Trying So Hard to Forget

John Haber
in New York City

Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson has started to let people close. Her characters can talk now. They can almost relax, even come near to song. One can see their faces and wonder what they ever had to hide.

Her retrospective, curated by Helaine Posner for the American Federation of Arts, gives them a slowly gathering party. Still under fifty, she has been turning more often to video, along with her characteristic juxtapositions of photography and text. Simpson is making more intimate art, about private lives. Lorna Simpson's Easy to Remember (Denver Art Museum, 2001)

One should not, however, call it more personal. If anything, she and her cast seem less exposed than ever. Rather, she continues to wear away at the boundary between the personal and the political. As with its exhibition of two works by Simpson just four years before, the Whitney tries to sort out what one sees of a black woman and what one knows. A postscript carries her to 2011, with her own additions to found photographs and lost memories.

Reservations only

With Simpson, everything comes with reservations. Her characters may talk, but they do not so easily communicate. They can let down their guard for a moment, but someone or something dangerous is about to interrupt, maybe the viewer. They can carry a tune, but it has to be easy to remember—or at least "Easy to Remember," by Rogers and Hart. They can hum or whistle, but not actually sing.

Videos, near the corners of the retrospective's fine installation by Shamim Momin, describe all of these acts. In one, a grid of twelve monitors shows lips humming that simple melody. In another, a heavyset black man whistles a different song. A cloud increasingly obscures him before dispersing again, to leave him standing alone. Call Waiting follows a game of telephone tag, with real telephones. One actor calls another, who puts her on hold to speak with a third or fourth, and so on.

The largest work, Indoor/Outdoor, Full/Empty, seems the calmest, but also the closest to a disconnect. The scenes ricochet across surrounding walls. The settings look attractive, but also isolating and cut off from context. At any given time, each of seven projections may hold a pair of women in close conversation, a single person staring off to the side, or no one at all. The pair appear to be sharing intimate relationships, but mostly to complain about the absent third party. I returned several times, to be sure that I caught them all, and I left unclear whether I had followed a single one.

Finally, a video shows two black women preparing for others. One, in a long dress and head scarf carries a water pitcher down the narrow corridors of an early American house. The other, in a brightly lit modern home designed by Walter Gropius, bustles about as she gets ready for a party. The one from the past appears to have time to move more slowly, but not her own time. The setting itself speaks of confinement, and for all one knows she is doing the duties of a slave. The artist, I have read, describes her instead as a fugitive slave in New England, trying to enjoy precious moments before recapture.

Every one of these has something to say about black and female experience in America. The fullness of lips defines a black stereotype, lips may refer to sexual activity, and John Coltrane covered the Rogers and Hart tune with his quartet. From Call Waiting, I most remember a black woman alone at the end of a bar. At the same time, each personalizes and disturbs conventions. The characters on the telephone range across lines of gender, race, and class. The portrayal of an upper-middle-class black woman at leisure itself carries weight, and Easy to Remember makes it easy for anyone to hum along.

Each video, too, comes with considerable reserve. The cloud obscures, the lips cut off faces, and the stories do not tell themselves. No one seems willing to listen—within the videos or, by implication, a viewer. "I know it's over," the song goes, "and yet it's easy to remember but so hard to forget." The works address experience that many like to pretend is over and forgotten.

Deep discount

Simpson became known for work about refusals to listen. The first piece one sees, Waterbearer, says so directly: "She saw him disappear by the river, / they asked her to tell what happened, / only to discount her memory." Made in 1986, it also introduces her devices for much of her career.

The words, in block letters, accompany a black woman photographed from behind. She pours water with each hand, from a silver pitcher and plastic jug, as if plucked from the eras of that recent two-screen video. The pitcher's curves accentuate hers, her sleeveless low-cut blouse further exposes her. The photograph cuts her off at the neck, which one can interpret as an act of violence, a further exposure, a reduction of a woman to her body, a refusal to look, an imposed anonymity, or conversely a space reserved for the woman's interiority and dignity.

The same woman appears again and again, almost always from the rear and often in the same top. When not headless, the woman lies on her side, as if on an operating table. The text assures her, "You're Fine / You're Hired." To either side, a stack of adjectives assure her that she is not lacking for judges. A young man gets much the same clinical examination in black and white.

Sometimes the words intrude upon the photograph itself. They almost always amount to a litany of readymade categories, but they do not always say exactly what they mean. They could equally be describing a woman's character or her hair, as in Coiffure, from 1991. The litany generally runs through mutually incompatible terms. They enumerate the allowed choices, and they leave ambiguous whether to stress a subject's choice or restricted definition. They can at times sound ominous, leaving unclear whether that tone corresponds to an assertion of pride, a threat, or a viewer's fears.

