anything, I’ve always found that disturbing. Now, the masks are off on all levels; no more hiding under a guise.” During this period, the Brooklyn-born artist, who is currently splitting her time between New York and Los Angeles, has, she said, had to resist falling apart. The responsibility she feels to nurture the next generation (especially her 23-year-old daughter, Zora Simpson Casebere) has helped — and so has working.

“Hypothetical Physical States” (2021), left, one of several new sculptures in the show, is made partly from slabs of bluestone and painted wooden blocks that echo those in “Stacked Stones/Vibrating Cycles” (2021). Beside it hangs “Time” (2021), a screen print on gessoed fiberglass painted over with ink.Credit…Melody Melamed

Simpson, 61, has used her art to confound notions of gender, sexuality, race and history since the 1980s. A relentless experimenter, she crosses over into new media whenever she feels called to and has created a body of work — encompassing photography, painting, film and performance art — that has established its own more just and nuanced framework of reality, while also grappling with many of the defining external forces of its era, from racism to sexism to homophobia. In 1993, she became the first Black woman to show at the Venice Biennale, and she has continued to garner acclaim for disrupting assumptions about photographic portraiture, paving the way for her contemporaries and later generations of artists to be just as bold.

“Above Head” (2021) is composed of over 200 elements, including photo-booth portraits of Black subjects that Simpson gathered from flea markets and eBay, among other places; vintage print clippings; and pieces of acrylic- and pastel-painted homemade paper.Credit…Melody Melamed
A detail of “Above Head” (2021).Credit…Melody Melamed

Growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, Simpson was immersed in the art world from a young age. She attended an arts high school, and her decision to pursue an arts degree at college was, she says, almost unconscious. Even before she started working as a photojournalist in the early 1980s, documenting street scenes in New York while an undergraduate at the School of Visual Arts, she considered herself an artist; her healthy ego was a shield against the racism and sexism — “old-timey bull,” as she calls it — she endured while a student there. This same confidence gave her the courage to create conceptual work on her own terms, as she did while enrolled in the master’s program at the University of California San Diego in the mid-’80s. When she presented her thesis project, which included “Gestures/Reenactments” (1985), a series of six gelatin prints showing different angles of a Black man’s torso accompanied by fragmented text captions, to the academic committee at her final review, she was met with silence, she recalls. “My work was above their heads,” she told me simply.

By the time Simpson moved back to New York in 1985, she was producing work that examined and pushed back against the stereotypes associated with Black women’s identities, including “Easy for Who to Say” (1989), in which each of five color Polaroids of a woman’s face is blocked out by an oval bearing one of the five vowels. Underneath “A” is the word “Amnesia,” under “E” is “Error,” followed by “Indifference,” “Omission” and “Uncivil.” “She,” a four-panel Polaroid work from 1992, similarly explores the gap between what is revealed and what is hidden, what is written and what is true, inviting the viewer to consider the creation of meaning; it shows the mouth, chin and body of a figure whose gender is uncertain but is seemingly proclaimed by the word “female,” which is mounted in cursive above the panels. Wearing an oversize suit, the subject oozes ambiguity and is smiling, almost defiantly, as if to say, “You can’t box me in.”

The paintings “All Night” (2021), left, and “Observer” (2021) are displayed on stacks of bluestone and wood blocks — materials found in various iterations throughout the exhibition.Credit…Melody Melamed

Both “Gestures/Reenactments” and “She” appeared alongside several of Simpson’s other early photo-text works in her pivotal1992 solo exhibition, “For the Sake of the Viewer,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which came soon after her first major solo museum exhibition, “Lorna Simpson: Projects 23,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1990.Since then, Simpson has been consistently heralded as one of the most influential conceptual artists of her time.In 2007, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York mounted a 20-year retrospective of her work, including photography from the late 1990s and early ’00s that abandoned the human figure completely — “Public Sex,” for example, a series of serigraphs made between 1995 and ’98, presents images of urban settings (a park, a fire escape, a public bathroom) and accompanying captions and grapples with the milieu of sexual titillation, voyeurism, emptiness, loss and death during the AIDS crisis — as well as early works of sculpture. The 2010s brought about Simpson’s celebrated collage works anchored by portraits of Black women cut from the pages Ebony and Jet magazines, including her ongoing “Earth & Sky” and “Riunite & Ice” (2014-present) series. And in 2019, she was awarded the J. Paul Getty Medal for her outstanding achievements in the arts.

