|Merton D. Simpson
|WITH OVER 50 YEARS OF ACTIVE PARTICIPATION IN THE ART world from a myriad of angles, Merton
Simpson should be acknowledged for not only being a dedicated fine artist, but revered for possessing one
of the most fine-tuned sensibilities about the ebbs and flows within the international realm of art collectors.
In addition to being the proprietor of a prominent Manhattan art gallery, Mr. Simpson, at age 75, is
approachable, regal, and without pretense, as he continues on this sinuous artistic journey that represents
It was during one of those balmy Saturday afternoons in the middle of August, that I made my way through
the ghost town-like streets of Carnegie Hill, which is in one of Manhattan's more prestigious upper eastside
residential enclaves, for a candid discourse with Mr. Simpson. We explored his childhood in South Carolina,
where his first exposure to drawing took place, to learning about how those early years provided him with an
immediate understanding about the professional aspects of the fine art world. But the knowledge that
Simpson strives to convey to emerging artists and novice collectors is a lesson in how financially and
culturally lucrative the art market can be if an individual is open to learning about a sector where the
percentage of the African American participation could stand to grow.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1928, as one of eight children, Simpson was hospitalized due to
childhood diphtheria. It was during this time that he was given a sketchbook to help pass the time. Who
could have imagined that his drawing while recuperating from a malady would catch the attention of many
prominent and influential Charlestonians. One such supporter of Simpson's drawing was William Halsey. An
artist himself, Halsey provided the young Simpson with his first private instructions. It was during this period
of study with Halsey, that Simpson began to work at the Gibbes Museum and, to this day, remains the only
African-American whose work still hangs in this still culturally segregated institution.
Because of a strong desire to become further educated in his craft, Simpson moved to New York City in
1948 to study at Cooper Union and New York University. The notion of being in the right place at the right
time is evidenced by Simpson having the fortuitous opportunity of artistic giant, Hale Woodruff, as a
professor. He also gained exposure to the business end of the art world with a job a Benevy's Frame Shop.
Simpson still speaks about his experience at this frame shop as his "real college." This statement was for
the simple fact that his exposure and professional acquaintances he held with notable painters like Hans
Hoffman and Max Weber were not limited superficial encounters. These artists provided Simpson with the
respectable dose of constructive criticism that would prove invaluable, since it would lead to his first
In 1952, Simpson's painting entitled "Nocturnal City" was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Participating artists would usually begin preparing a series of work to further exhibit elsewhere, after being
involved in such a prestigious show. However, in 1952, with the United States involved in the Korean War,
Simpson's studies and future New York engagements were interrupted, because he decided to enlist in the
air force. Having been spared the rigors of active duty, Simpson was designated as official air force artist.
This job would entail portrait painting of military officers. Simpson did a sitting with General Dwight
Eisenhower, during this period.
With an end to his military services in 1954, Simpson was able to regain the notoriety that he obtained
during his show at the Met, and continued to build on his success in 1952. Two very noteworthy exhibitions
were "Younger American Painters" at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, and "Eight New York
Painters" at the University of Michigan in 1956. The combined successes of these two shows would become
the impetus for Simpson to open his Madison Avenue gallery which concurrently featured African and
modern art. The evolution of Simpson into the role of collector, would eventually lead to his first trip to
Europe to see the best in African art.
The continuation of the civil rights movement, by 1963, would lead to the formation of the Harlem-based
artists collaborative 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, these socially conscious painters decided to address and chronicle
the social, political and economic concerns of the day, through the medium of art.
Overwhelmed by an awakened social consciousness and sense of his civic responsibility, Simpson created
his legendary "Confrontation Series" from 1964 to 1969. This body of work, comprised of a group of
primarily black and white canvases, was meant to capture the feelings of anger and frustration of the times.
For Simpson the 1970s would take this ever-introspective artist to mother Africa, to explore the West African
art scene. This pivotal moment in Simpson's life and career, would not only expand his knowledge on
African Art, but allow his paintings to define for the viewer a sense of where Simpson was aligning his
thinking politically and socially.
While the 1980s and 1990s would continue to be filled with solo exhibitions around the themes of Simpson's
love for jazz music, these two decades would reveal to the art world, how diligent and unwavering Simpson
has been about building his art collection into a respectable asset base. Possessing one of the world's most
sought-after collections of Oceanic and African art, Simpson has amassed a solid asset base, built on a
lifetime of studying the trends within the art world the way that a financial analyst understands the
mechanics of the stock market.
In 1999, a fine reliquary figure from the Merton D. Simpson collection sold at Sotheby's for $332,500.00.
With an art collection that holds the financial weight of a stellar stock portfolio, Simpson's wish is for more
African Americans to become interested in building up equity for the future and to consider spending
between $3,000-$5,000 a year on quality art pieces. Of course, Simpson recognizes that educating the
untrained eye with things artistic, must be a skill set that we begin to take the time to familiarize ourselves
with. However, investing in art should be approached in the same manner as investing in stocks. Get to
know the artist you are interested in purchasing an original piece from. Follow their careers by reading
about their work in art magazines and books. Attend exhibitions, museums. In other words, familiarize
yourself about an artist in the same manner as reading up on a stock via their prospectus.
To experience Simpson's art work and to take a glimpse at his collection, why not visit the Merton D.
Simpson Gallery when visiting New York. Otherwise, portions of Simpson's fine art paintings can be found at
the Smithsonian Institute, the Fowler Museum of UCLA, the Guggenheim collection, and within private
collections from around the world.
|Merton Simpson's website for his New York Gallery
|Above is my favorite painting my
Merton Simpson, it's called: