Mammoth scale paintings of glaciers drenched in nocturnal blues guard Lorna Simpson’s Brooklyn Navy Yard studio on a rainy April day. This is the type of blue that permeates the sky at the darkest hour of the night, when above us is so pitch black that the sky resembles a dense blue. The same blue is echoed in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which Simpson and I discussed during our conversation between laughter, sighs, commiserations, and hugs towards the end. She is warm, maternal, determined, and ardent, cracking into laughter during hefty conversations about art, social justice, and the history of Black America.
On ViewHauser & Wirth
April 25 – July 26, 2019
Simpson’s benevolent yet piercing approach to life is not far from how her art grasps us under the guise of beautiful images of models from magazine spreads. Her unassuming warmth and determination to always look into my eyes during our conversation melts the breeze emanating from her paintings of mountainous ice chunks gloriously standing at remote corners of the world. She blows up images culled from science publications and prints them onto gessoed fiberglass, after adding occasional cutouts of text. Then, the surface is hers to paint into blue, horizontally or on the floor, letting the blues build serpentine paths on the surface. In the far corner of her spacious studio, blown up images of women pulled from Ebony and Jet magazine ads stare in convincing perfection. Arguably her most extensively know works, her collages of women from vintage magazine ads have over the decades evolved into bridges between America’s past and present histories of race and visibility.
Osman Can Yerebakan (Rail): How long did it take you to finish the Arctic paintings?
Lorna Simpson: Over the course of a year, I think. They are constructed images of landscapes, glaciers, mountains, and snow caps that are all somewhat fictional. They get composed digitally and sent to be silkscreened at a studio. Later, I paint on them so there's a little bit of time in the process of the steps of preparing the surface for inking them up.
Rail: What about the strips?
Simpson: Strips are all in the digital image.
Rail: I’ve been thinking about the group exhibition Blue Black, which Glenn Ligon had curated at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in 2017. The exhibition made parallels between the colors blue and black. The relation between black and blue in these paintings made me think of that show, or his approach to that color. Your choice of blue is consistent.
Simpson: This is from a body of work from the past four or five years. It’s really difficult for me to talk about it, because there has been so much going on in my emotional and private life that has complicated being able to answer, "What are you working on?” or “What does it mean?"
Rail: Everything has accumulated.
Simpson: I’ve been personally fascinated by environments that are somewhat glacial and nocturnal. There is blue, or blues, in the nocturnal. But also, I guess they do have something to do with the Arctic and North Pole simply by my attraction to that kind of imagery.
Rail: Right, in the aesthetic sense.
Simpson: At the same time, think of other artists who have dealt with that subject or a landscape as a point of departure, such as Isaac Julien’s True North (2004 – 2007) or Terry Adkins’s Nutjuitok (Polar Star) (2012) which walks in the footsteps of Matthew Henson, and more recently the work of Robin Coste Lewis, who is in the process of working on an epic poem about the Arctic that spans centuries and locations. She’s from South Central Los Angeles, so there are elements of her own experiences about memory and displacement within L.A. So it becomes, to me, this landscape that is not about being Inuit, and not being from a physically hostile, very harsh environment.
Rail: These mountains look so far that they’re almost otherworldly.
Simpson: And it's harsh, even if you're native to that landscape, it has serious rules and vindictive…
Rail: Survival techniques?
Simpson: Yes, exactly.
Rail: A few months ago, I was in Vienna, where I saw a group show called Antarctica: An Exhibition on Alienation at Kunsthalle Wien. The title comes from a film Michelangelo Antonioni planned to realize, and it was going to be called “Antarctica” due to his interest in depicting contemporary numbness and consequential angst amongst society. He used Antarctica as a metaphor due to the coldness it represents.
Simpson: It does seem very foreign there as if you were on a different planet, which I guess is a part of my fascination. I see all these corollaries of other artists who have approached that material maybe more directly, but certainly the way they then spin off of it as a place and not so much in its appropriation. They talk about a mental and subliminal place. All the work seemed to derail and go into other areas. It's been interesting not to look at my work through the lens of my own thinking about it, but also think about particularly Robin Coste Lewis. She has been talking about it poetically, which has really been interesting.
Rail: But there is also the race element to the color blue. I remember the film Moonlight and its unpublished play version, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Glenn Ligon’s group show embraced that element as well.
Rail: There’s also a correlation between the imagery of glaciers and your ice sculptures made out of glass. You showed them at your London exhibition with Hauser & Wirth.
