An Encounter and a Collision with Glenn Ligon

On display till October 18th, I met Glenn Ligon and hoped to gain some insight into his work, the exhibition and the man who once had United States President, Barack Obama meet him backstage at a fundraiser.

When I met Glenn Ligon at TATE Liverpool back in June, it was for the launch of his Exhibition; Encounters and Collisions which is currently sharing the fourth floor with Jackson Pollock’s Blind Spots and a Gallery wide exhibition which features constellations being carefully space out throughout the gallery.

In your work, you regularly touch on subjects such as race, sexuality and identity which are often seen as taboo. Yet critics of your work and general observers find that your work is not vulgar in the way you portray these concepts. How do you manage this? Is this simply how you view the world? Or is it a conscious effort you make in your Artistic process?

Glenn: Well I think that Art is always a place where there is exploration for things that society doesn’t want to talk about or see. So I think that is Artworks job is to uncover… and be conscious of things that are difficult. I don’t see the subject matter as a contradiction in the space of Art but also I think that for me, Art has to say something but it also has to engage on a number of different levels too. So the formal issues around forming a piece of Art are very much fused with the context of the work.

For example, if I’m stencilling long text on a canvas and that long text appears as; “I found my voice. I lost my voice…” that disappearance of the writing falls into abstraction… it’s a formal thing that’s tied to my interest in Artists like Solowin. Minimalist Artists… who use repetition as a strategy in their work. But it’s also about the literal disappearance of that text and what that means. So I think that the formal issues and the content of the work always have to be together. But I’m also interested in beautiful things. I like to make things beautiful. Sometimes I don’t see that as a contradiction in terms of the subject matter.

Is that why you had the draw then to Richard Pryor in as much that Art and Comedy touch on things that people don’t actually talk about but both say something or am I pulling at strings?”

Glenn: No. I think Richard Pryor is interesting for me because a lot of my friends were already quoted, literary texts. James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, Mary Shelly, but I’ve found that if you listen to a Richard Pryor comedy album, he is a sharp about American culture as Toni Morrison is.

So at a certain point I realised ‘Why Don’t I use Richard Pryor as the text image? Why see literature as the place where I can find text?’ And that was very helpful for me because it allowed me to break up voices into the work. But of course, it has words that… has a problem with some audiences (in reference to the use of profanity and racial slurs). But I think that one of the first interesting things that happened when I showed those paintings was that (when they were shown) at the Whitney Museum in New York I had a friend tell me he was leading tours and they pushed him aside to debate whether this was proper viewing material to be seen on the walls of a museum. And I think that’s great because usually when you go to a museum and you see a tour guide- they’re considered to be the experts. They know everything. But in that space the painting allowed those people who came to see the show to say ‘No! We know a lot. We have a lot to talk about. So step aside and let us have this discussion.’ And I thought that was really kind of gratifying to see that Art can still move people to question and take control.

He continues:
One person said; “I can enjoy Richard Pryor at home. Why do I have to see him on the sides of a wall in a museum?” And someone else asked; “What’s wrong with that? Why must black culture only be seen in certain spaces?”

Earlier you referenced how minimalists use repetition. Is that what partly drew you to Jackson Pollock, was it because of his overdrawing technique?

Glenn: I think that Pollock… De Kooning… that generation. Were really dealing with a canvas as an all over surface. And so that was really influential to me when I was thinking about making these big paintings. In particular the big black painting because I really wanted to deal with the space and the sense that the whole canvas was filled up. But Also, I think that in particular, someone like Pollock really freed up the idea in how you make a painting. Often paintings are made on an Easel with a paintbrush, so now he’s using sticks and brooms and turkey basters to make his painting. So the idea of not only how you make a painting but (also) what a painting could be had (been) radically changed by him. I think that really opened up and even though I do not work like that, the sense that everything is possible in a way was opened up by that generation of Artists.

“Why must black culture only be seen in certain spaces?”

“…So a sort of opening the door for you to come through, kinda thing?”

