Merton Daniel Simpson, September 20, 1928 - March 9, 2013
Like the Archimedean spiral, Merton Daniel Simpson's creative aesthetic constantly expanded and ascended. An esteemed painter, jazz musician, philanthropist, art connoisseur, and gallerist, his reputation as one of America's premiere experts in African and tribal art remains unrivaled.
Simpson was an influential connoisseur whose burgeoning career and growing collection of art from the African Diaspora led him to open, in 1954, what is now the Merton D. Simpson Gallery of African, Oceanic and Contemporary Art. His artistic influence soon reached far beyond his status as a venerated and knowledgeable specialist in the collection field.
Simpson's artistic influences were profoundly represented by his works' bold and improvisational brushstrokes. This abstract expressionist was one of the few African American painters to garner considerable recognition during the turbulent pre-civil rights era.
In 1963, the civil rights movement led to the formation of the Harlem-based artists' collective, the Spiral Group, of which Simpson was one of the original founders along with Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, Richard Mayhew, Emma Amos, Alvin Hollingsworth and Reginald Gammon. For a period, these socially conscious painters focused their work on the black freedom struggle while aiming to create a unique aesthetic that would play a transformative role in the understanding of race and identity in America.
For Simpson, this experience culminated in the body of work entitled the "Confrontation" series, a provocative and racially-charged compilation of stylized black and white faces which appear in intense opposition to each other and embody both the external anger and internal love shared by and between America's citizens. As one who travelled gracefully between both worlds, Simpson clearly understood the juxtaposition of confrontation and collaboration (forced or consensual) that exists between blacks and their Caucasian counterparts. "Confrontation" is among his most highly regarded series of artworks.
His "Middle Passage" series, along with the abstract expressionist paintings from the '50s, tribal-political artworks from the '60s and '70s, the "Jazz" series from the '80s and "Ancestral Improvisations" from the '90s, represent a decade-by-decade catalogue of his ever-evolved palette of signature styles.
Merton Simpson was born September 20, 1928 in Charleston, SC, to Marion Simpson, a water-meter reader and Jenny, a homemaker and began drawing after being hospitalized with diphtheria. Deprived of formal education until the fifth grade, he was tutored by his older siblings which allowed his gifts as a creative prodigy to quickly blossom as he healed. At thirteen, his artistic acumen was recognized by William Halsey who chose to violate the social norms of the segregated "Jim Crow" South in order to tutor Simpson privately and organize his art show debut. Simpson became the first African American to receive a prestigious fellowship from the Charleston Scientific and Cultural Education fund.
During his early childhood, Simpson cultivated a lifelong affinity for music, learning to play the saxophone, tenor sax, clarinet and flute. He performed with Charleston's famed Jenkins Orphanage Band as a child, the Air Force band as a young man serving in the military, and various jazz bands throughout adulthood. Perhaps most significantly, the frequent jazz gatherings hosted in his gallery connected seasoned members of the art scene with newcomers to the art world advancing Mr. Simpson's mission to foster an ever-expanding community of African and African American cultural aficionados. Although music was still his muse, the fourteen-year-old decided to actively pursue a career in painting.
In 1949, Simpson migrated from South Carolina to New York; where he studied under Robert Gwathmey at Cooper Union and Hale Woodruff at New York University. While pursuing his collegiate studies, he was employed at Herbert Benevy's frame shop where he unintentionally, but advantageously, connected with principal collectors, dealers and artists, including New York school painters Franz Kline, Max Weber and Willem de Kooning who critiqued the young painter's compositions.
In 1951, he enrolled in the U. S. Air Force, and not only served as a musician in the Air Force band, but produced portraits of several military officers, including one of General Dwight D. Eisenhower that remains in the Pentagon's art collection. The lifelong portraitist would go on to create images of Kofi Annan, Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey.
By the mid-1960s, Simpson had acquired a taste for Europe. He established residence in France, became fluent in French, and divided his time between New York and Paris, allowing each city to profoundly impact his paintings and aesthetic pursuits. New York was said to have contributed to his broad brushstrokes, bold colors and improvisational jazz influences, while Paris, softened his style, yielding a more delicate beauty to the surface of his canvases.
Throughout his career as a business man, Simpson never abandoned his practice as a painter and has been the subject of various solo and group exhibitions, including Young American Painters at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1954; The Journey of an Artist at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina in 1995; and was widely celebrated at recent exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem, where his work is part of the collection. A traveling exhibition documenting his life as an artist, dealer and collector is currently being organized.
Simpson gracefully traversed worlds that, even today, few African Americans have accessed. He left behind an incredible legacy including an impressive body of intelligent paintings, a collection of more than several thousand works of art, and an invaluable and meticulously kept chronicle of his craft.
While he will be sorely missed by friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from the art world, Merton Simpson will never be forgotten by his sons Merton, Jr. and Kenneth Simpson; brother, Carl Simpson; sister, Patsy Johnson; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His sense and sensibilities have inspired an artistic legacy that will endure for generations to come.
Belinda Tate is the director of Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University.
Bearden on Simpson
Romare Bearden wrote the following statement about Simpson and Alvin Hollingsworth for a 1982 Simpson exhibition announcement. Painter Alvin Hollingsworth (1928-2000) was a founding member with Bearden of the Spiral Group of African American artists who linked their creative expression to civil rights issues.
When Alvin Hollingsworth told me that he and Merton Simpson were going to have a joint exhibit at Automation House, I thought it interesting and just fine that these two friends had decided on this common venture. I cannot recall Hollingsworth and Simpson having shown their works together since the mid-1960s when they use to exhibit along with other members of the Spiral group at the Spiral Gallery in downtown Christopher St. So this exhibition of two talented painters, is not only enjoyable aesthetically, but for myself and many other persons who have followed the careers of both men, it will bring back very pleasant memories.
Hollingsworth and Simpson are quite different personalities and naturally their paintings reflect their varying manners. Hollingsworth’s energy and his inventive mind has directed him to all manner of themes, nevertheless, his paintings have the binding element of great virtuosity and surface complexities that makes for a direct and lasting impact. I know for certain that Hollingsworth has explored certain aspects of materials and painting concepts, of which he has great knowledge out of which some other artists have made careers. Long before the current interest in conceptional and ‘environmental art’, indeed. What has come to be known as ‘art concrete’ ( that is painting of dense richly textured surfaces), Hollingsworth conceived paintings that incorporated these styles. During the 1960’s he played a black light over his works so that the surfaces glowed in rich interesting ways. Also his series of “Cry the City” and “The Prophet” brought real distinction to themes of social context.
Merton Simpson on the other hand, is more restrained. His paintings, in which we encounter Simpson’s personal language of abstraction, incorporate his grasp of African motifs and his concern for the transposition of his themes to incorporate not only what is directly apparent, but also, what must be imagined in a spiritual sense. I’ve always admired the way Simpson builds his canvases from elemental shapes and subjects them to patterns that reverse the foreground and the background in overlapping planes and graceful curving outlines.
In all, this exhibit, indeed this dialogue, should alert us again to the efforts of two artists whose works explore modes of expression and feeling that will remain both vital and inspiring.