Black Diamonds: New Works by Francis Acea

Black Diamonds: New Works by Francis Acea
Thursday, September 18, 2014 from 6:00 -9:00pm
Through October 31st

Merton D. Simpson Gallery is pleased to present Black Diamonds: New Works by Francis Acea, a unique series of paintings and drawings by New York-based contemporary artist Francis Acea placed alongside unique objects from indigenous cultures within the African Diaspora.

It is said that diamonds and gold, as both natural elements and precious artifacts, cannot be made, that they must be found. The discovery and refinement of these elements has directly and indirectly caused drastic economic, cultural, and political conflict for over six centuries. With the commodification of visual art (manifested in the extreme during the late 1990′s art boom), how do we posit value on the intangible passions of artists at the current moment? Acea’s works comment on the shifting values and valuations of contemporary art by employing images and samples of precious metals in the compositions, themselves, while a curated selection of tribal objects return each consideration back to the primary source of civilization

Acea ups the ante on the dialogue of commodifying art by rendering human organs using golden, metallic acrylic paint. To what do we assign greater importance? What will we trade, who will we hurt to acquire what we believe we desire? These paintings are less a conversation between human being and inanimate object, but more importantly are representative of how we respond to the physicality of material things. Gold is glimmering, seductive, elegant and is further crafted into luxury goods; organs are more frequently traded on the black market, and left ravaged by destructive physiological behaviors.

In the style of a gemologist’s diagram of a diamond’s cut, carat, and color, Acea precisely executes a small set of paintings in black-on-black in varying shapes. Black diamonds, properly referred to as Carbonado, are the toughest natural diamonds in existence. It is also believed that they possess extraterrestrial origins. Acea’s “Black Diamond Drawings” are appropriately interspersed with objects from the Malian Dogon culture, which were among the first peoples to observe celestial bodies. If the carbon compounds (black diamonds) are truly “gifted” to Earth in this fashion, it is reasonable to consider the inquisitions of a culture that existed long before the refined diamond had already known that the value of life and living exceeded that which was not theirs, to begin with. In this sense, Acea connects his own enquiry to who and what determines how art and other luxury goods are valued against the mind, body, and soul.

Francis Acea was born in Havana in 1967. He attended the Havana Superior Institute of Design in 1991 before he decided to pursue an active career as an artist. Acea has participated in group exhibitions at venues in New York, Miami, London, Toronto, Havana, and Cologne. His work has appeared at public institutions and international festivals including the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst (Aachen, Germany), the Barbican Centre (London), Centre PasquArt (Switzerland), the 3rd and 4th editions of the Havana Biennial, and the Helsinki City Art Museum (Tennis Palace). He was the recipient of the 1997 Banff Centre for the Arts Fellowship (Alberta, Canada), the 1998 Fellowship recipient from the Ludwig Stiftung für Kunst und Internationale Verständigung (Aachen, Germany), and a resident at the 01.3 ArtPace International Artist-In-Residency Program at ArtPace (San Antonio, Texas). He has delivered public lectures at Havana University, the Royal College of Art, the University of British Columbia, Cornell University, and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo y Diseño (San Jose, Costa Rica). Acea and his work have been featured in press outlets including Art News, ArtNexus Magazine, El Nuevo Herald, FlashArt International, ArtMonthly Magazine, and The London Evening Standard). Acea lives and works in New York.

About Merton D. Simpson Gallery

With a renowned eye and more than fifty years in business, Merton D. Simpson was one of the most respected African and tribal art dealers in the world. He opened the gallery in 1954, and became instrumental in helping individuals and institutions build comprehensive, culturally significant collections across the globe. Simpson passed away in the spring of 2013, leaving behind a trove of museum-quality art (kept at his eponymous gallery in New York City) and a legacy that speaks volumes to his remarkable vision.

“Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s, Simpson became the most important dealer in the U.S. in this field.”

