Glenn Ligon is an artist from the Bronx, New York. His paintings and sculptures employ literature, books and photographs to examine the ways in which found sources generate, as well as describe, a sense of American identity. Lately, Ligon has created vast canvases featuring texts from a number of writers including Walt Whitman, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, which fissure into abstract masses in which the word becomes image. His neon work also employs words and turns on the capacity of language to both illuminate and, in its glare, obscure.
Interview by Theaster Gates
Portrait by Paul Mpagi Sepuya
THEASTER GATES Glenn, I first encountered your work at the University of Chicago, when you delivered an art history and English department collaborative lecture in a small room on campus. It was 2006 or 2007, early in my tenure at the university.
GLENN LIGON I do remember meeting in Chicago, but in a slightly different context. We were in the backyard of a house on the South Side, eating some barbecue, and there were all these fabulous people there. I was amazed that there was a whole Chicago scene that I didn’t know anything about, and that was a great introduction to you and the world that you had built.
TG I was really moved to meet you, as you were the first Black artist I had seen on campus. Your work was relatively new to me as somebody that hadn’t followed the art scene very closely. I was just like, “Oh, this cat is smart as fuck.” Could you talk a little bit about your artistic origin story, how that relates to language, and what I would call the non-figurative representations of culture in your work?
GL My practice started to be text-based because I was trying to fill a void. I had a deep interest in abstract expressionism when I was in college and I thought I was going to be the Black [Willem] de Kooning. But the world does not need a Black de Kooning. The introduction of language into my practice was to solve a very basic problem, where I wanted to take the ideas I was thinking about and reading – Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Louis Gates Jr. – into the space of my practice. The answer was to use the text itself. How to do that was another thing, and it took a couple of years to figure it out.
TG Tell me about some of those early attempts.
GL Well, they were very tortured because – and we’re talking early to mid-1980s – while there was a lot of language in the art world through artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Martha Rosler, I wasn’t a conceptualist in that sense and I was still deeply interested in painting. My models were a bit older, in terms of thinking about language and painting – [Robert] Rauschenberg, [Jasper] Johns, [Cy] Twombly. But still, neither model quite worked for me. My first attempts had very abstract expressionist backgrounds onto which I handwrote stories from porn magazines. It was an attempt to think about something that was seemingly personal, as signified by handwriting, but also impersonal. That made me realise I was interested in quotation; I was never interested in my own writings. I was also interested in keeping the sense of impersonality through the use of stencils rather than handwriting.
TG There’s been an evolution in the size of the canvas. The earlier works had a very specific scale but they have grown over time to be slightly more landscape, and recently, you have gone from a quotation over and over again to a full narrative. Can you talk a little bit about size, form and the conceptual leap?
GL When I first started stencilling I was using coal dust as material because of its metaphoric associations but also because it’s interesting materially, a black shiny gravel, and because of the weight and shine it gives the paintings. Text written in oil stick with coal dust thrown on top of it becomes much more abstract because it effectively distorts the letters, making them more about material than about words. Movement from text to material is a movement from meaning to abstraction, or an oscillation between meaning and abstraction. But I work very incrementally. I’ve started making these paintings that use the full text of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” and the sizes of the paintings are determined by the length of the essay, so the paintings are 45-feet tall because that’s how much space I need to render the entire essay. It took me 20 years to get there! It took me a long time to realise that I could make a painting that uses the entire text. It might partially be related to something you said earlier about the specificity of scale, because the early works were very body oriented. They were face-sized or body-sized. The very earliest paintings were painted on doors, and doors are sized in relation to the human body. I started moving to the rectangular format that one sees in lots of paintings as a way of dealing with more text and moving from repetition of a single sentence to the idea of a body of text, paragraphs of text. These recent paintings that use the full text of the essay are much more about landscape, a panorama engulfing the viewer. The experience, which is still very abstract even though the whole text is there, is about opacity, about scale, about exhaustion, in a way. I’ve always been a bit sceptical about language’s ability to communicate and I’m always interested in its failure, so that’s partially what these paintings are about. But yes, it takes me a long time to move, and those moves are seemingly incremental for a viewer but quite enormous for me.
TG When I was just a potter, there was a pre-existing vocabulary of American, European and Japanese ceramics that I was happy to be in. But there were moments when I felt I had ideas that the material of clay couldn’t help me with, and that was either because I didn’t have enough command of the material or I hadn’t wrestled with the material long enough to make it say other things. There were moments where I had to go away from ceramics for a minute to try other things, and then when I came back, I was like, clay could actually say more – I have the ability to expand what the canon of ceramics might be.
