‘Artists Imagine That Museums Are Brave—They’re Not’: Glenn Ligon on His New Show, Philip Guston, and How Institutions Can Do Better
The artist's "It's Always a Little Bit Not Yet" is on view through December 23 at Hauser and Wirth in New York.
For more than 30 years, Glenn Ligon’s conceptual and intersectional art practice has borne rigorous witness to American identity. Each of his works, which range from neon sculptures to paintings and videos, are semiotic ruminations on racism, individuality, and sexuality.
Oftentimes, he recasts voices into his works, rereading and complicating authors like Zora Neale Hurston or Gertrude Stein, but also the comedian Richard Pryor. The formidable writer James Baldwin’s words and thinking have occupied Ligon for years: he has been drawing on Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” for an ongoing series, for which he stencils fragments of the text onto densely packed paintings where parts of the sentences are nearly unreadable and the letters are so intensely crafted that the words are palpable. That series has reached its apex with a pair of monumental works, now on view at Hauser and Wirth in New York and Zurich, that recreate the entire essay, word for word. The paintings, Stranger (Full Text) #1 and Stranger (Full Text) #2, are each 45 feet long.
Artnet News spoke to the artist in New York about his culminating work on Baldwin, the legacies of Philip Guston and Okwui Enzewor, and the political instrumentalization of his work.
Do you remember which work first by James Baldwin impacted you?
It was probably The Fire Next Time, because he is thinking through what it means to live in America at a particular moment. That kind of witnessing—the idea that one is engaged with the zeitgeist—was influential for me and thinking about a model for artistic practice. I think Baldwin’s sense of history is always interesting: he is thinking about the present deeply, but is also always rooted in the history of the culture.
Stranger in the Village is a major example of what you have just described. You have brought your text-based paintings based on this essay to a finale now with your current shows at Hauser and Wirth.
It has taken me 20-something years to get to a point where I could conceive of making a painting using the entire text of that essay. The size of the painting is determined by the length of the essay: this many words at this font size makes a canvas of 10 by 45 feet. But there was a variety of other circumstances that made making this work possible: I suddenly had a space to work in that was large enough for me to put up a painting of that scale, and I had the energy and time to do it. The first painting I made at that scale, which is on view at Hauser and Wirth in Zurich, took about nine months to make. It was quite a commitment, and as I had never worked even close to that scale, it was a big undertaking for me. It was an interesting challenge that summed up this decades-long investigation.
As Baldwin notes in his essay, “Stranger in the Village,” which describes his experience as a Black man in a small Swiss hamlet, America’s problem of racism stems from Europe. I was thinking about how your work is often described as being about America as an idea and as a reality—but in consideration of Baldwin’s thinking I just mentioned, is this an oversimplification?
There is a beautiful film called From Another Place where Baldwin is being followed around Istanbul, talking about what it means to be in a place like that, where you see U.S. warships in the distance. He observes that you can’t ever really escape from American power. At this point, he is in exile, but he is well aware that American influence and military presence is global, and it follows him around somehow. I think in that sense, he is correct. But we are an empire in decline, so that balance of power is shifted. Also under Trump, we were isolationist. ‘America First’ was the motto, and that has changed a sense of America’s place in the world.
Speaking of Trump and America as of late, I wanted to ask you what you think of the politicalization of your work in recent years. In 2020, certain figures in the museum world posted your works on social media as a kind of stock response to the Black Lives Matter movement. How have you been grappling with this?
I think in the wake of the racial reckoning—the protests around Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd—museums felt the need to assert some kind of solidarity with groups like Black Lives Matter. The way they were doing that was very simplistic: take an image of an African-American artist in the collection and put it up. I thought that they needed to do more. It was not that they needed to pay me royalties, but it was instead about instrumentalizing the work of artists of color to do the work that museums themselves needed to do on a much more structural level. Instagram posts do not hire more Black curators.
Do you have the sense that there has been some learning in the time since?