The woman's face remains partly obscured, even when the photographs show her head. They start to linger on her hair, or they may turn from her body to wigs, other personal props, and silhouettes. Simpson may bring them together in a row, a column, or a grid. This can suggest an appreciation of form for its own sake—her subject's or her art's. It can echo the way her words tick off and constrict lives, like an Enlightenment encyclopedia as described by Michel Foucault. As with the five prints of Five Day Forecast, for a work week, they may represent real-world constraints as well.

Sometimes, as with the monochrome of an old print or her dressing in an out-of-style man's suit, they may evoke a slaveholding past. The heavy, ill-fitting clothes obviously put gender in question as well, like a fashion show or clown suit by Cindy Sherman.

Repeat appearances

At any given instant, Simpson's subjects can seem almost to talk back. Hypothetical includes text about a man asked if being stopped on the street would frighten him. No, it would make him angry. On an adjacent wall, horn mouthpieces emit a low buzz, and one might recall a second meaning of you have some brass.

Clearly Simpson was opening up a dialogue even before the two earliest videos here, which date from 1997. Some silkscreen cityscapes of the late 1990s, with felt panels for text, soften the message in a different way. I find them too elusive, even as the earlier challenges can seem too easy to summarize. Either way, however, she shows her talent: she forces one to puzzle out even the obvious.

She also proves that she can tempt one with a formula, while refusing to repeat itself. Put it down to her studied reserve. Her refusal extends to the retrospective, which omits the work from two small exhibits at the Whitney four years before. Ever the controlling hand, she includes close parallels to the first within the retrospective, and she dropped the other almost at the last minute.

In 2003, Simpson covered the Whitney's small mezzanine with framed photographs and text. The first cluster of frames hides a young man and woman behind frosted glass. The text obscures them further, with titles out of the movies. As one circles Cameos and Appearances, they march chronologically from the plantation to blaxploitation. The frosted glass and fatuous titles enforce a distance between the subject and the viewer. The motifs appeared the year before in Film and Men, both in the retrospective, although without the same sense of progression.

Lorna Simpson's 31 (Sean Kelly, 2003)By the end of Cameos and Appearances, the glass becomes clearer, but those distances remain. Did that male profile in glasses, a little like Malcolm X, look wonderfully studious or terribly threatening? He looks chunkier now and ever so ordinary. Then again, is one seeing clearly at last, any more than the forward march of Hollywood stereotypes brings one any closer to reality? The man and the woman never appear in the same frame. If they share a narrative, the viewer alone creates it.

Also four years ago, the second-floor video gallery offered a profile of invisibility, but of another kind. 31 recreates a world so easily ignored—not in the sense of America's history of slavery or the black middle class, but the world of just getting by. On thirty-one monitors, a black woman passes a life in the cramped spaces of a New York apartment, an office, a subway platform, and little more.

Days on end

I know that sad circle of existence myself at first hand. So do plenty of others in a multiracial city, and another black artist, Demetrius Oliver, has charted every hour in his day. Yet the distance between me as a white viewer and that solitary subject remains. It lies in the darkened room, the confusion of images all out of synch, and the life of silence and solitude. When the young woman waits for the subway, I can almost hear a Brit tell me to mind the gap.

Simpson knows that she draws on common experience. She knows the limits of history lessons. Not even the small monitors can line up in the neat rows of her photographic grids or of Easy to Remember. After all, thirty-one is prime—and not just for black people. She refuses to play black artist while insisting on what the universal leaves out.

Does 31 choose the solitary life over empty spaces, interpersonal confrontations, and leisure travel? That, too, need not make her into a black artist. However, it speaks to urban realities closer to those of young black artists at the Studio Museum than to an opening at the Whitney.

Simpson arranges the monitors of 31 in four longer rows, plus a shorter row of three at the upper right:

                    O  O  O

O  O  O  O  O  O  O

O  O  O  O  O  O  O

O  O  O  O  O  O  O

O  O  O  O  O  O  O

I thought of the American flag but without a field of stars, just as America's early history excluded blacks. David Hammons has indeed displayed his own African-American stars and stripes.

I thought, too, of repetitions of a single day, like the variations on the frames upstairs. Those variations hardly supply the glamour of a day in the life by Doug Aitken. The woman might get up a little earlier one day. She might dress a little differently, or work at her drawing table instead of Xeroxing in an office. That is about it.

