A man of many talents and dogged determination, Merton Daniel Simpson was an acclaimed Abstract Expressionist, amateur jazz musician, and pre-eminent dealer of African and tribal art. Though his paintings continue to be exhibited and collected by museums nationwide, Simpson’s legacy is most closely tied to the vast collection of African art left behind in his eponymous—and now shuttered—New York gallery upon his death in March 2013. Curators and dealers from around the world visited and purchased African art from Simpson during the gallery’s fifty-nine years of operation, and he is credited with assisting numerous institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their efforts to establish African art collections.
Simpson’s success as an artist and art dealer almost never happened. During his youth in Charleston, South Carolina, Simpson suffered from diphtheria and was necessarily hospitalized for much of his childhood. Bedridden for long periods of time, Simpson entertained himself by drawing: his early subjects included Mickey Mouse and Dick Tracy cartoons before advancing to copies after paintings published in art magazines and journals available to him through the Charleston Library. Gradually, Simpson gravitated toward painting. During his healthy periods, Simpson enjoyed the company of local musicians, developing a love for jazz and mastering the saxophone and flute. His talent and persistence earned him membership in the legendary Jenkins Orphanage Band in spite of the fact that his parents were much alive at the time. Though he chose art over music as a career, Simpson never stopped playing his jazz saxophone.
Few opportunities for instruction or exhibition were available to an aspiring African American artist living in segregated Charleston in the 1940s. Simpson’s chance encounter with local portrait painter Jean Fleming precipitated an introduction to William Halsey, another Charleston artist and Director of the Studio Program at the Gibbes Gallery. Struck by Simpson’s evident talent, Halsey taught the young artist about drawing, composition, and mixing paint. He even encouraged Simpson to begin dabbling in abstraction. In 1949, Simpson left Charleston to attend New York University; that same year, the Home Book Shop in Charleston hosted a solo exhibition of his work, and Atlanta University included him in their Eighth Annual Exhibition of Painting, Sculpture, and prints by Negro Artists.
In New York City, Simpson attended Cooper Union during the day, studying under Robert Gwathmey, and took evening courses at New York University. Abstract Expressionism, which was at the height of its popularity in New York during the early 1950s, made a lasting impression on Simpson. His painting style became noticeably more abstract and gestural during these years. A writer for the Washington Post described Simpson’s work on view at the Barnett Aden Gallery in 1951 as “somewhat reminiscent of Ryder, despite the total difference in color.” Over the course of his career, Simpson’s work was included in important exhibitions at such prestigious institutions as the Guggenheim Museum, University of Michigan, and Krasner Gallery.
It was during his tenure at NYU that Simpson began collecting African art, a pursuit inspired by the personal collection of his art professor, Hale Woodruff. Following a three-year term of service as an Air Force artist (which included painting General Dwight Eisenhower’s portrait), Simpson established the Merton D. Simpson Gallery in 1954, an endeavor that allowed him to share his passion for African art and earn money to help finance his siblings’ education. Annual purchasing trips to Europe and Africa followed, and, in time, Simpson’s gallery space, littered with art objects stored wherever space was available, became the premier destination for collectors, both private and public, of African art. In the 1960s, Simpson was a member, along with fellow artists Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Woodruff, and others, of the black art collective known as the Spiral Group.
Simpson's work is held by the Brooklyn Museum, Gibbes Museum of Art, and Greenville County (SC) Museum of Art, among others.