From left, the paintings “Mirage,” “Storm,” “Cloaked” and “Ghost Note” (all 2021).Credit…Melody Melamed

For “Everrrything,” Simpson’s latest solo exhibition, which is currently on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, collage was again “a jumping-off point,” she says. The show’s nine works on paper coax new narratives from found images, inviting viewers to see contemporary American life through the artist’s eyes. Cutouts from archival issues of Black cultural magazines — an image of a woman from a 1970s Jet pinup calendar, another from an Ebony centerfold — feature in combination with renderings of galactic matter from 19th-and 20th-century celestial maps, as in the show’s multipart titular work, “Everrrything, 2021.” In one panel, the body of a partially nude woman, seated on the carpeted floor of a living room, is overlaid with a cutting from an 1810 woodblock print of a solar system. The image seems to point to the light-years of time and space contained within a Black woman’s existence, while also suggesting that these are erased within the one-dimensional medium of a pinup. In addition to collage works and paintings — which measure up to eight by 12 feet and which Simpson made by digitally enlarging vintage photos from Ebony, combining them with archival pictures of arctic landscapes, screen-printing those composites onto fiberglass and then painting over the resulting images with ink — the show includes several new sculptures. In the gallery’s courtyard, visitors are encouraged to interact with “Stacked Stones/Vibrating Cycles” (2021), which consists of large slabs of bluestone and wooden blocks painted blue — all of varying dimensions — arranged in 15 stacks of differing heights. The stones are intended to bring to mind the two cities Simpson calls home: Los Angeles, where the material is found in state parks, and Brooklyn, where it is used for “rail yards and platforms,” she says. On top of the piles sit obsidian singing bowls that evoke the ones Simpson plays in her home for relaxation; the work is both a meeting place, where visitors can commune around the stacks as they would at an intimate gathering with friends and loved ones, and a place of respite generously offered in a time, as the show’s title suggests, of seemingly unrelenting tumult.

Speaking over Zoom from Los Angeles earlier this month, Simpson answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire. Seated in front of an abstract artwork (not hers) at Hauser & Wirth, she responded to each question thoroughly, always pausing for ten or so seconds first to gather her thoughts. We laughed, we shook our heads and, at the end of our conversation, we exchanged phone numbers.

A close-up of “Hypothetical Physical States” (2021), whose stone-and-wood stack is topped with a glass cloche.Credit…Melody Melamed
“Ink Drawn” (2021), which, like many of the paintings in the show, features an enlarged image from a vintage magazine screen-printed onto fiberglass.Credit…Melody Melamed

What is your day like? What’s your work schedule?

The political and emotional toll of the pandemic has brought me to a place of pulling back from everything. It took me a while to get back into working every day. But working isn’t about just showing up in the studio. It isn’t so clear-cut in terms of its relationship to the WASPy, American idea of daily work and “putting in the hours.” It’s about thinking about things. I’ll wake up from a dream imagining things. So my intellectual and emotional relationship to what I’m doing doesn’t always happen in the studio.

What does your studio look like?

I have three different spaces. There’s my studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is for painting and collage. There’s enough space there to configure an entire exhibition. I can step back a good 60 feet and get a sense of the depth and iteration of paintings. Another space, in the David Adjaye-designed building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is used for archival work. The third is my home in Brooklyn. It has a courtyard and a garden, and that’s become very important for having conversations in person. The living room couch — from which we watch instances of white supremacy and insurrection on TV — is another space that is just as important when thinking about my work. So many things have happened across these spaces. Ideas flow through each of them.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

I always start with a sense that I need to just mess around. It’s important to begin those kinds of investigations without any other sense than pure experience and feeling. I’ve been making collages for a while, but recently I found all of these celestial maps. In them, there’s a Corona Borealis constellation. You can put a million objects in a collage but I limit myself to a certain amount of things. For a work in this show, for instance, that included an image from a 1970s Jet pinup calendar. On one side, it has a pinup, but beneath it there’s a Black history and achievements calendar. I kept the subject’s eyes to represent the masks we wear outside. But the original environment is supplanted with the galaxy. The galaxy has more to do with endlessness, instead of the narrowness that a pinup suggests. In the pandemic, it’s hard to think of making work. I’m blessed to have the relationship with the work that I do. With all the uncertainty, I’m still willing to try things and proceed from there — to trust that I will come out on the other side.