Heinrich C. Schweizer, Head of African & Oceanic Department, Sotheby’s
The New York Times (quoted by Bruce Weber), March 14, 2013

Contact: Alaina Simone, Director

Merton D. Simpson Gallery
38 W 28th Street
Fifth Floor
New York, NY 10001
Tel: 212.686.6735

Merton D Simpson’s works at the Brooklyn Museum Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties!

Don’t miss your chance to view Merton D Simpson’s work included in an important exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties! The show explores how painting, sculpture, graphics, and photography not only responded to the political and social turmoil of the era but also helped to influence its direction. On view through July 6, 2014, the touring exhibition marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the events leading to this historic moment, and the aftermath of the legislation. 

Visit Brooklyn Museum Exhibition

Simpson & Stone


In honor of the friendship shared by Merton D. Simpson and Allan Stone, we are pleased to present a special selection of African and Oceanic Art from the Allan Stone Collection.

Opening Reception:
Thursday, June 12, 2014 from 6:00 -8:00pm


This exhibition runs through July 28th, 2014


Artsy Editorial: The Ties that Bind: Contemporary, African, and Oceanic Art at Merton D. Simpson Gallery

From the moment the West began colonizing Africa and Oceania in the early 15th century, a steady stream of fantastic weavings, masks, sculptures, textiles, and ritual objects poured into its newly established museums, galleries, and international expositions. Artists took note. Throughout the 20th century, they were making work deeply influenced by the forms and patterns of African and Oceanic objects. And as the Merton D. Simpson Gallery’s recent exhibition “Iconomania” revealed, this influence lives on well into the 21st century.

The exhibition featured the work of six New York-based contemporary artists, hailing from diverse backgrounds and ranging from emerging to established, in dialogue with an assortment of the gallery’s own collection of African tribal and Oceanic sculptures, including a stunning array of masks and headpieces. Set next to these older pieces, the works of Francis Acea, Liliya Lifanova, Noel Leon, Tyrone Mitchell, Aaron Philip, and Jill Nathanson resonated with similarities both conceptual and formal, overt and subtle.

Using a mix of materials, like wood salvaged from African sculptures and Chinese temples, as well as the detritus of consumer culture, Tyrone Mitchell assembles whimsical, additive forms, in homage to such famous figures as John Coltrane and Walt Whitman and the tradition of black art in America. Like the African sculptures whose massing forms and angular contours they echo, his works conjure powerful predecessors. Iconic figures of an entirely different kind are the subject of Noel Leon’s large-scale paintings of cartoon power couple Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Contextualized by the ancestral traditions of Africa and Oceania, these famous mice represent the dubious ancestral legacy of American mass media.

Both Liliya Lifanova and Jill Nathanson make abstract compositions whose patterning and everyday materials recall various African textiles and art practices. Composed of small rolls of paper or linen arranged into geometrical patterns, Lifanova’s pieces resemble Congolese Kuba textiles. Nathanson utilizes sheets of colored plastic, torn and layered into richly hued fields. Her use of such humble materials, and the tones and textures in her work, link her approach to West African artistic practice—yet another tie illustrating the bind between these and so many other contemporary artists and the arts of Africa and Oceania.

