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Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lorna Simpson began her career as a documentary photographer. She received a BFA from the School of Visual Art in New York in 1983 and an MFA from the University of California, San Diego, in 1985. While in graduate school, Simpson studied with a number of artists who advocated an experimental approach to photography, film, and performance, including Eleanor Antin, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Allan Kaprow. Using strategies inspired by Conceptual art, Simpson began to question the supposed transparency and objectivity of documentary photographs. By manipulating photographic images, notably images of African-American female bodies, and adding text elements, she created allusive, yet ambiguous works that confronted conventional views regarding race and gender.
In the late 1980s, Simpson moved away from her juxtapositions of photography and text and her imagery of the body in favor of a more abstract, tactile technique of printing photographs on felt. In these large, multi-panel images, she depicted sites of sexual encounters, but avoided the figure altogether, an approach she attributes in part to the death of her mother and friends whose lives were claimed by AIDS around this time. “There seemed to be an overwhelming feeling of absence,” she remarked. “The death of a parent or friends transforms you in a way that makes it difficult to return to the things you did before.” In 1990, Simpson became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the first African American to show her work at the Venice Biennale. More recently, she has turned to film and video, including a work based on found film footage. Simpson has also embarked on a project using an archive of found photographs from the 1950s, which she has been adding to by creating her own replicas of these images and posing herself to mimic the originals.
Kellie Jones, Thelma Golden, and Chrissie Iles. Lorna Simpson, exhibition catalogue (London: Phaidon Press, 2002), 17.