Merton Simpson

 Charleston native Merton Simpson always knew that he wanted to be an artist. In an interview, he once said: "as a kid I was always sketching...I started with the funny papers...never did baseball...[I was] always interested in doodling..." (Howard, 1992). But growing up in the South of the 1940s presented few opportunities to develop his skills. He was born on September 20, 1928, one of seven children of Marion Simpson and Jennie Gibson Simpson. As a youth, he sold newspapers to make money. One day he met an artist, Jean Robertson Fleming, who persuaded him to allow her to do his portrait. When Ms. Fleming learned of Simpson's interest in art, she persuaded him to show her his work. She subsequently introduced him to William Halsey (Day, 1995). Halsey was at that time “a struggling artist himself,” working and teaching at the Gibbes Art Gallery in Charleston. This was an era when “no art facilities were available for black students” but Halsey liked Simpson’s work. Halsey’s son remembers that his father was “very struck by it.” Over the next few years, Simpson often came by the Halsey home, where William Halsey did “private critiques” of his work (Halsey, David, October 2002). The Burke High School graduate couldn't take art classes at the local colleges due to segregation, but Halsey served as his mentor, giving him advice about his work and influencing him to paint abstract art.  Halsey described Simpson as someone who had his mind made up to succeed, even in his mid-teens. "...he had so much determination. I didn't have to encourage him or push him" (Day, 1995). Halsey remained a friend until his death in February of 1999.

Halsey and his wife, the artist Corrie McCallum and a supporter, Laura Bragg, provided a venue for Simpson's first one-man show in 1949 at the Home Book Shop, which was owned by another supporter, Kyra Kuhar. At that first exhibit, there were two receptions, one just for whites, and one for both whites and blacks. Simpson's work was also exhibited at Atlanta University in 1949 at the "Eighth Annual Exhibition of Painting, Sculpture and Prints by Negro Artists." The artist Romare Bearden saw his work there, and the two became friends. That friendship lasted until Bearden died in the 1980s.

Later in 1949 Simpson left South Carolina and headed for New York where more opportunities existed. He studied at New York University under William Bazioles, receiving an associate's degree in 1951, and at Cooper Union under Robert Gwathney. He supported himself with a job at a framing shop. There he met and talked to many major figures in the art world who came in to purchase frames, such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. These artists critiqued his work, described as "semi-abstract collages" ("Visiting Visual Artists"). He received the support and encouragement of other painters. In particular, he later described James Johnson Sweeney as a major influence on his "development as a painter" ("Visiting Visual Artists"). Success soon came his way. He had his work displayed in an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951, shortly before he left for his military service.

Simpson served in the Air Force for four years. Stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he began to sketch portraits. He was lucky. His work came to the attention of the military and he spent the rest of his time in the service as an Air Force artist. Simpson said: "as a military man, I was able to paint and not do anything else because of what I did for General Eisenhower. I did his portrait" (Howard, 1992). Simpson also painted the portraits of other top military officers.  He described himself as "brash" during that period. He wrote a letter to Helena Rubenstein, who had a well-known collection of modern art, and told her she needed one of his paintings for her collection! She replied to him and later bought one of his paintings (Merton Simpson...1995).

Simpson could have remained in the military, where he was offered a commission. But he chose to come home for family reasons. He still had a mother and brothers and sisters. After leaving the service, he had some exhibits in New York and Washington. But he felt the lure of France, where there was more "racial tolerance" (Merton D. Simpson...1995). With the help of Anita Pollitzer, a former Charlestonian and patron from his South Carolina days, and her French husband, he was able to realize his dream. He learned to speak French and soon left for Paris. In France, his "style would soon incorporate an enticing surface elegance that softens the fractured planes..." of his paintings (Merton D. Simpson...1995).

Eventually Simpson settled in New York, where he raised his family and runs an art gallery on Madison Avenue. Although he never returned to Charleston to live, he says that growing up there influenced his art. It "...has to do with being born in Charleston near the water...and when I saw boats and this kind of thing and always liked the way they looked and liked the way the sails play against the wind and the wind against the docks and the docks against the birds. This kind of thing..." (Howard, 1992).

He wears several hats, as an artist, a musician and an art dealer. But he still paints every day, generally in the mornings before he goes out to the gallery. Even in his 70s, he still loves what he does and has no intention of retiring.