SPIRAL: American Masters. Evolve the Gallery

African American Art Collective Has Not Shown Together Since the 1960’s

Historic Oak Park, Sacramento, California – Evolve the Gallery will pay tribute to Spiral, a New York-based collective of African American artists who were summoned by Hale Woodruff to come together because of the historic 1963 March on Washington. The group of 15 artists: Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, Calvin Douglass, Perry Ferguson, Reginald Gammon, Felrath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, Norman Lewis, Earl Miller, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Merton D. Simpson, Hale Woodruff and James Yeargans evolved into a think-tank discussing their relationship to the civil rights movement and the shifting landscape of American art, culture and politics. Richard Mayhew and Emma Amos are the only living members.
The collective met for the purpose of exchanging meaningful dialogues on art, the Black aesthetic and worldviews. Although the collective existed for only a short time, each member of the group, working on their own and together, produced powerful artworks that testified to the common themes arising from the struggle for human rights and to the divergent ways different artists seek to address those themes.
Over 30 artworks from the private collections of esteemed African American collectors from across the country will be on view. “Spiral: American Masters” is a traveling and is accompanied by a commemorative catalog. A special selection of works by Richard Mayhew, Emma Amos, Earl Miller and Merton Simpson will be available for purchase.
The exhibit will be on view through May 24th. The exhibit is free and open to the public.
This event is sponsored in part by Councilman Allen Warren and Dr. Grace Warren, The Cunningham Foundation, John and Stephanie Spears, Arthur and Cynthia Ayres, Michael and Maureen Craft, David and Sandra Fontaine, Aladrian and Carl Mack, A.J. and Susana Watson, Otis and Jerre Benning, Tommy and Barbara Ross, Wornel Simpson and James W. and Renee Sweeney
About Evolve the Gallery.
Evolve the Gallery, is a private fine art gallery, redefines the role a gallery plays in broadening the art experience for patrons and the community. It only really takes a moment to understand how pivotally art is linked to culture, learning, community or conflict. As the art world continues to evolve, art increases its capacity to educate, open dialogue, be therapeutic and enhance environments. Art transcends political, ethnic, gender and religious boundaries and penetrate cultures in a non-intrusive or aggressive way, which gives it the power to break down boundaries and strengthen intercultural understanding. Our exhibitions are smart, creative, poignant and meant to give way to valuable dialogues, collaborations and cultural development that might not other wise take place.

For more information, visit

Iconomania. By Jacqueline Loss

The pleasure of Merton D. Simpson Gallery’s Iconomania resides in its bold, yet precise ability to concede to the unlikely connections among different art objects with vastly distinct aesthetic impulses and histories—paintings, photographs, sculptures, mixed media–creating an occasion to celebrate what is “out of context.” Yet, we are led to believe, escorted by the curatorial expertise of the gallery’s director, Alaina Simone, that this apparent mishmash is, in fact, inherent to humans’ long and temperamental relationship to reverence and religiosity.

Tribal art, through which the Merton D. Simpson Gallery became what it has been known for, by definition, possesses many attributes that make it comparable to the much-contested testimonio in Latin America in the sense that art-viewers desire to appreciate it solely for its authenticity, often blinding them to the “art” of such “useful” visual texts.  Even today, to envision “indigenous” peoples as capable of embracing multiple realms including the spiritual, the ceremonial, the social, the utilitarian, and last but not least, to do so using artistic expression, can be threatening to long-held paradigms about the evolution of art. Tribal art can trigger our attachment to purity, to civilization, and to our necessity to execute empathy without any burden.

This exhibit resists these urges at every turn. For instance, it rejoices in the geometrically patterned compositions made out of rolled paper and canvas that visually riff upon Kuba textiles from the Congo created by the Russian-born, self-proclaimed “modern nomad” Liliya Lifanova.  In so doing, it tells its own story about never-ending processes of appropriation.  The colored sheets of plastic by American Jill Nathanson speak directly to such cultural recycling. There are even a few instants when the art leaves us wondering if it is part of the permanent collection on exhibit or is in dialogue with it. That might be the case with “Coltrane’s Horse,” by American Tyrone Mitchell, but upon slower observation, a global homage to talent and artistry emerges through Walt Whitman’s verses that Mitchell carves into a piece of an ancient Chinese temple.  

Cuban Francis Acea, known for his bombastic reckoning with late capitalism and late socialism through his inversions of socialist and capitalist iconography, renders haunting masks, entitled “Nobody 2” and “Nobody 3,” made out of acrylic and paper.  Their placement in this context beg them to be read as witnesses to the decomposition of identity, the violence, that is inherent in all-encompassing systems.  In this way, anonymity and exemplarity are themes that linger in tension with one another in this display.  It is as if Aaron Philip’s mixed media “Palmolive,” peaking out from one of the exhibit’s corners, nearly provides an explanation for the processes that diminish our individual and collective subjectivities.  The exhibit’s composition obliges spectators to recognize how tribal art serves to cultivate belonging and congeal group identity, thereby shedding light onto our interpretation of Palmolive and even Mickey Mouse.

