Lorna Simpson first came to prominence as a conceptual artist in the mid-1980s, after graduating with an MFA from the University of San Diego. During this period, artists were preoccupied with dismantling the established framework of contemporary art practices, in response to shifting modes of perception sparked by postmodernism and the surge of poststructuralist writing. With the deconstruction of existing modes of artistic production came a renewed interest in the narrative device and the potency of text. Artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer adopted text as a powerful medium through which to question issues of representation and appearance; their explorations operated within an artistic environment that purposefully sought to undermine the cultural norms that had allowed racism, social inequality, and economic disparity to proliferate. Lorna Simpson similarly adopted a radical approach to the integration of text and photograph, applying text directly onto the work itself to call attention to the process of creating meaning. In Simpson’s art, the power of the written word is employed to compelling effect; it challenges and mocks our judgments about human character, it questions perceived realities, and it confronts the viewer’s assumed position of dominance over the subject depicted.

In her work from the early period of her career, Simpson appropriated the documentary tradition of her forebears but manipulated its intention in order to challenge the assumed inherent “reality” and “truth” to photographs. Immersed in the contemporary feminist and civil rights movements, Simpson attacked established racialised representations of black women, striving to insert issues of race and gender into social discourse. Essential to this critique was her radical use of text: emancipating the caption, Simpson wrote terse, provocative accompanying texts that disrupt the sexualized gaze and expose our misunderstanding of the subject portrayed. In all her works, language operates as part of a multi-layered critique, imbuing the photographs with a razor-sharp denunciation of cultural stereotypes.

Twenty Questions (A Sampler) (1986) is one such incisive work. One woman is presented four times in portrait-style photographs which mimic a police line-up.[1] The traditional portrait is subverted, however, as the woman turns her back to the camera, preventing the viewer from seeing her face. Through this intentionally prohibitive act, Simpson not only subverts the gaze but also strips this woman of a particular identity, suggesting that the black woman’s experience is universal (while simultaneously critiquing her own generalisation of women as without individuality). The plain white garment worn by the unidentified woman further emphasises the universality and generality of the figure, but also alludes to the simple clothes worn by slaves, thus weaving in a narrative of the unspoken, unforgotten history of racial suppression in America. The palette of the image itself, in stark black and white contrast, further underscores this reference. Beneath the portraits, boxes of text invite the viewer to make superficial judgments about the woman based on her appearance, little of which is visible. The text mocks the assumptions one makes without knowledge of someone’s character; is this woman “pretty as a picture?” “Pure as a lily?” Or “black as coal?” While the descriptions range from admiring to damning, the photograph remains the same, exposing our unfounded prejudices and proving us unqualified to make an informed judgment.

In this work, the text speaks as much about the viewer as it does about the subject depicted. The captions call attention to our role in the construction of the photograph’s meaning and reveal how complicated the conception of identity is. The text also serves as a means by which Simpson can wrest power back from the viewer; frustrating the viewer with the lack of information provided in the photograph, she forces us to read the accompanying words, over which she has total control.

Simpson herself felt the inadequacy of photographs to speak fully, once describing how her texts revealed crucial elements of the story left mysterious by the image alone. Speaking in an interview in 1990, Simpson explained, “so, I would start to interject these things that the photograph would not speak of and that I felt needed to be revealed, but that couldn’t be absorbed from just looking at an image.”[2] This symbiotic relationship between photograph and text is fundamental to a successful reading of Twenty Questions (A Sampler). Presented with a fragmented, unidentifiable woman to scrutinize, the viewer is held accountable and forced to confront their own preconceptions. Underlying Simpson’s photographs is a power struggle concerning who has control over the image, control over representation, and ultimate control over the meaning of the work. Simpson pits viewer against viewed, challenging the assumed “right to look” inherent in portrait photography.

[1] Okwui Enwezor, “Repetition and Differentiation – Lorna Simpson’s Iconography of the Racial Sublime,” in Enwezor, Simpson, Posner, and Als [eds.], Lorna Simpson (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006)..117.

[2] Quoted in Beryl J. Wright, Lorna Simpson: For the Sake of the Viewer (New York: Universe Publishing, 1992). 8.