Renowned artist discusses new work made in Aspen

Since breaking out in the art world in the mid-’80s, Lorna Simpson has made a shape-shifting career for herself.

She began with stark street photography, then added pieces of text to her work that often gave it a racial or gendered charge. She then moved into silk-screens, then film, with memorable movies like “Easy to Remember,” where 15 pairs of lips simultaneously hum the Rodgers and Hart song. Most recently, she’s tackled collage — using historical African-American images from magazines like Jet and Ebony, which she collected from her grandmother, flea markets and eBay.

Across mediums, her work touches the heart and provokes the brain.

Simpson is this year’s Jane and Marc Nathanson Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Aspen Art Museum. The program, running since 2008, brings leading artists to Aspen for extended periods to make new work.

The bulk of Simpson’s residency was in February, when she lived and worked at the home of museum patron Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. The prospect of a snowy winter in the mountains, intimidating at first, proved inspiring for the acclaimed Brooklyn-born artist.

“There was so much snow,” she told me on a recent afternoon outside the Red Brick Center for the Arts. “I had that mentality as a New Yorker of, ‘Okay, I’m going to get groceries and I’m going to lock myself in and I’m going to be OK.’ But everyone was like, ‘You’re being dramatic, it’s just powder.’ And then it was lovely just to work all day, from sun-up to sundown. I also kind of moved into a different scale, in the collage, and started to approach it differently than I had in the past.”

The pieces she made in Aspen, currently on display at the Aspen Art Museum in a powerful exhibition of 100-plus recent works, continue the evolution of her vision in collage and drawing. Titled “Lorna Simpson: Works on Paper,” the show is at the museum through Sept. 22.

She’s been working with historic photos, drawing and collage for the last five years. The project began with the old magazines, from which she cropped heads and text to repurpose the cultural artifacts. She re-staged some of the old photos — using herself as a model — mimicking poses of decades-old portraits. And in some, she began combining drawings with the photos.

The collages had been mostly small, fist-sized pieces until she came to Aspen and began experimenting with larger paper and bigger works. She began combining elements she’d mostly used separately in the past — text, drawings, and photos.

“It opened up,” she says. “I was playing with text more and expanding the number of things I was doing”

While New York is home for Simpson, she went to graduate school at the University of California–San Diego in the early 1980s. As a visual artist in a performance-centric school, she was mentored by cross-disciplinary artists like poet David Antin, originator of talk-poems like “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde.”

“I wasn’t a performer, I was more a fly on the wall,” she laughs.

But she compares the influence that the West Coast environment had on her early career to the way Aspen permeated her style this winter.

“It makes you slow down,” she explains. “It creates a different relation to your day-to-day life. As a visitor, and for me, when you’re in an immense beauty like this, you feel small but also in your own rhythm, in the way you think, and how your body feels and that comes more into the foreground. That’s a lovely state to be in to start new work or think about new work. As a place to work, it’s amazing.”

While Simpson’s art has long dealt with race, gender and class issues, by design it raises questions more than it offers answers. “Paris,” included in the Aspen show, displays a room turned upside down, cut out of the images of two women. It was inspired by massive anti-gay-marriage rallies Simpson witnessed in France.

“From the beginning it’s been about positing questions about things,” she says, “but trying to pose them in a way that acknowledges how everyone comes with their own interpretation of what those things are. So my hope is that the work is not prescriptive or monolithic or suggesting a particular kind of rhetoric.”

Well known and acclaimed for her photos and films, Simpson was surprised to find herself drawing in recent years. She recalls being unable to draw a simple horse for her daughter, yet trying to add drawing to her collages. In the “Works on Paper” pieces, she offers flourishes of ink and watercolor to the cropped heads from Jet.

“The drawings were really interesting,” she says. “It wasn’t for anything at first, it was a way to be a little bit more intuitive with the hand, which as a process I don’t really do.”

In July, when she walked into the Aspen Art Museum and saw the scores of pieces for “Works on Paper” laid out and ready to hang, she for the first time grasped how much she’d produced and how much drawing she had done over the last five years: “I was kind of overwhelmed, like, ‘Oh my God, all this work!’ It’s so much work.”

Lorna Simpson: Works on Paper

Aspen Art Museum

Through Sept. 22