Drawing lines

Of course, 31 really means a calendar, a month of thirty-one days. Perhaps the oppressive days will never quite add up or fall in strict parallel. The monitors leave that tantalizing hope. Still, I cannot swear that the woman ever interacts with another person. She breaks the painful silence only once—to sing faintly to herself while waiting for the subway. The dark tunnels and harsh office lights both attest to her invisibility, like the self-effacing drawings of Gary Simmons or the silhouettes and riddle of the sphinx of Kara Walker.

The Whitney points out affinities to Chantal Akerman, who has built existential solitude on long tracking shots through silent, rented rooms. It mentions John Cassavetes, who has agonized over human relationships in nearly real time. I thought of Beth Campbell, who lets small disjunctions grow from her own video image over three screens. After the wider range of video in her retrospective, I have to think once again of alternative lives and miscommunications.

By the same token, Simpson can still leave me joyless and untouched. If Simmons leans to simple pleasures, she can get downright icy. She may disrupt stereotypes. She may create complex variations on a theme. However, the role models, including the all-powerful viewer, always come back when one thought one had chased them away. Then again, that is their point, and there is no trying to forget.

Turning on the viewer has a long history, as far back as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. I may never quite enter into Simpson's confrontation. How often or how seriously have I watched those lousy movies anyhow? How much do they describe or determine real exclusions—political or artistic? However, I come closer and closer to humming along.

Simpson loves to draw, but not so that one might see. Invisible lines around her images leave black experience on one side and a presumed white, male viewer on the other. Slyly, the work stands carefully in between. It defines gaps—between words and black experience, between the visible and the unseen.

Pop Art made use of images and text, too, but filled with advertising's impersonal desires. How far that seems from Glenn Ligon in his coal-spattered power slogans or Simpson's own raw cultural history. I can only wonder again, as in 2003, that she creates her own space between the visual and the invisible.

Hard to Remember

In that one video installation, Simpson imagined a black woman navigating the duties and confines of an early American home. The woman could have been seeking a life or trapped in one. She could look forward to the woman in a second projection, at home in a classic of modern architecture. But parallel lives do not easily meet. Simpson described the first as a fugitive slave in the moments before recapture, but one might otherwise never know it. All one can say for sure is that simple pleasures come with forgotten stories, and both are easily snatched away.

For Simpson, the black middle class has a history—more often than not a woman's personal history. It includes days spent on the phone or filling the spaces in a calendar. She identifies with it, but it would not be half as poignant or as distant if she could not leave herself out of it, give or take a sometimes chilly inscription. Or so it seemed until four years after her 2007 Whitney retrospective. This time men and women pose for themselves as well as others, although others may still have the last look and the last word. This time, too, she allows herself to appear.

She again mixes staged and found work, from flea markets and eBay, and she again juxtaposes past and present. An alcove also has her 2001 video grid of lips humming "Easy to Remember," because African American stories are all too easy to forget. One long wall has well over a hundred photographs, from 1957 in LA. Mostly women, the models pose in the seductive conventions of fashion and style shoots. The facing wall has head shots from old photo booths. However, Simpson doubles the first, and she intersperses tiny framed sketches with the second.

She has allowed herself to be drawn in, and the change is striking. It did not come all at once either, and with accretion comes a greater spontaneity. One can see it in the titles of successive additions. The series began with a demand, Please Remind Me of Who I Am. They continued with Instantaneous, Standstill, and finally just Untitled. The urgency of the first masks the greater detachment, while the increasing silence allows anonymous lives their say.

I expected a firmer and harsher commentary, as so often in the past. I imagined a forced march through nearly four hundred paired images, with the present always having the last word. Instead one sees the past shaping the present and the present learning to remember the past. Black was already beautiful, they say, and a man at a chess table is a lot more dapper and funnier than hustlers in Washington Square. Memories of Jim Crow are poignant now, but the smiles in the photo booth are their own. Come to think of it, Simpson (born in 1960) still looks awfully good herself.

Rather than simple imitations on one wall, one has themes and variations, and they are rarely side by side. Each wall forms a single large work—rising and falling, swelling and narrowing. Simpson in fact describes the smaller work as a "cloud," and one can see the abstract ink stains as clouds. They also evoke old photographic plates exposed deliberately or accidentally to light. The notion of exposure still runs through the series, as a critique of American culture in black and white. At the same time, exposure is rediscovery.

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The retrospective of Lorna Simpson ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through May 6, 2007, "Cameos and Appearances" and "31" there through January 26, 2003, and the photo series at The Brooklyn Museum through August 21, 2011.


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