In Iconomania, Cuban-born Noel León’s “Mickey Mouse Receiving Stigmata” and “Minnie Monroe” dialogue as closely with Acea and Philip as they do with the Mossi Mask with Antelope from Burkina Faso or the Bete Mask from the Ivory Coast, showcasing the wounds of Disneyfication and Hollywoodization, calling spectators’ attention to the mirage that we inhabit, questioning the strategies that are employed to elicit our loyalties, and reflecting upon the legacies of diverse “African” forms in so-called Western iconography. We can’t help to imagine the fate of these named individual artists in the far future after seeing them beside tribal art – will they too become anonymous representations of our present-day tribe? Alaina Simone does not help us out of that mirage of dehistoricization and fanaticism with Iconomania, but this exhibit sure insists on our critical acumen with regard to such categories as authenticity and commodification, spirituality and iconography.

Jacqueline Loss

Associate Professor of Latin American and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies
University of Connecticut


Merton D. Simpson Gallery presents Angels: Chained and Unchained by Purvis Young

Opening Reception:     November 13, 2013. From 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Merton D. Simpson Gallery is pleased to announce the reopening of the gallery since the passing of the gallery’s founder, Merton D. Simpson in March of 2013.

The gallery will reopen with a selection of major works by Purvis Young entitled Angels: Chained and Unchained from the collection of Daniel Aubry on November 13, 2013 from 6-8pm.

A selection of African artwork from the Merton D. Simpson Gallery collection will also be on display.

This exhibition is on view from November 7th through January 2, 2014.

ICONOMANIA. Artist Talk and Tea with Afternoon Cocktails

Saturday, April 12

Moderated by Art Critic, Jonathan Goodman

Francis Acea, Liliya Lifanova, Jill Nathanson and Tyrone Mitchell

Commentary by African art scholar and expert, Charles Miller III.

Group Exhibition Featuring Contemporary and Tribal Art

Francis Acea
Noel Leon
Liliya Lifanova
Tyrone Mitchell
Jill Nathanson
Aaron Philip

This exhibition has been extended through May 10, 2014
Gallery Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11-6pm and by appointment

An evening of Violin & Viola with music from The Kende & Dimitrova Sisters

Monday April 14th
Doors open: 7:30

Merton D. Simpson Gallery cordially invites you to an evening of Violin & Viola with music from The Kende & Dimitrova Sisters

Alexis & Crista
Teodora & Dima

With music of Dvorak, Mozart, Ysaye and H&H

Sponsored by the Verbier 3-D Foundation with works from the gallery’s exhibition “Iconomania” and selected works by Madeleine Paternot.

Please RSVP to due to limited seating.

Iconomania has been extended through May 10, 2014
Gallery Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11-6pm and by appointment

Interview and Review: Son Keeps His Father’s Legacy in Motion, While “Others” Try to Stop the Train

Recently the Brooklyn Museum launched an important new exhibit entitled, “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.” They had been in dialogue with Alaina Simone, the director of the Merton Simpson Gallery, to obtain a painting by the late painter, collector, gallery owner and tribal art expert. He had been a leading member of the “Spiral Artist Collective” with impressive friends, including Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff, his former professor and mentor from NYU. It was one of many pivotal organized movements in the art world by African American artists during the civil rights revolution.

Proud son, Merton Simpson Jr., an Albany legislator along with his impressive gallery director Alaina Simone provided them with Simpson Sr.’s 1965 version of an American “Guernica,” called “U.S.A.,” a weighty abstract expressionist black-and-white painting historically capturing the mood of the times.

The Merton Simpson Gallery has been the subject of much controversy with all sorts of characters trying to capitalize on the name, the collection, and whatever money they can drain out of the gallery. Some pretty interesting well-heeled and suspicious people who have cloaked themselves ostensibly in righteousness to help the gallery have in fact not only been hindrances, but have nearly caused the gallery to close because of their greed. Many things that have been reported are not true; manufactured for the convenience of others, including there being no money for the late Merton Simpson’s burial.

