NEW YORK — Merton D. Simpson, an artist who became a trailblazing collector and gallery owner specializing in African art, died last Saturday in New York City. He was 84.
Mr. Simpson had had several strokes and suffered from a number of prolonged illnesses, including diabetes and dementia, said his son Merton Jr., and Alaina Simone, director of the Merton D. Simpson Gallery, in confirming his death.
Mr. Simpson’s work as a painter was largely in the abstract expressionist mode. It grew more political after he joined the Spiral group — a collective of black artists founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and others — who met to discuss the role of black artists in the art world and, given the growing civil rights movement, the larger world, as well.
Influenced by Bearden’s collages and the Spiral group discussions, Mr. Simpson, after witnessing a standoff between Harlem residents and the police in 1964, produced a series he called ‘‘Confrontations,’’ abstract renderings of masklike faces, white and black, seemingly in hostile opposition.
Mr. Simpson began collecting African and tribal art in the late 1940s. His interest grew through the next decade, spurred by the influence of African sculpture on the paintings of Picasso, Miro, and others.
‘‘I was so taken with them, with the forms, you know,’’ he said in a 1968 oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art about the figures he had seen in the collections of Woodruff (who had been his teacher), Paul Robeson, and others. ‘‘People talked about Picasso, Miro, and I used to say, ‘What about African sculpture?’ — which these people sort of got this idea from.’’
He began dealing in art in the early 1950s to support his painting and to help his family, at first working out of a studio apartment and later from a gallery in Manhattan. (The Merton D. Simpson Gallery is now at 38 W. 28th St.) During decades of traveling in Africa and Europe, Mr. Simpson established a reputation for taste and expertise that many aficionados in the field consider unmatched.
‘‘Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s, Simpson became the most important dealer in the US in this field,’’ Heinrich C. Schweizer, head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s auction house, said Tuesday. ‘‘Worldwide, you could say he was one of the two or three leading dealers and certainly a powerhouse in the US, and this was especially remarkable for an African-American, who began doing this in the time of segregation.’’
Merton Daniel Simpson was born in Charleston, S.C. His father, Marion, was a water-meter reader; his mother, Jennie, was a homemaker. As a young boy he had diphtheria and rheumatic fever, illnesses that kept him out of school until fifth grade.
His youthful interests ran to both drawing and music; in high school he was a reed player, and he continued to play jazz saxophone as an adult.
“Painting is like playing music,’’ he said. ‘‘You can hear a song, you can hear a melody, you don’t have to know the words, but you hear the music and get an impression of what’s going on.’’
He came to New York in 1948 and studied at Cooper Union and New York University, where he met Woodruff. In 1951 he entered the Air Force; he spent most of his time playing in the Air Force band and painting portraits of military officers, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also worked on paintings of his own.
When he left the service, he returned to Manhattan, where he supported himself by working in a frame shop frequented by well-known artists including Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell, who would critique his paintings.
Mr. Simpson’s marriage to Beatrice Houston ended in divorce. In addition to his son Merton Jr., he leaves another son, Kenneth; a brother, Carl; a sister, Patsy Johnson; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
‘‘He was a real pioneer, involved in African art at a high level at a time when there weren’t even many African-Americans who were collecting African art,’’ said Lowery Stokes Sims, curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan.
‘‘When I worked at the Met, I would go to the gallery and see some of the most incredible African art I’d ever seen in my life,’’ she said. ‘‘It was really showstopping. And occasionally he’d show his own work. For an African-American who came up in the art world in the 1970s, he was truly one of those unsung pioneers, crucial in establishing our place in the art world.’’