I am on several boards, and we are all involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion training now. It has become standard industry practice which is new and urgent. It becomes part of the thinking—there is serious thought now about board diversity. In the gallery world, the pipelines to jobs are very narrow. I think often these galleries hire from their client base, so people who are working in museums and galleries are the people whose parents are the donors or the collectors. That, by design, cuts out a whole swath of people who could be in these institutions. But it doesn’t mean that every gallery has to have a Black gallery director. Maybe every gallery needs a Black bookkeeper. It is not always about the forward-facing aspects of the gallery, it is also about the back end.
But it has to be about nurturing, too. It is one thing to hire a person of color into a position. Then they have to be supported in that position. But that is not always the case. There is a long way to go.
Circling back to your new show on view in New York, I was really interested to read about this neon piece in which you depict three different spellings for the sound of teeth-sucking. It made me think of your video work Live, which shows clips of comedian Richard Pryor, but the voice track is cut away. In both cases, we are left with something that we can still see, but their true essences are inscrutable. What can you share about your interest in this sort of deconstruction?
Teeth-sucking sounds are heard throughout the African diaspora. You find it in Nigeria, Senegal, amongst the children of people who have emigrated from Francophone African countries to France or Belgium. You find it in the Caribbean, you find it in the United States. I am interested in the sound as a sign of disapproval, disgust. Though it is present throughout the diaspora, the way it is spelled is not agreed upon. In France, it can be written tchip. Toni Morrison spells it sth at the beginning of her novel Jazz.
In some ways I have been interested in speech in text for a while. The Richard Pryor joke paintings I made were transcriptions of his routines. That is speech, not text. It is different than rendering a Baldwin essay. For a while, I have been moving towards this idea of embodied speech, or speech that is connected to the body. Teeth-sucking sounds, as a speech-act but with no agreement on how to spell it, makes it operate inside and outside of language at the same time.
What brought about your interest in Pryor?
I think my interest in Pryor or jokes in general was caused by the fact that the texts that I had been using in the earlier paintings were all from literary sources. Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Jean Genet—they’re all high literature. A joke is a different thing. It comes from a different tradition and it is spoken, not written. It allowed me to insert the body in a different way into the paintings. When you see a joke transcribed with all the pauses and repeated words, you have a different sense of the body behind that joke, which is much more apparent. A lot of my work is about embodied text, so a joke is another way to get at that. I don’t know if I’m a good joke teller or storyteller; that is why they are all quotations, and not my own.
Jokes are funny on the surface, but the content of them can be very serious. You retold a joke by Paul Mooney for T Magazine recently. It is a funny joke, like Pryor’s—all the while, the content is actually unsettling.
Jokes are one of the places where you can say things that you may not be able to say in general. Just think about Paul Mooney on national television telling that joke—it is kind of amazing. It’s a very funny joke because he pretends that somebody told it to him. Its pretty clear to me that he wrote that joke, though he says that his white neighbor told it to him. It is a very clever way to tell a joke that might be offensive to people. That’s interesting to me: that the joke is a place where certain kinds of things would be unpalatable if they were said straightforwardly can be said.
You served as curatorial advisor on the New Museum exhibition “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.” What was that experience like?
Okwui [Enwezor] brought me on as an interlocutor. He wanted someone to bounce ideas off—and he was director at the Haus der Kunst in Munich at the time, so I think he wanted someone in New York who could be his point person, but not in an official capacity. Then, when he passed away, Massimiliano Gioni asked me if I would be interested in continuing working on the show. Okwui had already laid out 85 percent of the artists, sometimes with very specific works; the premise of the show was there. So it was a question of how to continue this vision that was already laid out. But I thought we had to add some people to the curatorial mix—that is why Mark Nash and Naomi Beckwith were added.
You went through a lot: the loss of Okwui, the pandemic delays, the political landscape.
It was difficult. We were missing Okwui. Every show evolves organically, and the decisions you make along the way have an influence on what the show will be. There were many decisions saying “What would Okwui do here?… Okwui would have a giant Louise Bourgeois spider in the lobby—that is what Owkui would do!” We had experience of that from Venice Biennale, and Nash had curated Documenta 11 with him.