Blue, a color that often features prominently in Simpson’s paintings, dominates the landscape of “Reoccuring” (2021), in which a berglike form meets a blue-black body of water.Credit…Melody Melamed

How do you know when you’re done?

I just do. It’s intuitive. I ask myself, Is it done? And if it is, I say, Oh, I think it’s done.

What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?

I sold a work to a friend of my parents. I don’t remember for how much, as they only wanted a portion of the whole piece. It was one panel of text from “Gestures/Reenactments” (1985).

How many assistants do you have?

Only one, Jennifer Hsu.

What music do you play when you’re making art?

I have a playlist on Spotify. For the past two months, I’ve just played my “favorites,” anything that comes up that I like. It’s kind of amazing. Jason Moran — his “I’ll Play the Blues for You” — lots of blues. There’s “A Long Walk” by Jill Scott. “Kindred II” and “I’m Not in Love” by Kelsey Lu. And “Satisfied ’n Tickled Too” by Taj Mahal.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

From a very young age, because my parents, who aren’t New Yorkers, decided to move there from the Midwest before I was born. They loved art and theater and would take me to everything. They really built a monster. How could you expect me to not be an artist? I was an only child. I went to an arts high school. Art was already unconscious for me. And by the time I got to college, at 18 or 19 years old, I was very aware of racism and sexism. It was 1979 or 1980, and even then, I was like, “Oh God.” My ego about that was already there, and then in my last year of college, at the School of Visual Arts, I was walking through Astor Place and there was this Häagen-Dazs shop. I remember reading somewhere that Häagen-Dazs is a made-up name for a company, it doesn’t mean anything. I was like, “People are just out here making stuff up — I can make stuff up.” The level of ego I took on … like, I have the privilege of making stuff up. I’ve always, in my career, pushed the bounds. When I started painting in earnest in 2015, I knew I was really messing with something. I have friends who’ve been doing that for 30 years.

All this is to say, I get to figure things out, I do it in a private way and then I get to judge it. Being a professional artist? That’s defined by my relationship to the work. It’s solely mine, my choosing, who I collaborate with, what kinds of conversation I’m in. I will never and have never let other people’s understanding of my work be a litmus test of my own value or professionalism.

From left, the paintings “Inside Blue” (2021) and Zenith (2021).Credit…Melody Melamed

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

Every few days while I’m in L.A. I go to Erewhon, a market here. It sells something called the wakame and kale salad. It’s really delicious and has a million things in it: kelp, kale, snap peas. I can’t make it myself because it’d take a hundred years.

How often do you talk to other artists?

Anytime I need to. A lot of them are my friends. When I wanted to paint, in 2015, I called up Glenn Ligon, who’d been excelling at it for decades. I talked to Okwui Enwezor, who asked me to send him a proposal before he considered putting me in that year’s Venice Biennale. And I’ve been in conversation recently with Robin Coste Lewis, who’s the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Part of our conversation has been around the millennia, not hundreds of years but millennia, in terms of measuring Black existence and bodies of color and Indigenouspeople. These conversations have been so amazing and freeing in this time of fighting over history and territory.

What’s your worst habit?

Procrastination.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

Send funny memes to my daughter from Instagram.

What are you reading?

Oh God, I don’t have it in front of me. It’s written by a Black physicist who talks about the language of science with respect to the theory of the universe. Terms like “black hole,” and other dichotomies of light and dark. She writes of her experience of being a grad student through to becoming a physicist. She talks about agency as a young Black woman in this field, about not being asked what she thinks in discussions, while watching her white counterparts be asked what they think. I’ve been reading it and thinking of our bodies as Black folk. Hundreds of years of white supremacy. Still, we don’t begin there, our bodies don’t begin there, our history doesn’t begin there. Not to say that that inflection point isn’t important, but we didn’t begin there. This has been freeing to think about because there has been so much denial about the reality of the relative present of the past hundreds of years. I texted my daughter for the title — it’s on my bedside: It’s Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime & Dreams Deferred” (2021).

What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?

David Hammons’s “Phat Free” (1995/1999). The first time I saw it was in the office of the Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles, but I also recently came across it on Instagram and was brought right back to it. It’s so simple and mesmerizing and musical. He knows the sound of kicking a can along asphalt will have a certain resonance, and that the duration of time before kicking again will create another resonance, that catching up to it will create another resonance. That [expletive] piece.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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