Glenn: Yeah. And you know, when I first started working I was working as an abstract expressionist and the work that I was drawn to was the kind of work I was making. But then I realised that there are all these types of things I was interested in. I was reading and I wanted to get into the work using that vocabulary. So I have to find another way of working. But there were paintings I was also very interested in so basically I thought; ‘Well, let’s just strip everything down and just use the words themselves as the painting’. So I think that has in its own way, a relationship to extract expressionism and the new possibilities that these ways of painting that extract expressionism have opened up.

There used to be a joke that there are actually two black men in the white house. The first being President Obama and the second being yourself in the form of ‘Black Like Me #2’. Do you feel like you have to raise the bar with each new project, or does the fact that your work was or is in the white house play no part when you are conceptualising your next piece?

Glenn: Noooooo. It plays no part. What I am grateful for is that we finally have a president and First lady who are not afraid of Artists. Before we had presidents who thought of Art as a problem or they have chosen things that are very safe. President Obama and Michelle Obama have really shown to the world that they are comfortable with Artists. They take their daughters to see Artists. Michelle Obama did the inauguration ceremony for the new Witney Museum in New York. I think that they have a deep commitment to Art. They owned Art before they got into the White House and they’ll own Art after they leave the White House. So it’s really great to a part of that collection and in that company.

I only met the President once actually… it was backstage at a fundraiser, but when he talked to me it was very clear what Art he had and with it what needed to be rotated out. He actually knew about the set of prints they had as well. And he said; ‘Well, they had to rotate it out because the light was too strong in the room and I really miss it’ And I thought; “The president of the United States has a lot of other things to worry about and other than a set of prints in the hallway. So I thought that; ‘no, he is serious. There really is Art present day to day and when it’s not there he misses them’.

It is at this point though, I realise why people kept calling him Glenn. In difference to the argument on how you pronounce his last name, Glenn Ligon isn’t your average ‘name dropper’. I get this because when a name is brought up, there is a humanisation to it, one where not only their work and actions are highlighted, but something worthwhile to their character. So I ask:
In the past you worked with Beauford Delaney, David Hammonds and Zoe Leonard. Are there are any current Black or LGBT Artists or authors that you are currently looking forward to work with in the near future?

There is a significant pause of several seconds between the question being asked and answered. Then he simply lets out a ponderous hum and leans forward on the bench. Watching him work out this question is like watching a chess player calculate their next move.

Glenn: Well I want to think more about Delaney because I just admire his work and I’ve just read through his biography and I think he had a very interesting career because he was friends with Baldwin. Now Baldwin is someone who I have used repeatedly. But also that he is an abstract painter who really thinks that there isn’t much difference between abstraction and figuration. So you look at the abstract painting by his show and then you look at his portrait of James Baldwin there’s a lot of overlap in the way he thinks. So I want to think about Delaney more as a kind of father figure to my own work.

“And often I find that the work which is most satisfying, usually has that mistake or shift in it that takes me in another direction.”

In terms of literary figures, I don’t know. I’ve been very interested in Sun Ra, who has a video exhibition here called ‘Space is the Place ’which is about leaving the planet metaphorically but also literally as a way of escaping social boundaries and prejudices. Now whether Sun Ra was gay or not I’m not sure, it’s hard to tell. But that’s interesting too to be such an ambiguous figure. So I want to think a bit more about that.

I realise that this question was genuinely tough to answer. I say this because I get the impression that the colour or sexual orientation of these individuals is happenstance. Secondly, since the entire collection is based around the work, not the individuals themselves who Ligon has either affiliated with or has had a personal influence on his work. This means that to Ligon, who they are other than an Artist doesn’t matter. Nonetheless, we press on.

So is it a sort of; you have the inkling to work with them and then you put it off for whatever reason, then you find out the information and come back?
Glenn: Yeah. It’s a process of doing more research then finding what you’re interested in. There are a lot of books about James Baldwin or Sun Ra, but it’s about finding in that the things that speak to what you’re interested in as an Artist and moving forward with that. Sometimes, for me it’s just about intuition. I don’t want to read what other people are saying, I want to find out, for myself…what I think and start the work. Then, when I’ve started to make the work I can say; ‘Well… I need to know more about what he was like living in Chicago…’ then I’ll start to do the research.

