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December Issue 2010

Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, SC, Offers Works by Merton Simpson

The reorganization of a gallery in New York presents a rare opportunity for art and history enthusiasts in the South Carolina Upstate. The Greenville County Museum of Art and the Hampton III Gallery are holding separate exhibitions of previously unseen paintings by South Carolina artist Merton D. Simpson, whose Confrontation series addressed the challenges of race in America during the civil unrest of the 1960s.

Merton Simpson: Confrontations is on view through Mar. 13, 2011, at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, SC. This exhibition includes fifteen paintings that Simpson created between 1968 and 1972, all large and dramatic examples of figurative expressionism.

The Hampton III Gallery, in Taylors, SC, exhibition includes smaller works from the Confrontation series and paintings from the early years of Simpson's career. It will be on view through Dec. 31, 2010.

Merton D. Simpson may be best known internationally as a dealer in African tribal art. In fact, he was a pioneer in that field, opening successful galleries in New York and Paris. But for Simpson, painting has been his first love. His Confrontation series offers his personal insight into the American Civil Rights movement.

Born in Charleston, SC, in 1928, Simpson was mentored as a teenager by painter William Halsey, who helped the young African-American artist organize his first show in 1949. There were few real opportunities for Simpson in the South, however. He moved to New York in 1949 and studied at New York University and Cooper Union. To make ends meet, he took a job at a frame shop, where he met major artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, both of whom critiqued Simpson's developing style.

The young artist was included in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951. When he joined the Air Force that year, he leveraged his skills in portraiture into an appointment to the Air Force art program. Among his subjects was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After his service, Simpson returned briefly to Charleston, but then he took advantage of a patron's offer to fund a trip to Paris. That journey began a life-long relationship with the French capitol and sowed the seeds of Simpson's dual careers as an artist and a gallery owner.

In the 1960s, he became involved with other African-American artists in a society called the Spiral Group - black artists who met to discuss their role in America at a time when the Civil Rights turmoil was just beginning. In 1964, during the Harlem riots, Simpson was accosted by a New York policeman. The next day, he began the Confrontation series. It is characterized by black and white faces positioned against one another in powerfully expressionist paintings. Simpson maintains that the works were never intended as illustrations, although some were based on current events.

One of the works on view in the Museum's exhibition is a painting that relates to the Orangeburg Massacre, a 1968 incident in which members of the South Carolina Highway Patrol fired into a crowd of young people, killing three and injuring twenty-eight. During a recent conversation, Simpson told Museum Director Tom Styron that he recalled the Orangeburg event, and the painting was certainly related to it.

Sandy Rupp, Director of Hampton III Gallery, was involved in organizing both exhibitions, working closely with Simpson and his New York staff.

The exhibition is funded in part by the SC Arts Commission, which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

For further information check both our SC Institutional and Commercial Gallery listings, call Hampton III Gallery at 864/268-2771 or visit (www.hamptoniiigallery.com) and call the Greenville County Museum of Art at 864/271-7570 or visit (www.greenvillemuseim.org).


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