GL I feel like you have been successful in bringing a range of ideas to the world of ceramics, but that’s hard fought for. There must have been moments where you were like, am I allowed to do this? Will people understand why I’m using ceramics versus installation or paint? Your strength has been in defying those kinds of boundaries, bringing your whole self to the practice, and exploding those genres.
TG As much as it might seem like a full-on explosion – as the extrovert says to the introvert – there are definitely times when I wish the practice was more singular and had a focus. But, as I say to my students when I’m teaching, I knew early on that if I chose to follow my heart and my imagination which were interested in everything, it would take a longer period of time for people to take my practice seriously. It’s taken 20 years for people to say, he started as a potter, and then he moved through these phases, but there’s an artistic unity there. All the way through this process I wanted credit and approval sooner, but I was not willing to compromise my curiosity or my material promiscuity.
GL Part of our job as artists of colour is to create the discourse around our work because folks don’t do it for us. One thing I’ve found is that there is much more synergy between the academic world and the artistic world, that there’s a back-and-forth between scholars like Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman and the art world.
TG There are these inroads that Fred Moten, Christina and Saidiya are making in articulating the truths baked into the work.
GL And also providing a working method such as critical fabulation, which is a way of filling in the gaps of the archive. That is a model for a kind of artistic practice, too. What are we doing except creating things that don’t exist in the world?
TG I remember thinking something similar the first time that I heard Tina Campt talk about humming. I’m in a band where we moan a lot, and hearing a sister say that when we hum, we carry our voices, and then we have the sonic capacity to carry other voices in our voice, was so striking. There’s a way that especially Black female academics have been so vigilant in looking and watching and listening. Glenn, you talked about quotation and that makes me want to ask you about citation. Artists often riff off each other’s work and I’d even suggest that there are some people who are darn right plagiaristic. I would never call myself a neon artist, but I think that there have been moments when your use of light has felt right for me as I consider club culture and house music. Even if the influences weren’t absolutely direct, it feels very important to me that when artists of colour enter a realm where we know that there are certain creative adjacencies we signal that to each other. You aren’t that much older than me – and you look younger – but you paved the road.
GL I think you’re being overly generous because as you said, your neon works come from such a different set of concerns. I always think of my neons as my timid attempts to be sculpture, whereas you are making sculpture.
TG There’s a project that I’m excited to share with you, a roller rink called The Rink at East 87th street, near Stony Island Park [in Chicago]. I went to the owners and I said, I’m an artist, and I’d love to take over your lighting programme and outfit the rink as a permanent sculpture. The thing that made me most excited was that neon and the skating rink are so wonderfully intertwined. But at the rink, they have no idea of who I was in the world. They were just excited that a community member said they wanted to help. Now, I’m putting my whole team on the rink, bro.
GL You have always been interested in your practice in the idea of social spaces and in creating those spaces, but the roller rink is already that. It’s already there; it’s a social ready-made! So it scratches my Duchampian itch. I wondered if you could say a little bit, Glenn, about various influences, whether key people or conceptual approaches. You talk about de Kooning, but are there people or moments in art history that inform your practice that people might not connect you to? GL My biggest influence, maybe, is David Hammons. My practice on the surface looks nothing like David’s, but he is the one I’m always chasing after in one way or another – though I’m not a pirate like David’s a pirate. Or I’m just one of the crew.
TG He’s the captain.
GL Recently, I’ve also been looking very closely at Jack Whitten. His work was not something I thought about when I started out making abstract paintings, but thinking now about his homages to different philosophers, to Glissant, to other artists, they are paintings but also abstractions. He labels something a portrait of James Baldwin but it is an abstract painting – but it expresses the spirit, the feel, the weightiness of Baldwin. Then there’s music, and I’m going back and thinking about people like Anthony Braxton, about Steve Reich. I had listened to Reich’s record, Come Out  where he took the testimony of one guy involved in a notorious police brutality case in Harlem called the Harlem Six, where six Black boys were beaten by police to force confessions. One of them said that he was beaten but wasn’t bleeding so he had to open up his bruises to let some of the blood flow out, to show them he’d been hurt and needed to be taken to the hospital. Reich takes that testimony and loops it over and over again. I’ve been listening to that record for years and then at some point the penny dropped – this testimony from a Black person about this injustice, repeated, becomes a textual abstraction. That’s my work! So I’m trying to be more explicit or think more deliberately about what possibilities it suggests. ◉