So your work is a bit of the initial interpretation as well as the process of you discovering and learning more. So is there sort of an educational process in your work?

I think Art is a way of thinking. It’s not simply; “I have an idea. I think it all through and I execute the work.” It’s more about; “I’m trying to figure out what I’m making, as I’m making the work.” And that thinking process changes drastically. I wanted to go here but now I’ve realised I need to go there.

So I think the most interesting pieces I’ve made have had some kind of mistake in them. So I’m trying to make something, say make a painting using a letter stencil and the paints very messy and I’m trying to figure out how to make it not messy and then I realise that; ‘oh the fact that it becomes messy… and kind of disappears and makes the words disappear is more interesting than what I was trying to do- so let me go with that.’ And often I find that the work which is most satisfying, usually has that mistake or shift in it that takes me in another direction.

“So thinking about your “I am A Man print” (Untitled- I Am A Man, 1988) you had Michael Duffy analyse your work and there are annotations all over the print. Does the fact that someone else sees your mistakes make you feel like you did the process properly based on what you’ve just said?

Well in that particular piece it was about a painting, which was made with oil paint and enamel paint which do not go together. So it starts cracking from the day I made it and when I ask a friend of mine who is a painting conservator to create a condition report, which involved writing over the image all the things that would need to be corrected. So you saw all of its flaws. For me that was showing people how the painting aged over time. And that addressed what the painting was about. You know: “I am a man” and deconstructing it, seeing how it literally aged in the painting and seeing how our ideas about certain moments change over time.

So showing the mistakes, showing the flaws makes it richer for the viewer.

“WHY IS THIS ART?!”

Once someone is successful in one area, they are usually scared to move into a new medium because they are afraid their success with not transition with them. However, the opposite seems to be true for you when you consider the responses to both your “I am a Man” painting in 1988 and the Neon piece “Double America” from 2012. How have you been able to project your message even after you have change the method through which it is being delivered?

Well… I think that at a certain point you get good at doing things and that’s when it gets boring. So I know how to make a good looking painting but that’s not enough for me. That’s kind of dull.

He laughs for a moment before continuing.

As an Artist you kind of want to go to the places where you aren’t so comfortable. I didn’t know anything about Neon and I thought; ‘Well. If you go out on the street, you see lots of signs in neon that have words in them…. and my work is all about words’. So it seemed like a natural place for my work to go when I first started making Neon.

And of course there are other Artists who have works with Neon, so it’s not like it was unknown territory. But when you begin to be afraid to make things because you are successful in one area, then you’re just making for the market. And it’s very tempting when the market is high, but after a while it starts to show. So I’d rather push myself into areas I’m uncomfortable with. I’ve been writing a lot too and it’s just as hard as making Art work but it’s just as rewarding. So when I’m offered to write an essay- like when I wrote an essay for Chris Ofili’s work… it’s exciting because I get to think more about someone else’s work. Because so often you go into a gallery and you see a painting and you say: “Right. de Kooning. I know.” But when you have to write about it, when you have to explain your ideas to someone, to make it clear to someone- it’s very challenging. It’s why when I began to look at Chris Ofili, I realised I was looking at these paintings wrong the whole time. But there is so much more in them and I’m seeing so much more because I’m having to do the research and think about it. Like what does it mean to make these paintings in Trinidad verses what was it like to do these paintings in the UK? What does it mean to have Christian symbolisms when they aren’t around in contemporary painting anymore? So it was interesting to have to think of that, especially in relation to Chris’ work.

Then the interview pauses for a moment. I’ve reaslised that I’ve been sucked into the story. Sucked in like his words are a vacuum to my attention span and that’s when he hit’s me with his question.