A lot of people may think curating involves coming up with an idea and fitting artists into that idea, but for Okwui it was the other way around. The idea behind the show came from his dialogues with artists. That was sort of reinforced for me when, after Okwui passed and we approached artists to be in the show, nobody said no. In the midst of a pandemic, everyone said they were going to make whatever needs to happen happen, even though it was a difficult circumstance to organize a show around.
In his introductory text to your mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum, Scott Rothkopf describes a work by David Hammons—he says Concerto “suggests a way to summon race without falling into the trap of depiction, of heaviness, of the overburdened symbols that often attend artistic responses to black bodies.” Does this resonate with you as something you also aim to achieve with your work? Do you feel that you must navigate representation?
A better quote is Hammons saying, “Magical things happen when you mess with the symbol.“ Think about Guston’s Klansmen. But I know what Rothkopf means about the burden of representation that attends the work of Black artists. That quote, I think, responds to Concerto in Black and Blue because it literally is empty dark rooms. There is no figuration in them, and in some ways very little content. When I was writing about Hammons, I saw it in a trend in his work towards dematerialization—this is a guy who sold snowballs in the street! There is a kind of burden on representation, particularly around artists of color, particularly around artists of my generation, to “represent.” I think that is always something I think about. That said, there are amazing figurative painters, like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Chris Ofili, or Jordan Casteel, who represent Black bodies, but do so in complicated and sophisticated ways.
There is a growing interest in figurative painting, and Black figurative painting in particular, that ties in with the art market. Should that be wholly celebrated?
I am curious about it. I don’t know if I totally get it in some ways. There are certainly a lot artists of color who are working abstractly that I admire. I just saw an amazing show of Stanley Whitney. I just saw Julie Mehretu’s show at the Walker [Art Center in Minneapolis]. There is space for abstraction there, as well as figuration. But part of it is market-driven because it is easier to address an image of some body for collectors, I guess. I just hope that in the end that the good figurative painters get shaken out from the mediocre ones. Maybe the market has not quite shaken out the difference yet. It will happen.
You brought up Guston. Could you share your thoughts on his Klansmen series?
I think his Klansmen series is amazing. There was a great show at Hauser and Wirth just before [mine], of his Klansmen and other paintings from that period. It is incredibly brave to give up one’s place as a preeminent AbEx painter to do the Klansmen paintings, which was seen as a betrayal. It was vilified at the time for many reasons. I think he has implicated himself in the notion that white supremacy is not something that is ‘over there,’ it is something that lives within. If you make a painting called In the Studio and it is a painting of a Klansman painting a picture of a Klansman, that’s Guston implicating himself, saying white supremacy splatters and stains. There is no pure position. He asks what it is like to imagine oneself under the hood, to not simply depict Klansmen but to imagine yourself being a Klansman. That is an incredibly important work that he did.
Were you disappointed to hear the museum shows had been postponed?
No, I think they should have been postponed. This is not a popular opinion among artists, but I think artists imagine that museums are brave. They’re not. They postponed it because they realized that, institutionally, they were not ready to handle the subject matter in the space of their institutions because they have not dealt with these issues in the space of their institutions. If your guards say that they are not going to stand in the room with that Klansman, that is not going to get solved by putting those paintings in the room. There was work to do. I was fine with their decision to postpone.
What would you advise young artists, and particularly young artists of color, who are looking to build lasting careers?
I am a little bit old-school and I don’t think every opportunity is the same. I think a lot of artists may think that making a work that is in a magazine, doing a show at a gallery, doing a booth at an art fair, designing sneakers is all kind of the same. I would advise them to be careful about what they say yes to, because I think sometimes people are inclined to say yes to everything.
I think young artists should hold onto work that is productive for them. The impulse in a hot market is to sell everything. You should hold onto things that indicate future directions in your work or are the best examples of a series. It is hard to do that when you are a young struggling artist, but what seems like a lot of money now might not seem like a lot of money in five or 10 years. The things that I gave away for five dollars—I wish I had kept those. Now it is too expensive for me to buy back. I can’t afford it.
Glenn Ligon’s “It’s Always a Little Bit Not Yet” is on view through December 23, 2021, at Hauser and Wirth, 542 West 22nd Street, New York.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.