Although his work has changed and evolved over time, it is best described as "abstract expressionism," which first became popular in the 1950s (McCray, 1995). Abstract expressionism actually includes a number of different painting styles which "depict forms not drawn from the visible world. They emphasize free, spontaneous and personal emotional expression..." ("Abstract Expressionism"). Curator Angela Mack described this style of art in a newspaper interview as: " approach that went beyond the concept of abstract elements to dealing with the conscience and subconscience...This type of art deals with the inner self as opposed to abstracting the surroundings" (McCray, 1995). Another reviewer describes Simpson's art as falling into a subcategory of abstract expressionism, a more "aggressive" style referred to as "Action Painting" (Loughery, 1989). Action Painting " characterized by a loose, rapid, dynamic, or forceful handling of paint in sweeping or slashing brushstrokes and in techniques partially dictated by chance, such as dripping or spilling the paint directly onto the canvas..." ("Abstract Expressionism"). Yet another reviewer, looking at the evolution of Simpson's work over a long career, states that he began with an "...early romance with the school of Paris, with its surface elegance...through a series of abstractions reflecting cubistic distortions...later a calmer period of portraiture, fracture planes...psychological portraits of people struggling through artist searching for his primordial ancestry..." (Stone, 1992).

Simpson was one of a number of African-American artists who were invited by Romare Bearden to meet at his studio in 1963 to discuss their role in the civil rights movement. They formed the "Spiral" group and met regularly to discuss "their responsibilities as artists at a time when racial violence was reaching a peak" (Merton D. Simpson...1995).  They never settled on a joint approach, but many later said these meetings influenced them as artists.Certainly it influenced Simpson, who is best known for a series of 22 abstract paintings done in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, called the "Confrontation" series. The series centers around the racial strife in Harlem in 1964, when Simpson witnessed a scene of confrontation between African-Americans and police. When the Gibbes Museum mounted a major exhibit of his work in 1995, a critic described the "Confrontation" paintings: [It] "...uses the simplification of masklike figuration...the forms are executed with thick gestural lines. The interrelationship of the figures, with their jigsaw puzzle juxtapositioning, is characteristically complex and highly active...The black and white coloration adds to the thematic tension..." (Drake, 1995). However, after 1969 Simpson did not do paintings with a racial theme.

Confrontation 2, courtesy of Merton Simpson

Over the years his painting has evolved and in the 1970s and 1980s much of his work was inspired by his love of  jazz. Another critic described some of his work from this period as "...abstract work with looping lines and amorphous shapes" (Day, 1995).  Yet another critic describes his paintings of this period as "visual interpretations of music...Simpson has moved to a more dynamic brush stroke to capture on canvas the extemporaneous nature of jazz. Colors resonate throughout each painting suggesting an inner rhythm that pulsates with expression..." (Merton D. Simpson...1995). Simpson sees music and art as inter-related. He says they "feed each other" and "enhance" each other (Howard, 1992). He says that "painting is like playing music. You can hear a song, you can hear a melody, you don't have to know the words but you hear the music and get an impression of what's going touches your soul..." (Howard, 1992).

His interest in African art and his African-American heritage inspired much of the work he did in the 1990s. Simpson said his painting "has to do with the art of Africa, spirit of Africa, people of Africa" (Howard, 1992). One critic has described this body of work, with its use of fabric and texture in addition to paint, as "collage" (Drake, 1995). Simpson "starts with a plain black canvas..." and then colors the painting "brown or earth colors" before beginning the collage (Howard, 1992). He uses an African fabric called Mali hunting cloth, which was originally used to wrap sculptures that were shipped to his gallery. He tears up the cloth and applies it to the canvas with Elmer's glue. Then he gives the whole canvas a coat of shellack. After it dries, he gives it a second coat. When the canvas is dry, he begins to paint. Simpson lays out the collage beforehand in such a way that the "painting is dictated by the shapes of the cloth, at least at first." As he paints, he "pushes" and "pulls." He will "try to digest it and hope that something happens that makes you pleased with the result" (Howard, 1992).  He has created works of art that used hair, shells, string, paint and other objects. While some of his works today use earth tones, many use bright colors.

His work is held today by many museums, including the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, which owns three of his paintings, and in many private collections. One of his paintings, Confrontation No. 20, is held by the South Carolina Arts Commission in its collection of State Paintings.

Simpson's work has been widely exhibited over the years. His many one-man shows include exhibits at the Krasner Gallery in New York in 1960, a 1984 exhibit entitled "Improvisations" in his native Charleston and a 1990 exhibit at the Twining Gallery in New York. He has also shown his work in many group exhibitions. These include "Younger American Painters" at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1954, "Eight New York Painters" at the Museum of Art, University of Michigan, in 1956, "Black Artists/South" at the Huntsville Museum in Alabama in 1979, and "Since the Harlem Renaissance" at Bucknell University in 1986. South Carolina has also recognized Simpson's work with an exhibit in 1984 at the College of Charleston and by including him in a traveling exhibit of  South Carolina's African-American artists entitled "Conflict and Transcendence" in 1993.