Glenn: Are you an Artist?
For a moment I’m star struck. Perhaps my guise of being an undercover art critic has gone well. Though, the moment I break he news to him, I can see the disappointment on his face. Dang it again. There goes my chance to work with him, so I better get pretty good at this writing and interviewing thing.

Glenn: You ask questions like an artist.

He continues, hammering home my own disappointment.

Luckily though, this moment of disappointment springs about a funny anecdotal story.

Glenn: I once had someone interview me and they were talking about the Malcom X piece back there and I was explaining that it was some kid’s art. And she said “WHY IS THIS ART?!” And I look at her like; ‘woah–oookay’. So I say to her; “If your child brings home to you a drawing, do you not put it up on the fridge with a magnet? You don’t look at them and say ‘WHY IS THIS ART?!’

You see, in previous interviews I’ve seen Artists become quite offended when someone throws the question “why is that art?” Do you feel offended or like you have to justify your work when someone says that?

No, I think that what people are trying to say is that they have a very traditional view of what Art is. And I’ve had to fight that because it’s not the kind of Art I want to make. But even when you think of the art that has been made in the last century, our notions of what art can be have changed dramatically. The notion that Martin Creed- lights going off and on in the gallery at the Tate Britain is Art. People are still laughing at that. But 100 years ago people would never have even conceived that it was a possibility that could be art. But if you think about earlier work, for example Edward Hoffer who made paintings of Gas Stations (petrol stations) or restaurants at night. Those weren’t the subject matter for Art. ‘A Painting of a gas station? Why is that Art?’ So the thought that this could be the proper subject matter for a painting is new. So, I think we have to keep expanding our definition of what Art can be because our definitions of who can be an Artist change too.

When I told my mother I wanted to be an Artist she told me; “The only Artists I know are dead.” Because she meant that Art for her was Picasso, Baptiste – there was no tradition for me to follow because she didn’t know anyone that was an Artist. But now when I talk to my Niece about being an Artist, she’s been to Art museums and galleries, she’s taken art classes and she knows people whose parents are artists so it’s a lot more normal now. It’s not such a bizarre thing to be and I think that’s good. That Art has opened up for other kinds of voices.

“Art is always a place where there is exploration for things that society doesn’t want to talk about or see.”

So when your mother says she only knows about dead artists, did you ever worry about only ever becoming posthumously famous? Or did you just want to be an artist and not have to worry about doing a second job?

Nah, I mean I wanted to be an artist and I had a secondary job. I worked at a law firm proof reading in the middle of the night. That was how I made my money for the first seven years after college and then I got a grant. Not a huge grant. It was five thousand dollars and at the time it seemed like a huge amount of money and I had to make the decision. I could keep working the hours I was working at this law firm or I could save this money and say; “I’m going to take three months off and see what happens.” And I did that. I started to get into shows and I realised I didn’t need to go back work. It was a lucky break for me in a way.

So you don’t know what’s going to happen, you just have to keep on making the work. Or you know, do something else that’s more interesting like… I don’t know… play chess. But then if you get real good at it people will say it’s an art form too.
So lastly, what do you want to accomplish by bringing all of these pieces together? Do you have an underlying message?

Well, you know the big thing about this show was to show that an artist is in dialogue with other artists and they don’t work in isolation. The show is supposed to make that explicit by bringing together all the work that is influential to me. Or, bringing together work that shows the context in which I grew up. So civil rights images, Black Panther images- that’s part of the cultural context of America in where all this work I made and I’m making is generated by. But also I’m looking at de Kooning, I’m looking at Zoe Leonard I’m looking at James Baldwin, I’m looking at Sun Ra- putting all of those things into the same room was my desire for the show. It’s a complicated narrative for the viewer but anyone can say ‘it’s a nice looking bit of work.’ But it’s been great to work on.

Glenn Ligon’s work will be on display in TATE Liverpool’s permanent collection, but ‘Encounters and Collisions’ will be around till the 18th of October alongside the work of ‘Jackson Pollock’ and ‘Geta Bratescu.’

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