“It’s interesting to be unsure”
A conversation with Lorna Simpson
was the first Afro-American to show at the Venice Biennial and one of
the few to have ever taken part in documenta—and twice, at that: in
1987 and 2002. In her photographic works, installations, and films,
Lorna Simpson investigates how covert sexism and racism affects our
view of the other and how we communicate and have dealings with one
another. Cheryl Kaplan met with Simpson for an interview in New York.
||If Henri Cartier Bresson
defined photography as capturing the “decisive moment”—the instant when
the photograph coalesced into visual action in front of the camera—then
it was Lorna Simpson who
allowed photography to unravel, at least a bit. The 1960-born
African-American artist began her photographic career in the 1980s. In
the beginning she worked with street photography,
later with cut and serial images or found material such as pin-ups and
magazine reproductions. Today, her photo works are based on studio
portraits of black women captured in everyday, “typically female”
poses. These images seem clear at first glance, yet the crops and
combinations of text fragments that Simpson integrates into her works
radically undermine their apparent nonambiguity: Simpson reveals the
latent racism and sexism that continue to affect American culture. Her
artistic practice brings her near to politically motivated
African-American artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Isaac Julien, and Glenn Ligon,
who began in the 1980s to question notions of race and gender. Simpson
has used a wide variety of media; along with photography and
installation, she has worked with film and video.
Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I find a sleek modern building, the site of a former
carriage house and the first American project by London-based architect
David Adjaye. The door of
Vanderbilt Studio is ajar. Inside, the photographer James
Casebere, Lorna Simpson’s husband, is on the phone in his downstairs
studio. I walk up a circuitous flight of stairs spilling onto several
floors of discretely designed minimalist spaces until, at the end of
the maze, I come upon Lorna Simpson. It’s autumn in New York and
Simpson is just back from a brief interlude in Long Island, at the
Cheryl Kaplan: How has your work
depended on the relationship between image and written or spoken
language? I’m thinking about your early photographs as well as recent
cinematic works, like "Call Waiting", 1997 or "Institute," 2007.
Lorna Simpson: The nexus between image and speech is important in Call Waiting and other works. Call Waiting
was an attempt [to use] the mechanism of communication. A [series of]
conversations jumps from one person to another, some on screen, some
off-screen to connect the conversation, forming a scripted, but
improvised narrative. What fascinates me about language is the way we
speak and assign meaning and how language is culturally coded. The Institute
was created from found footage from a speech therapy facility for
mentally-challenged children and young adults in the 1950s. Actresses
playing mothers ranged in class and age, though not in race, while a
patient named Barbara demonstrates language skills, responding to
questions like “Where do you live?” and “What are your favorite
things?” Her answers reveal a life of isolation; they’re disturbing.
"Call Waiting" cuts back and forth from a phone operator, reminding us of Liz Taylor’s film, "Butterfield 8,"
where a “service” provides stability in an unstable world. In your
work, the “operator” is tucked behind a screen, appearing to control
the conversation as he bounces the call from one person to the next. As
a director, you create uncertainty; the real story is often peripheral
or occurs off-camera.
In the films I find most interesting,
I don’t know where things are going. If you can engage the audience
emotionally and not by manipulation, [you offer them] a language
different from what they’re used to. Call Waiting was a film noir experiment for me to deal with duration. Someone who does that well is the Thai film director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He has this beautiful way of linking temporal beauty with personal and mythical problems, as in his film, Tropical Maladiy—we don’t know where things are going. It operates viscerally. I like the back and forth of something unplotted.
Why do you withhold part of the story from the viewer?
how we interact and behave in real time. [My process] mimics the
uncertainty and drifting of conversation. Life’s not as fluid as
To what extent do you storyboard your films?
the sake of people I’m working with, I’m driven about storyboarding
regarding location, the time it takes to accomplish shots, camera
position—though there’s improvisation a few days before the shoot. I’m
open to coincidence [once things are storyboarded]. I’ve also been
working with found footage and photographs, leaving images on a wall
for 6 months to [determine] a new context. My early work was somewhat
formulaic in its trajectory, and came to an abrupt halt. In the ’90s I
switched to being more open. It’s interesting to be unsure.
Institute", 2007 is beautifully organized, but unsettling; there are
strange juxtapositions: we see a quadrant of films to the left, a
blurry image in the center, and a promotional film of a young woman
named Barbara to the right. What’s the role of design in your work?
the quadrants, four actresses continually nod in relief, responding to
an off-camera voice that explains how “their” children will be helped.