Although Simpson has declared that "Painting is my first love" (Day, 1995), he is also a talented musician. Simpson says of both music and art "One has to live it, execute it..." (Howard, 1992). As a child in Charleston he played the tenor saxophone. The city of Charleston acknowledged the artistic talent of this native son in 1984 by commissioning him to paint a portrait of the late Reverend Daniel Jenkins, founder of the famed Jenkins Orphanage Band. This was the first painting of a black Charlestonian to hang in the Charleston City Council chambers. The choice of an artist seems fitting, as Simpson had played with the Jenkins Orphanage Band as a child, although not an orphan. He wanted to learn to play jazz, and the Jenkins Orphanage Band provided that opportunity for many young African-Americans of that day. With orphanages falling into disfavor, the Band began to recruit outsiders. In an interview, Simpson said: "The Jenkins Orphanage had a band that would play around the streets of Charleston from time to time. As a kid, I guess I would follow the band around because the music was so interesting. That led me to be...interested in music in a sense and I started...I got some lessons at the orphanage...I would go over and help the kids. Instead of being paid, we would get the music lessons. It was like being in a conservatory..."  (Howard, 1992). The band played all along the East Coast in the summers. In the military he played in the Air Force Band during his service from 1951 to 1954. Later he began to play in jazz groups, and has played with groups in both New York and Paris. He still enjoys playing his saxophone in a jazz band. He even played with a jazz group that was providing entertainment at his exhibition at the College of Charleston in 1984, and has been known to play with jazz musicians hired to entertain at his gallery.

Although it would probably distress him to hear it, in some ways Simpson has achieved his greatest success as an art dealer, specializing in primitive art. There are very few African-Americans in this field. Simpson has achieved an international reputation as an art dealer. He has been described as " of the foremost authorities on African art in the world" (Hollingsworth, 1979), one of the few "preeminent dealers" (Dudar, 1982) and as "one of the best known American dealers specializing in Polynesian art..." ("Treasures of Hawaii"). This is a profession where few have the knowledge and skill to tell what is genuine and what is a fake. Curators and dealers from around the world come to his gallery to purchase primitive art. But Simpson downplays such accolades. He has said that that is just how he earns a living. The most important thing to him is to be a good painter.

He began to collect African art, especially carvings, around the time he moved to New York and initially became an art dealer in order to support himself. In a newspaper interview, he stated: "First of all...I am a painter and had been painting several years before I started selling my paintings, and I sold them because it was necessary to care for my family. That's how the dealership came about - it's as simple as that" ("Unique Gallery..."). It was "a question of economics" (Howard, 1992). He learned about primitive art by "hanging out in the right places" (Dudar, 1982). He hung around the gallery of Julius Carlebach, who allowed him to handle the rare pieces that he carried. Simpson's first acquisition was "a small Bakongo fetish" (Dudar, 1982) which cost him $150, a great deal of money in those days. It took him three months to pay for it. He began by working out of his studio, buying and selling inexpensive pieces he acquired from African traders, often from students who needed the money to pay their expenses in the U.S.  However, banks refused to lend him money and it was "scary" to make large purchases. Often he would acquire a piece and would have to arrange to pay for it when he found a buyer, a process that could take as long as a month. But gradually his business grew. His first gallery was a small store on Madison Avenue.

In 1967 he moved a block to his present gallery, a two room facility on the third floor of a building in an out of the way location. One writer described the gallery as having a "unique atmosphere" with African art objects and paintings and strips of Kente cloth ("Unique Gallery..."). Another writer relates that it is a very simple gallery, just filled with art (Dudar, 1982). Simpson has bought and sold thousands of pieces. He traveled extensively for many years, buying African art for his gallery and now maintains a small apartment in Paris. In the process of his travels, he learned to speak fluent French. He no longer travels to Africa. He has a personal collection that includes a number of pieces of tribal art, in addition to paintings by Tanner, Bearden and Thompson. In an interview he stated that he rarely held onto the best work, believing this would not be fair to his clients (Day, 1995). But some pieces are special. One such piece, a crouching wooden tiger, was a gift from the mother of an African king. Simpson saw such a tiger, which is considered a sign of royal authority, on his first trip to Africa in 1955, near a Baule village in the Ivory Coast. Two years later when he returned for another visit he received the gift. The piece was among those displayed in a 1994 exhibit at the Museum of African Art in New York (Flam and Shapiro, 1994). In January of 1999, in what was described by a critic as a "superb display of African traditional art" from the Simpson Gallery, some of his other pieces were  included in the third annual National Black Fine Art Show in New York (Cotter, 1999).

Simpson has expressed some disillusionment with what has happened in the art world where economics reigns supreme. The interest in African art has grown over the last twenty years, but much of this is not interest in art for art's sake. "There's so much collecting for the wrong reasons" Simpson said (Howard, 1992). African art is seen as an investment by many buyers. Simpson dislikes this approach to collecting. "This really disturbs me, but there's not much one can do about it," he said (Howard, 1992).

