Lorna Simpson 1985-1992 @Hauser & Wirth

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 photographic works, variously framed, and hung against white walls across the three floors of the gallery.

The following works are included in the show:

Ground floor

  • 1 gelatin silver print, vinyl lettering, 1986, sized roughly 54×82 inches, in an edition of 1+1AP
  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 2 engraved plastic plaques, 1991, sized roughly 50×70 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 2 engraved plastic plaques, 1990, sized roughly 53×65 inches, in an edition of 4+2AP
  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 1 engraved plastic plaque, 1991, sized roughly 51×70 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 2 engraved plastic plaques, 1990, sized roughly 36×73 inches, in an edition of 4+2AP
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, 13 engraved plastic plaques, 1991, sized roughly 49×67 inches, in an edition of 4+2AP
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 2 engraved plastic plaques, 1989, sized roughly 69×73 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 7 engraved text plaques, 1985, sized roughly 76×278 inches, unique

Second floor

  • 1 set of 5 dye diffusion color Polaroid prints, 5 engraved plastic plaques, 1989, sized roughly 29×115 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 1 set of 3 dye diffusion color Polaroid prints, 3 Plexiglas plaques, 1989, sized roughly 25×68 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 1 set of 4 dye diffusion color Polaroid prints, 15 engraved plastic plaques, ceramic letters, 1988, sized roughly 38×114 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 4 dye diffusion black and white Polaroid prints, 1988, sized roughly 29×103 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 4 dye diffusion color Polaroid prints, 1 engraved plastic plaque, 1992, sized roughly 29×85 inches, in an edition of 4
  • 1 set of 8 dye diffusion color Polaroid prints, 10 engraved plastic plaques, 1991, sized roughly 70×83 inches, unique
  • 1 set of 8 dye diffusion color Polaroid prints, 1 engraved plastic plaque, 1990, sized roughly 50×114 inches, in an edition of 4

Third floor

  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 1 engraved plastic plaque, 1991, sized roughly 102×41 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 8 engraved plaques, 1991, sized roughly 57×65 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1990-2022, sized roughly 46×37 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 8 engraved plastic plaques, 1991, sized roughly 59×115 inches, in an edition of 3+1AP
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 10 engraved plastic plaques, 1991, sized roughly 80×125 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, Lorna Simpson has been exploring more painterly aesthetics, from large scale paintings, many in deep shades of dark blue, to more intimate collaged works, incorporating both archival photographic imagery and gestural overpainting. But her artistic legacy will always be rooted in photography, even though she hasn’t shown much new photography in New York of late, at least since her 2011 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum (reviewed here).

In a contemporary cultural moment when influential works by many Black artists are being re-appreciated and re-valued, this historically rich gallery show takes us back to Simpson’s early works from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when she was still honing her artistic voice. The installation includes many of the same works that were on view in her first museum survey (at the MCA Chicago in 1992), providing a time capsule-like feeling of stepping back into the arc of Simpson’s career, now with the benefit of hindsight to better appreciate the power (and rigor and prescience) of what she was working on then.

The two earliest pieces in the show, from 1985 and 1986 respectively, consider the subtle relationship between gesture and memory, using the interplay of photography and text to tease out unseen connections. In “Gestures/Reenactments”, the way a man holds his arms, puts his hands on his hips, crosses his arms, or walks away provides opportunities for storytelling, reminiscing, linking to family and friends, and unpacking the undercurrents and roles of being a Black man in America, each movement made resonant by an overlay of context provided by the associated text underneath; seen as a flow from left to right, Simpson shows us that there is a river of nuanced complexity to be found in these overlooked gestures and the conversations they trigger. In “Waterbearer”, the gesture of a young woman pouring out jugs and pitchers of water is found to be a charged movement, as it echoes a deeper feeling of memory being challenged or questioned, with one “truth” supplanting another in insidious ways; the casualness of the tossing away feels like a kind of grim resignation, with Simpson resisting an overly simplistic reading of memory. There is implied trauma in both works, simmering under the surface, seemingly just out of reach of what the photographs themselves can show us.

Simpson quickly built on these early experiments with the way texts, captions, and wordplay can reorient imagery, and by just a few years later (1988 and 1989), her works were becoming more refined, more personal, and more biting. A simple white shift dress provides all the necessary costuming for a handful works, her serial examination of a model’s back and the scalloped collar of the dress evolving into a linguistic game of words built from “neck” as a central component. A horizontal full body work “You’re Fine” uses words to transform a reclining figure (again seen from the back) into a seductively harsh push and pull of pregnancy and employment, with the possibility of a secretarial job set off against various bodily health tests that might be performed. And the addition of prim white gloves to the setup creates yet another potential narrative for Simpson to explore, where the possibilities and constraints of female social graces take the form of coded arm and hand gestures. As the years pass, Simpson’s photographs become more pared down and symbolic, leaving even more room for conceptual recontextualization or deliberate ambiguity.

The dominant whiteness of these works largely reverses in Simpson’s works from the early 1990s, where enveloping featureless black takes over as the backdrop and dress color of choice. In many ways, these works turn inward, moving away from external gesture as an identifier and examining what, if anything, surfaces and interiors might tell us. Many of Simpson’s constructions from these years feature African masks, always turned away so we see the inside of the mask (the part that might fit the wearer’s face) rather than whatever persona it might be revealing or performing for the outside world. She pairs these masks with portraits of models from behind, only showing us the back of a head and a back in a black dress, the darkness creating the illusion of hovering disembodied body parts (just like the masks). Other works leave the masks out and explore the textures of braided hair, once again using word play to create associations and alternate readings; the long strips of dark fuzzy hair also provide intriguing compositional possibilities, which Simpson leverages into flanking vertical strips, a square frame, an oval-shaped crown, and a striped array like prison bars, with each braid labeled with an action performed on the hair. The remaining works from these years spill out in alternate riffs on these ideas, including the external surfaces of a masculine suit marked with the word “female”, and two heads joined by a single braid, with accompanying phrases that fight that obvious sense of connection or pairing.

Looking back, it’s now plain to see how innovative Simpson’s works were then, and how she was cleverly using open-ended photographs as a staging ground for text-based interventions and contradictions. For works some thirty years old, they’ve aged remarkably well, with the themes and issues she was confronting (including race, gender, bodies, memory, history, and societal roles) still altogether current and relevant. Their unadorned rigor and precision remains surgically sharp, as does their intellectual wrangling with the equivocation and doublespeak that clouds many of the issues she has chosen to unravel; their wordiness is rich, multi-layered, and in some cases confrontational and contradictory, in ways that broaden our experience of what such straightforward images might represent.

What I notice now more than ever is that while Simpson was making these exceptionally controlled conceptual works early in her photographic career, she never wandered off into preachiness, self-involvement, or obtuse obscurity; her works from this period find their way back to foundational clarity of intention with remarkable consistency, which is why they still deliver a forceful punch so many years later. In many ways, this is a tight museum-quality survey masquerading as a gallery show, but that distinction is perhaps unimportant; this is certainly one of the strongest gallery shows of photography to be seen anywhere in New York this year, and hopefully, Simpson’s thoughtfulness and aesthetic lucidity will rub off on an entire generation of photographers who are being introduced to these standout works for the very first time.

Collector’s POV: Most of the works in this show are on loan from various public and private collections, and the few works that are available for sale (priced between $175000 and $395000) are on hold for museum clients. Simpson’s photographic work (including some of her more recent collages) has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 and $375000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 9.4 x 11 inches, 312 pages, with 200 photographs. Includes illustrated essays by Svetlana Alpers, Addison Bross, and Joshua ... Read on.

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