Simpson: Yeah, there was also a giant snowball with a woman sitting on top of a collage. This time there is just a simple totem of Ebony magazines in the middle of a room as a sculptural element reaching around 12 feet. There is no ice sculpture in the current show.
Rail: The symbolism behind it makes me think of Babylon with a towering pile of imagery, text, and history.
Simpson: With all the volumes, yes. I wanted something singular and simple related to the materiality of the work, either in terms of the source material used for collages, or some of that material in painting. I created this totem for the archive I worked from.
Rail: It's the centerpiece of everything else you see.
Rail: Do the strips of text in the paintings come from Ebony and Jet magazines as well?
Simpson: Yeah, it's just slices. My earlier work involved a different kind of poetics with use of my own text. Text appears much more abstract in the work now. I am after the suggestion of an archive or of a much larger narrative rather than the prose I used before.
Rail: Text appears in many ways in your work, one of which is based on things you heard, read, or witnessed, or based on magazine spreads, but there is also the text you wrote. How has the process evolved over the years?
Simpson: Exactly, in that way! [Laughs] An artist or writer has different modes they can keep exploring either through writing or through making art. I work in different mediums and can go down these roads. I just make sure not to discard them since they come in various ways of working and then evolve. I can circle back and then play with them different ways. That is the basis evolution of either me composing my own text, or appropriating text from a magazine copy, or writing concrete poetry with conceptual iterations of words. This has been the course of the way it works for me. People really desire a narrative; they want to see a fully formed, closed, succinct message. I’ve always in some way avoided a very closed, concise narrative. It's just a bit more abstracted this way. This is an open ended suggestion of a larger context rather than prose. The magazine pile is the totem of all these texts.
Rail: Does text or the image come first for you?
Simpson: It always depends on the idea and the best way conceptually to play with it. In the earlier work, sometimes it was the text that came first and then an image would follow. Then sometimes the image would then inspire the usage of a word with multiple meanings over and over again.
Rail: It could be so clear that you couldn’t help using that word, I imagine.
Simpson: Exactly. So, there is a back and forth. I guess my approach to working has been not to assume what it is that I do. For example, there’s a piece titled 1957 – 2009 (2009), about photographs of an anonymous woman I found on eBay. The idea of what I thought would be interesting was completely antithetical to what I would finally do with that piece. And yet I said, "Oh god, but that's really a good idea."
Rail: But that's the challenge to yourself!
Simpson: Exactly. So, I tried not to assume by the trajectory of the work what the solution should be or what this piece should be. But I really tried to step back as though it's not me. [Laughs] What would be interesting if I encountered something freshly? There's a little bit of a game that I played with myself not to get caught in an assumption about why we use this and that in order to comprise elements of a work, or this is the kind of exit out of the problematic of how to solve this particular work.
Rail: You’ve almost never appeared in your own work?
Simpson: I have in 1957–2009 and that's the point! I get lost in it, you have to look really closely at it to see me. I’m doppelgängers of both the male and female characters that are fictionalized in it.
Rail: Speaking of images, there's an element of search for you in terms of the magazines you use and women you find in them. Let’s talk about the physical search and going out in the world to find them. How has the internet also changed your search? How do you source the magazines?
Simpson: I find the magazines through flea markets.
Rail: Do you consider that a part of your process?
Simpson: Yes, absolutely.
Rail: Going out and flipping through the pages…
Simpson: Looking through the pages, where I source different images. Since I've been doing this a while now, I have these spreadsheets of different images.
Rail: Do you have fixed places you go?
Simpson: I have—there used to be a flea market around the corner from my house for many years, so I became friendly with people who sell things there, particularly Black memorabilia, so I started buying from them. Now, I have one person who travels to different trade shows and flea markets between here, Texas, and Florida. He asks me if I need some more Ebonies. So, yes, I have someone who can be my eyes for me.
Rail: Does he know what you do with them?
Simpson: He's seen the work. He helped me actually collect some for this totem because I didn't have enough of my own archived to compile it.
Rail: You specifically use Ebony and Jet magazines. Do they have specific connotations for you among Black publications?
Simpson: They were published and owned by the same company, Johnson Publishing Company. I think Jet has now become a digital magazine.
Rail: And the aesthetic has changed over the years.
Simpson: Yes, since the ’80s, they’ve completely changed the aesthetic.