Simpson recognizes that many young people know little about art and that many African-American students know little of their own rich cultural heritage. In 1970 he donated the funds for the Jennie Simpson Educational Project at the Brooklyn Museum. The goal of this project was to add another dimension to the Black Studies Program by giving students the opportunity to examine art outside of the museum. They would have the chance to actually handle African art and to look at photographs and slides of the pieces being used by African peoples in the ways they had been used for centuries. Students responded enthusiastically to the pilot project in the fall of 1970, which made the art objects more accessible to them.

To Merton Simpson, art is the most important thing in the world. He once said: "To me, art has been so meaningful it's hard for me to do anything without helps my psyche...What I'm trying to do as an artist, when I make a painting at some point, to make a painting that has an impact, that's a lasting one. That has some sort of meaning beyond the surface of the canvas and some sort of depth and some sort of hope for mankind" (Howard, 1992).

Simpson's attitude about life is reflected in the approach he has always taken toward his clients in his role as an art dealer. In a magazine interview, Simpson said: "Be as direct and honest as you can possibly be. Tell your clients as much as possible" (Hoving, 1990). But perhaps the kind of man Simpson is can be best summed up in the words written by Paul C. Figueroa: "Artist, musician, connoisseur, businessman and philanthropist, Merton Simpson is a renaissance man..." (Merton D. Simpson...1995).

Carol Sears Botsch, USC Aiken

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For more information about artist William Halsey, click on the following link:



"Abstract Expressionism," Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (July 26, 1999)

Agreement between City of Charleston and Merton D. Simpson, commissioning portrait. December 10, 1984. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Alston, Elizabeth H. Letter to Merton Simpson. August 22, 1984. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Brooklyn Museum. Fact sheet about Jennie Simpson Educational Fund. n.d. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Cotter, Holland. "National Black Fine Art Show," New York Times (January 29, 1999), p. E35.

Day, Jeffrey. "Artist took the long way back home," The State (September 24, 1995), p.F1-2.

Drake, Nicholas. "Art Transforms Color and Form," The News and Courier (September 17, 1995), p. F4.

Dudar, Helen. "No. 1 in Primitive Art," Connoisseur (March 1982), pp. 20-22. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Eight New Painters," Program for exhibit held at Museum of Art, University of Michigan, July 1-31, 1956. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Flam, Jack and Daniel Shapiro. Western Artists/African Art (New York: The Museum for African Art, 1994).

Green, Harriet. Telephone interview. October 18, 1994.

Halsey, David A. Email. August 7, 2002.

Halsey, David A. Telephone interview. October 31, 2002.

Halsey, William. Letter to Merton Simpson. March 18, 1978. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Hollingsworth, A.C. "Merton Simpson, Artist," Black Art vol. 3, no. 2 (1979), p. 21. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Hoving, Thomas. "As Good as Their Word," Connoisseur (February 1990), pp. 98-101. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Howard, David. "Merton Simpson: The Artist Spirit as Statement,"  video. (San Francisco: Visual Studios, 1992). The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Loughery, John. "Abstract Expressionism: The Missing Link," New Art Examiner (May 1989), pp. 54-55. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

McCray, Jack. "Simpson Bringing His Art Home," The Post and Courier (September 3, 1995), p.F1.

Merton D. Simpson: The Journey of An Artist  (Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association/Gibbes Museum of Art, 1995).

The News and Courier Picture and caption about unveiling of portrait of Rev. Daniel Jenkins (March 1, 1985), p.1. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Obituaries Margaret S. Randolph," The News and Courier (October 27, 1997), p. B2.

Rakotoarivony, Miya. Email from Merton Simpson Gallery. October 20, 1999.

Simpson, Merton D. Biographical Data Sheet. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Stone, Allen. "Merton D. Simpson: Ancestral Improvisations," Program for exhibit held at the Galerie Noir D'Ivoire, March 27-April 11, 1992. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Svedlow, Andrew. "The Inspirational Century: The Black Artist in America," Catalogue for exhibit held at the Bruce Museum, Connecticut, February 3-March 31, 1980. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Treasures of Hawaii," n.d., n.p. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Unique Gallery Being Featured," The Jonesborough Sun (September 12, 1992), n.p. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"Visiting Visual Artists," The Columbia Museum Magazine vol. 1, no. 3 (Spring 1985?), p. 9. The Merton D. Simpson Papers, 1956-1994, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

"William M. Halsey." The Post and Courier (February 16, 1999), p. A8.

Zetrouer, Scott. Archivist, Gibbes Museum of Art. Telephone interview. June 29, 1999.

Research for this project was supported by a Faculty Exchange grant from the University of South Carolina.

last updated 11/01/2002


The University of South Carolina-Aiken

e-mail [email protected]