A Different Perspective: An intern visit to Lorna Simpson's studio

Studio Museum

Lorna Simpson
1957-2009 Interiors (detail), 2009.
Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York 

Appreciation of an artist, like anything in life, is generally a matter of perspective: Perspective on the artist's thoughts and ideas, identifying their clever arrangement of color or play on words, even a sense of connection to the story they are presenting. Prior to my first summer outing with the Studio Museum, my perspective on Lorna Simpson could essentially be summarized into a very flattering, yet confined sentence about her work. Yet, after one day exploring Lorna Simpson’s Brooklyn Museum exhibition and a surprise visit to her Brooklyn studio where the Studio Museum summer interns were treated to lunch with the artist herself, my perspective on Lorna has evolved into a dynamic understanding of not only her work but the many facets of her life, career and growth as an artist.

Our day started at the Brooklyn Museum, where Studio Museum Exhibition Coordinator and Program Associate, Thomas Lax, arranged for Catherine Morris, Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, to provide us with a guided tour of Lorna Simpson: Gathered (on view through August 21, 2011). We began with a discussion of the “May June July August ’57/’09”  series of photos, a collection of 123 vintage photographs which provide a candid glimpse into the world of a vibrant young African-American woman posing in pinup fashion in Los Angeles during 1957. Lorna juxtaposes these images with photos of herself replicating these scenes, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. In doing so, she creates a narrative in which both characters seem to be historically bound by a common identity. Catherine Morris discussed the psychological implications this series had on Lorna, as it was incredibly uncomfortable to put herself in front of the camera and become a part of her art, something she had never done before. In many ways I believe that discomfort speaks to the brilliance of this series, as we have a human curiosity to know more about this woman and what became of her dreams and aspirations, while simultaneously feeling intrusive for peeking into her private collection of photographs.

As a wonderful compliment to the “’57/’09” series, the exhibition segues into a group of Black-and-white photo-booth portraits of African-American men and women during the Jim Crow era. Scattered amongst the cloud of individual photos are bronze blocks and ink drawings on paper, adding to the illusory notion that we must develop a story or identity for these images despite having no genuine connection to them. And yet again, we grapple with the uneasiness of peering in on these intimate snapshots. The final piece of work is a moving image installation titled Easy to Remember (2001), a compilation of 15 individuals humming John Coltrane’s version of the Rogers and Hart tune of the same name. While the story of these participants is still evasive, we do attain a stronger sense of connection to the individual pulled from the fluctuations in their mouth, tonality and head movement, thus eliminating the need to produce our own narrative.

After the guided tour of Lorna’s exhibition, we were escorted to her artist studio in Fort Greene, which she shares with her husband, artist James Casebere. As we excitedly made our way up the stairs of the David Adjaye-designed studio, my perspective once again began to shift from viewing Lorna Simpson as an iconic artist who has exhibited around the world to the very real and present artist who stood before me in her Brooklyn studio. We shared a wonderful rooftop lunch where she went into greater detail on her experience of re-enacting the "’57/’09" series (including why she felt discomfort in being in front of the camera), her evolution as an artist, freeing herself from the guard that has slowly dissolved as she has matured, the joys of parenthood and how they have impacted her work schedule, the varying ways in which your passions and interests come full circle in life, how she stays inspired and even her own time as a Studio Museum intern. Lorna imparted a wealth of knowledge and insight that stretches beyond the confines of what can be gathered from her works or read about through articles. Lorna provided us with an insider perspective on who she is and her own thoughts, ideas and interpretations of her work.

My day ended with a greater appreciation of Lorna Simpson the artist and a wider view on Lorna Simpson the multi-faceted individual who graciously invited us into her studio for a mid-week lunch and conversation. She shattered my ability to neatly confine her to one flattering sentence and replaced that with an elaborate perspective of a woman for whom words truly aren’t enough.

- Kimberly McClain, Communications Intern