Rail: I always look at magazines while waiting for the subway, and I did that coming here today. Each magazine has a specific aesthetic, yet one thing is common: they’re visually dense. How do you juxtapose abstraction in these paintings and collages with figuration to let them intertwine? Is there a mathematic to it?
Simpson: They just live together—or I just do! [Laughs] Because these are landscapes; they are a certain kind of figuration that is abstracted by their elements. They're not real in a way. But some become more abstract with the way they're painted or obliterated.
Rail: Yet, you don’t follow an intuition?
Simpson: Yes, I don't feel one works against another or that there needs to be a separation. They just occupy the same space, because that’s the kind of space they inhabit in my imagination.
Rail: Life is a combination of both. For example, this couch is figurative but it's also a geometric form.
Simpson: That's true!
Rail: We attribute meaning to forms as we look at them with certain emotions, which ties to the ideal of hair in your work in terms of being a field of abstraction or free form.
Simpson: Maybe, it’s also a little bit on the surreal side. For example, the series of works titled Earth and Sky, which are very small collages I have a few of here at the studio. They're lithographs of specimens of different geological forms. They superimpose these heads.
Rail: And watercolors too!
Simpson: And, the watercolors. To me they feel a little surreal and abstracted.
Rail: They also come with little descriptions of the topographic terminology you pulled from text books, which again circles back to your appropriation of text.
Simpson: Yes, I generally let the work contain text as well.
Rail: You also use watercolor and make the hair pop. Almost as if you cracked open the head and have memories, words, and history explode. Everything about that woman bursts out through the hair. They are regular humans, yet all of a sudden they become these surreal aliens.
Simpson: What's interesting is that they're ads for wigs or beauty products. They are not celebrities culled from the magazines.
Rail: They’re anonymous.
Simpson: This makes them hyperreal and takes away from the ordinariness they were originally presented with in the magazine.
Rail: They are still anonymous, but you almost give them extraterrestrial elements. How do you associate with those faces? I'm sure you've seen thousands of faces at this point. Do you recognize some of them? I'm sure models didn’t pose just once.
Simpson: It's funny, because there are certain heads or different things used over and over in the work, sort of subconsciously, I am sure. There are certain faces I’ve returned to. In this exhibition, there are superimposed different faces—10 in total—on top of one another. They’re different models with their heads in various positions. They look up or down, but there is a kind of similarity when you superimpose their faces.
Rail: I mean they all look generic at some point, right?
Simpson: I know, but you don't realize when you are looking at them digitally with a selection of let's say 20 heads. You start compiling them, and then think, “Oh my god, is that the same person!?” When I superimpose them, the image looks like just one person!
Rail: And you don't want to convey that notion?
Simpson: The anatomy of the face has been an interesting element. I like to play with these beauty looks shot in simple ways.
Rail: They’re almost always shot from the same angle.
Simpson: Over the side, straight on.
Rail: Big hair. You never use contemporary headshots—what era do you stop at?
Simpson: I haven't used, probably outside between early 1970s and the late ’80s.
Rail: You chose to stop at the late ’80s?
Simpson: Because there is a point in terms of advertising and design of the magazine that takes a shift and things become more generic, similar to what you said before in terms of faces starting to look the same.
Rail: 1950s looked generic, for example.
Simpson: I guess the ’50s are maybe not far enough away from the ’80s to see much of difference in the way that the images and ads are made. This had so much to do with the politics of the times and getting advertisers to place national ads within a Black magazine. There’s a moment where a decision is made that a) they get the ads but b) that you can’t really just have a bunch of White people in a Black magazine. It doesn’t make sense because they are advertising to a demographic, so it's one of the beginnings of incorporating Black subjects into national ads. And the awkwardness of that is very noticeable from the ’50s through the late ’70s. It goes in line with the politics of the time. I think by the ’80s and ’90s, the magazine has become much more formal and operates confined in terms of what the advertisers want. You know advertisers have already figured out a normalization of a combination of a White woman, a Black woman, and an Asian woman in their ads.
Rail: When you look at ads now, there's always a White, a Black, and an Asian woman because they want to make sure all customers are represented.