Yet, Simpson Jr. remains undaunted in his desire to keep his father’s legacy thriving. His greatest wish is to see it continue and with the help of Ms. Simone, they have managed to do so by sheer will. As Ms. Simone says, “She would protect Mr. Simpson’s extensive archives with her life,” since they chronicle a lifetime of thousands of works bought and sold by Mr. Simpson. Their historic value in so much as they trace and document each piece is worth well over 1.75 million dollars.

Both of Simpson’s sons had not been involved much with the gallery during their father’s lifetime. Simpson Jr.’s choices were different; supporting people’s rights as a politician is more in line with who he became. He and his brother Ken stayed out of the art business and allowed their father his dignity and privacy till the end of his days, until Simpson Sr. requested that his eldest son, Merton Jr. take over from an influential and powerful friend he had appointed power of attorney and had not acted in anyone’s best interest, but his own.

On March 13th I visited the Merton Simpson Gallery and it seemed that Simpson Jr. and Alaina Simone are breathing exciting fresh energy into the gallery. Simone presented an important new show, ICONOMANIA. The room was buzzing with refreshed optimism as the beautiful Ms. Simone graciously welcomed everyone to view the show, listen to great music and share a glass of good wine.

I found it moving and unique, blending traditional African ceremonial pieces and colorful contemporary iconography with a through line of color and pattern to accent statement.

One of the most poignant works on exhibit is Tyrone Mitchell’s, “Coltrane’s Horse.” Deeply moving, his work goes far beyond the simplicity of the surface of what we see, not shaped only by his African cultural heritage, but by his American inheritance of virtues and failures without distinction of color, but expression of soul. An excerpt from a Walt Whitman poem, “Song to myself” written on the newly carved pristine core of a piece of salvaged building from a former 500-year-old Chinese temple. “Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me,” acts as the psychic conduit fusing together this sculpture.

At its base, exquisitely carved flower motifs decorate the foundation. Traditional African patterns ornament the ovalescent center while the figure is surrounded at top and bottom with the inherited African motifs of the nation he was born to — but what is inside Mr. Mitchell is boundless without physical context to distinguish him from any other. By carving the sculpture, he rejuvenates the tree from which it came and reveals an untouched surface, transcending our linear existence. Like a “sunrise” this piece emerges from from its aged encasement as temple to its new symbolic form. Until we are relieved of only seeing the obvious, we cannot enter the realm of endless possibilities, where we can reclaim, and therefore reshape our existence.

Interspersed are the arcane Bundu Helmut masks of the Mende tradition in Liberia. The erotic masks of the secret society of Sande women are crowned with carved vaginal fans, announcing the right of passage for young women while sustaining the practice of circumcision that is part of their arrival to womanhood.

Francis Acea’s ominous, but amusing black mask images on paper speak to his take on anonymity and the Illuminati. They were delightfully scary and ominous.

Aaron Phillip covers his face in black grease paint while sharing the canvas with 2 masks which he dubs “Happiness” and “Hell,” the worlds he wrestles between.

There are large canvasses from emerging artists Noel Leon with Minnie and Mickey Mouse readdressed, along with photographs which invite us to wonder, embrace, and acknowledge iconography. Feeding through this theme are strategically presented patterns as displayed in Lillya Lifanova’s obsessive works of rolled paper on canvas.

This is an exhibit Merton Simpson himself would have enjoyed — as it goes further than the eye can see, and blends a multicultural cast of artists ranging from 20-60 years old. I am sure wherever Simpson Sr. is, he is, over the moon (so to speak) and proudly encouraging Merton Simpson Jr. and Alaina Simone to fight the good fight and keep up the good work! It’s all worth it, to keep the legacy intact for generations to come. Buoy up your spirit and go see the show! Interview and Review: Son Keeps His Father’s Legacy in Motion, While “Others” Try to Stop the Train