Painter Merton Daniel Simpson was born on September 20, 1928 in Charleston, South Carolina to Jenny and Marion Simpson. He began drawing after being hospitalized at childhood with diphtheria. William Halsey, an artist who gave private instruction to the young artist, soon recognized Simpson’s talents. During his formative years, Simpson worked at the Gibbes Museum there he was the only African American in the still segregated institution.
Moving to New York in 1942, Simpson began his studies at Cooper Union Art School and also at New York University where he studied with professor Hale Woodruff. In 1951, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he was the official U.S. Air Force artist and painted portraits of officers including one of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1952, his painting, "Nocturnal City" was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Concluding his military service in 1954, Simpson returned to New York to continue painting and was included in two museum exhibitions, Young American Painters at the Guggenheim Museum in 1954 and Eight New York Painters at the University of Michigan in 1956.
In 1954, Simpson opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, which featured African and Modern art. During the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, Simpson joined the Spiral Group, an organization of African American artists that included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston. For Simpson, this sense of social consciousness led to his "Confrontation" series, a group of mostly black and white canvases, which expressed the anger, and frustration of the times.
Traveling extensively to West Africa in the 1970s, Simpson built a collection of African art and is known as one the preeminent dealers of African art. In the 1980s, he created two series of work, "Universal Orchestrations" and "Contemporary Melodies" both showed his great love for jazz music. By the 1990s, Simpson began using fragments from West African hunting cloth, which were used to wrap tribal objects during shipments from Africa. His work gained a sculptural quality reflective of tribal art. In 1995, the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston presented a retrospective exhibition and published a catalogue entitled, "Merton D. Simpson, The Journey of an Artist." The Studio Museum in Harlem honored Simpson in 2002 for his work as an artist and humanitarian.
Merton Daniel Simpson resides in New York City.
Merton Daniel Simpson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 29, 2005.
Merton Simpson passed away on March 9, 2013.
New York University
Painter Merton Simpson (1928 - 2013 ) was the first African American to exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, and was a member of the Spiral group, an African American art collective during the 1960s.
United States Air Force
Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Merton Simpson's interview
Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Merton Simpson lists his favorites
Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Merton Simpson describes his mother's family background
Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Merton Simpson describes his father's family background
Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Merton Simpson describes his earliest childhood memory
Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Merton Simpson recalls his childhood neighborhood and Christmas celebrations
Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Merton Simpson describes his childhood illness and paintings
Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Merton Simpson describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood
Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Merton Simpson describes his childhood activities
Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Merton Simpson describes his first painting mentor
Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Merton Simpson describes his experiences in the U.S. Air Force
Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Merton Simpson recalls painting portraits and playing jazz in the U.S. Air Force
Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Merton Simpson remembers moving to New York City in the mid-1950s
Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Merton Simpson recalls protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Merton Simpson describes the Spiral group
Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Merton Simpson talks about the black art aesthetic
Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Merton Simpson describes his exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum and his painting technique
Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Merton Simpson describes his experiences in Paris, France
Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Merton Simpson recalls his trips to Africa
Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Merton Simpson talks about prominent civil rights leaders
Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Merton Simpson describes collecting African American art
Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Merton Simpson describes the Spiral group and the concept of black art
Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Merton Simpson recalls selling art to famous buyers
Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Merton Simpson describes his painting series 'Confrontation'
Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Merton Simpson talks about his private collectors and accomplishments
Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Merton Simpson reflects upon the importance of history and his career
Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Merton Simpson narrates his photographs