Simpson: In order to cover their basics. But what I mean is that it's less idiosyncratic; there's a formula to it that you just employ and that's it, and you're done. I feel this was a period of time of really figuring out in terms of ad agencies and they got that, and there was much more leeway for the photographers. There's a cigarette ad for Lucky Strikes from the ’70s, I think. There is a man sitting in a booth as though he's a radio announcer, and he has a cigarette hitting up against a microphone because it's too long. This is an ad for cigarettes that they made extra-long so you can have an extra-long cigarette and smoke longer. The whole point of the ad is that the cigarettes are so long that they are breaking all the time because they are crashing into something. It's bumping into his microphone, but he has this shirt that has psychedelic mushrooms on it. [Laughs]
Rail: Those vintage ads now offer different readings from perspectives of gender and race.
Simpson: Yes, sexuality, for sure. There's a Playboy ad for men’s suits, and it's a man in a suit and there's a woman dressed as a Playboy bunny.
Rail: I can imagine.
Simpson: But, it's borrowing the Hugh Hefner brand, so it's not even about Hugh Hefner, it's about this other suit.
Rail: It's an ad for the shirt?
Simpson: For what this man is wearing but it's this parody of costume, sexuality, and desire in terms of gender. But certainly, there's all these strange bedfellows and assumptions about gender, sexuality, and race.
Rail: It's like a parody of a parody of a parody.
Simpson: Exactly. So, that's also besides, of course, Ebony being this really rich cultural chronicler of politics, sports, editorial, international politics, and entertainment. It’s amazing to look at the vehicle to make this possible, which is the ads.
Rail: What kinds of ads they choose says a lot about the magazine.
Simpson: In order to make it viable, you need big national ads. When you look at Ebony pages, I guess that's where it drops off by the ’80s is that you could have small insane company ads and at the same time a half-page ad for a wig company or some struggling beauty cosmetic or hair product line that isn’t national yet. I assume a sliding scale in terms of ad placement and a general entrepreneurial spirit were effective. In the end, all magazines survive on their advertising. But I also consider this in relation to the typical American spirit of entrepreneurship: you place your ad and start getting attention.
Rail: It’s an old spirit energy and go-getter mentality.
Simpson: Yes, and you see that energy on those pages.
Rail: In your photography, figures tend to have demure postures, not looking at the camera. They are not interested in exposing their identities or faces. They contrast your collages, which directly stare at us. Let’s talk about this posture of your subjects in front of the camera.
Simpson: I think my earlier work was about the photograph's relationship to the viewer and the desire for more information, narrative, or autobiography. But, there is the refusal of that on my part as the artist. Thinking of 1957-2009 or of other similar works, I think people really want to have a narrative about who this figure is, and I'm constantly underlining that these are all kind of constructed images lifted and pulled from other places. In 1957 – 2009, I don't know the identity of the woman in the photographs. I’m not dismissive of who she is, but the construction of an identity is artificial for the purposes of the fantasy of it. It's kind of an imaginary world, in which something that is other than oneself is purposely constructed.
Rail: You celebrate that mystery. How about the idea of turning your back? I was doing some research and I came across a correlation between Foucault’s ideas on surveillance, power, and control in relation to refusing to be surveilled and exposed.
Simpson: It’s a matter of control, yes. Rather than engaging in the gaze, you refuse it. Miles Davis used to perform with his back to the audience, which is a sign of control. There is the freedom to say, “What I’m willing to give is what you'll receive.”
Rail: The subjects are able to enjoy the freedom of boundary.
Simpson: And, they enjoy intellectual and creative freedom.
Rail: You haven’t taken photographs for some time.
Simpson: No, maybe not since 2009. 1957 – 2009 was my last body of photographic work.
Rail: What affected this decision?
Simpson: I don’t think I have any ideas at this moment.
Rail: And that’s perfectly fine.
Simpson: Yeah, you circle back around…
Rail: Or do film too.
Simpson: At this point, I am aware of the luxury of still being alive and able to have a certain level of comfort in how I make the work. The fact that I can explore, do certain things, and come back to certain things, is really interesting and rewarding. I then can return to different mediums over the course of time and work with them differently. I’m a little bit freer in terms of my imagination or re-approach. More and more, it’s not about taking the pictures myself, but my interest in photography and what do I want to do with that subject, with that medium. It sometimes means that there isn’t a necessity for me to take an image. But to play with images.
Rail: There are so many images in the world, we almost don’t need more images. [Laughs]
Simpson: And, I’ve made tons in that way and have my own archive of images. So, I can just go back to images that I’ve taken myself—there are archives of stuff that I haven’t even touched.
Rail: I still want to go back to the idea of ice, because I really like that series and also the idea of ice as a metaphor for visibility. It’s a phenomenon that you can see through but not the same way— it blurs your vision.
Simpson: It’s a prism, yeah.
Rail: This reminds me of geographical or topographical formations you use in reference to the hair. Ice as an entity melts and disappears before your eyes.
Simpson: It’s transitional.
Rail: Also with the idea of black ice, I think of danger or alertness.
Simpson: I wanted to make a really black glass! [Laughter]
Rail: And, black ice is really dangerous.
Simpson: It’s not even a real thing, but it’s a made-up term.
Rail: It’s the ice that’s dirty, correct?
Simpson: It’s asphalt that has a sheet of ice over it, so it’s basically a thin sheet of ice over asphalt, and that’s what you call black ice.
Rail: It’s considered invisible.
Simpson: What’s invisible is dangerous. I love the idea as a visual concept, but black ice as an abstract concept—it’s not real but it’s commonly watched out for. Playing with language over the course of time is a little goldmine.
Rail: Play on language opens up so many doors. You use abstraction again with the cube or with glaciers. I see this riff on the history of abstraction or modernist art, which are white male-dominated fields. The same goes with the hair and how you add abstract form to human hair.
Simpson: You mean adding my own language to abstraction. This work totally feels idiosyncratic to me in its composition and in terms of subjective juxtaposition of elements. What’s interesting for me about it is that it’s a kind of subjectivity I feel I have the freedom to express. That is my own interior world.
Rail: Ice sculptures are very contemplative and internal.
Simpson: I guess so.
Rail: Also, the color blue has an effect, too.
Simpson: We’re sitting on a blue couch. There’s something I’ve always loved about the color blue, but also in terms of the work, it has been largely monochromatic over the course of my career. Everything is black and white: the felt works are monochromatic and the photographs are somewhat monochromatic for the most part. So everything falls within that, so I am not surprised that I would choose a single color.
Rail: Where do you source your images for the icebergs?
Simpson: Some of them are from the Library of Congress, elements of explosion, volcanics of explosions, water glaciers. They’re blown up to this scale. I assume they were originally very small. Some of them I found on eBay as discarded press images, or from different newspapers. So they are constructions of different elements from different arenas.
Rail: You studied ballet as a child and performed on stage. How does that shape your idea of posture or presence within images of women?
Simpson: Who knew that making large paintings is so physical!? [Laughs] The last couple of years have been so exhausting, I had no idea.
Rail: You must use a ladder.
Simpson: I use a ladder, but I also paint on the floor—it’s a real physical activity.
Rail: But also you look very fit.
Simpson: I try. [Laughs] This makes me think of Momentum (2011), which is a video of dancers in gold inspired by the time I performed at the Lincoln Center in a school recital when I was 9 or 11. It was formative for me because I figured out I am not a performer. I stood out on stage and it was so empty. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the dancers and learning. Everybody gets really strong with consistent practice. But I realized immediately I wanted to be able to see how that production looked from my seat. I had no pleasure in being on the stage. Just being in the dressing room and seeing everybody covering themselves in gold freaked me out. I realized I’m not a performer but I have to be behind the scenes.
Rail: And behind the camera to photograph.
Simpson: My parents were there and they took nice little photographs of me that actually came out as inky dark blue things with little tiny figures in them, and I was so disappointed. The experience was important to me for completely different reasons. There was no documentation that I could get my hands on, so I think that was the impetus of becoming a photographer.
Rail: You have to use those images.
Simpson: I have them somewhere. It’s funny how one comes to do what they do and why.
Rail: That’s my biggest question with artists! Why do you do what you do out of a million things you can do as an artist?
Simpson: I think there are several moments in everyone’s life that stick with them, for example making the video Momentum (2011) with all the gold dancers. That moment has stuck with me for years and I thought why not recreate it. There was a moment that I recognized how much that’s a part of my imagination and probably that experience informed so much about how I thought of myself as an artist and what fulfills me. The experiences of what you feel comfortable in and what speaks to you is really important but also the experience of the “okay, this isn’t right” moment is maybe even more important. Negative experiences are not negative experiences; they’re defining experiences.
Rail: They’re transformative.
Simpson: I feel lucky to have had that experience and to have parents who could afford to send me to dance school and expose me to so many things artistically.
Rail: It’s important to have the chance to say, “that’s not for me.”
Simpson: In some ways, I think there is more opportunity for children right now to have that broad experience to be able to make mistakes and switch to something else. Whether you become an artist or not.