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At home with Lorna Simpson: a major player in the world of photography and video composes her personal sanctuary - home - Interview


In 1988 the artist Lorna Simpson reluctantly went house-hunting. She and her husband at the time had been paying close to $1,000 a month to rent a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a neglected neighborhood of light-industry buildings slowly being reclaimed by intrepid artists as a bohemian enclave. As the area gained artistic cachet, rents began to climb and Simpson realized it would be smarter to invest their cash in something they could actually own.

She liked multifunctional loft living, where home and work areas meld in one open space. A friend suggested looking in Fort Greene, a historic Brooklyn neighborhood with a charming, nineteenth-century architectural distinction, where many artists who had been priced out of Manhattan--and now Williamsburg--had begun to migrate. On the plus side: She was familiar with the area (her family had lived nearby for a spell during her childhood) and it remained predominantly Black. The negative: a dearth of affordable loft-type spaces. So Simpson began looking at brownstone fixer-uppers, something she hadn't even considered. "It was a leap to go from living in a wide-open space to a place where there are rooms and walls and interruptions in those walls," she admits now.

She finally settled on a rundown, three-story 1860's brownstone in Clinton Hill (right next to Fort Greene). The deal clincher was a modern extension at the back that added depth to the building, which, typical of the period when it was constructed, was narrow and shallow. "It wasn't so much of a compromise," she says.

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Since then, there have been many changes in Simpson's life. For one, she's divorced and now lives with Jim Casebere, a fellow photo artist she met while serving on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, and their 3-year-old daughter, Zora Simpson Casebere. For another, neither artist works at home but in separate studios in other neighborhoods.

Simpson, 41, is also no longer a budding artist but one of the most influential working in photography and video today. She was the first Black woman to participate at the Venice Biennale, among the most prestigious international art shows in the world. She has just participated for the third time in a biennial survey of important new American works at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. In June she'll exhibit at another highly acclaimed venue, the Documenta show in Kassel, Germany, and she'll have additional projects at both the Whitney and the Studio Museum in Harlem in November. Phaidon, a premier publisher of art books, will release a monograph of her work this fall.

Simpson's photography is provocative and confrontational. It deals with the way society treats Black women--ignoring them, refusing them credibility, despising their hair. Her videos grapple with people's tendency to lie about their identity to lovers, friends and acquaintances, and with the less-than-noble impulses that motivate those lies.

What is immediately striking about Simpson's home is how little of that art is on the walls. Yet what is there reflects Simpson's unflinching view of the world--a piece by multimedia artist Kiki Smith about the illegal trafficking of gorilla parts; a painting by Laylah Ali dealing with the horrors of armed civil conflict; and a text painting by Glenn Ligon, presented by the artist to Zora on her first birthday, with a quote from Harlem Renaissance writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, repeated several times across the canvas: "I remember the very day that I became colored."

"I wouldn't say they're sweet," laughs Simpson. "They have a contemporary edge to them. Some deal with war or politics, some deal with the bittersweet issues surrounding emancipation." So why so little of her own photography? "I prefer not to have a lot of my work around, especially in my bedroom and the office area," she explains, "because it represents work, and it's nicer to sit in an environment that's blank to be able to think about things. I appreciate more being surrounded by the work of friends and artists we've collected over the years."

The house is, in fact, a showcase for Simpson's collections. There is African art. There is California pottery from the 1950's and 1960's, collected during graduate school at the University of California in San Diego. The furniture is a mix of vintage fifties--much from California, some "from my twenties when I went thrift-shopping up in Harlem"--and contemporary pieces by Roy McMakin, an artist and furniture designer she met at the University of California, whose prominence has recently soared with furniture commissions for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. And there are books everywhere. Most are works of African-American literature and contemporary art volumes, the rarer editions housed in government-issue metal cabinets that have been stripped and varnished to a satiny-soft silver sheen.

Simpson concedes she hasn't yet reconciled her collecting habits with her desire for sparse surroundings. But you sense calmness and openness nonetheless, thanks to an overall monochromatic palette with punches of color--"a dusty-green moss color that is soothing for me" and dabs of deep purple on a Pier 1 imports throw or dyed sheepskin rug from Bark, a local store.

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