The quadrant allows them to occupy the same screen to reveal the
evenness of their performance. The black/white film of Barbara is
crudely shot found footage. She’s dressed impeccably, with a necklace
and her hair done—a specimen under observation. I used different
approaches within the project to vary surfaces.
drawings like "Barbara 1A," the titles feel like classifications or
felonies or misdemeanors. The works recently acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection have titles like "Mixed Grey" or "Jet Black" that feel like hair color names or dyes.
started to do the Barbara drawings as a lark. The work acquired by
Deutsche Bank are like collages that came about in relation to ads from
entertainment news and political magazine started in 1945 for African
Americans. The faces are taken from advertisements and the language is
the language of advertisements, like Mixed Grey or Jet Black.
Deutsche Bank drawings are delicate, but also trophy-like. The hair
looks like a head-piece or hat. The “mixed grey” feels a bit like
celluloid. There’s so much volume in the hair. The Deutsche Bank
drawings, like the drawings "Head Q" or "Head D," turn towards or away
from the viewer in a ¾ pose, as if volleying between a moment that’s
discrete or boldly in the spotlight.
I worked with this idea in photography, where you don’t really see the identity of who’s pictured. It becomes this Rorschach test
with the ink and depiction of the hair. I didn’t want to draw faces;
this simplicity in the drawings fits with the rest of my work.
Sometimes you use repetition as a clinical or scientific device, which is not dissimilar to how Ellen Gallagher works.
true, Ellen uses the same kind of elements—it’s the way these things
are repeated. She did the wig ads, repeated over and over. They can be
different wig ads, but they often look the same. Repetition is part of
my work, particularly in my early work, in making editions, but it’s
also about acknowledging the plasticity of the medium, of the idea of
reproduction in photography, where the same negative is used over and
over in different ways or exactly the same manner. The viewer thinks
there’s some difference, but there’s no difference, it’s the same image
The photographic series "Untitled", 2001,
features a sequence of cameos, some clearly seen, some knocked back in
a shadowy blur. How do these blurs function?
It was a
metaphorical device, though it occurs again and again in the work.
There are snippets of clarity. In portraiture, one may or may not have
a connection to a person in the image. Our own memories are either
clear or obscured.
The blur feels like it references the act
of focusing visually and socially, as if you’re manually “pulling
focus.” That’s also true in the Deutsche Bank drawings where the
viewer’s instinct is to focus on the model’s face because it’s clearly
drawn. Instead, we’re attracted or distracted by the model’s hair:
Pink, Jet Blue, Mixed Grey—the hair becomes a decoy that turns out to
be the subject of the story you deliver.
That’s true. I guess that’s why I did Momentum. The film represents a dance performance I did as a child at Lincoln Center when I danced with the Bernice Johnson Dance Studio, an Alvin Ailey
school in Jamaica, Queens. When it came time to perform, I wished I was
in the audience—I was painted in gold paint, with an Afro and toe
shoes, very Vegas, and I wanted to see that. The dance was
choreographed by Bernice Johnson after Duke Ellington’s  song Sophisticated Lady.
Ellington had died the week before. [In 1974] I would’ve become a
dancer had it been in me to make a connection in the dark to an
audience. With Momentum I wanted a clear photograph of
something hidden. I like surprises, I like being unsure, trying things
that might be stupid, doing something unknown to look for a trajectory
other than the one the work is known for. Not every drawing I do is
In the film "Easy to Remember," 2001 that was at the Whitney Museum of American Art,
a group of lips are seen in close-up, humming. They look like wounds.
The sound feels like a chain-gang or church hymn. The song feels old,
slow, out of time and yet oddly contemporary. You presented the work as
a grid of disembodied voices.
As a child, my parents played Coltrane’s rendition of the Rodgers + Hart
song on a record player. It’s my favorite to this day. I did a casting
call for singers, filming each person with headphones as they listened
to Coltrane’s Easy to Remember—a camera with a giant lens
captured as much of their face as possible. To hum along, you have to
choose octaves and decide which way you’re going. The process put the
singers off-balance. For me the work was more a music piece than the
visual aspect of creating this chorus. I wanted to make a piece that
would use the body in service of music, but that wasn’t about singing.
The rhythm, and perhaps more so, the cadence creates a visual structure.
true. That’s what jazz is, it’s what Coltrane was after. It’s not about
melody, it is about a cadence and feeling, about the way you go through
octaves to create different renditions to let things fall apart or