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Remembering Charleston’s Merton Simpson, who helped bring African art to mainstream culture

Remembering Charleston’s Merton Simpson, who helped bring African art to mainstream culture
September 2023

Simpson was born in Charleston on September 20, 1968

Merton Simpson served in the Air Force, where he painted portraits of officers. Later, he returned to New York to open a gallery that exhibited his work, as well as African and tribal art.

African culture had a profound impact on Charleston; and conversely, Charleston, in the person of Merton Simpson, returned the favor by helping to bring African art into the cultural mainstream. 

Born here on September 20, 1928, Simpson attended Burke High School. He was often sick as a child and contented himself by drawing. 

Local abstract impressionist William Halsey encouraged Simpson, who could not take classes at the segregated Gibbes Art Gallery, as it was then called. Before leaving Charleston in 1949, Simpson presented his first solo show, one for Black people, and a second where white people also were invited.  

(Left) Charleston Alley (oil on canvas board, 19 x 15 inches, 1962); Grand Dance (oil and Mali hunting cloth, 1991).

After moving to New York City, Simpson attended college and worked in a frame shop, meeting many leading abstract impressionists, both Black and white, who helped critique his work. He went into the Air Force, lived abroad, and exhibited in galleries and museums such as the Guggenheim in New York City. Deeply moved by African motifs, Simpson and other African American artists including Hale Woodruff, Alvin Hollingsworth, and Romare Bearden—members of the Spiral group—worked for social justice, incorporating political themes into their art. 

In the gallery Simpson opened in New York in the 1950s, he exhibited not only his work and that of his peers, but African and tribal art, introducing it to collectors and museums. He became known as one of the most prominent dealers of African art internationally.  

Married to Beatrice Houston of South Carolina and the father of two sons, Simpson was recognized by his native city with exhibits at the public library (1983) and the Gibbes Museum of Art (1995) and received an honorary doctorate from the College of Charleston in 2010. He died in New York in 2013, leaving an impressive legacy.