Fine artist Glenn Ligon may not be a household name, but his name brand in the world of fine art has become synonymous with the impressive use of text. A visual creator who first came to prominence in the early ‘90s, Ligon uses images and re-purposed words to create bold works layered with social meaning. Using tools like paint sticks and stencils, Ligon tells his very personal human story within the context of American history through his work — and now his story will further unfold tonight on Art21, a series on PBS about the world’s most innovative artists. Airing at 9 pm EST, Ligon’s Art21 episode will showcase the thought-provoking style he is celebrated for.
“It’s a very complex story, if you want to think about the story,” Susan Sollins, Executive Director of Art21, told theGrio about Ligon’s work. “He’s someone who really dove down and thought deeply about what it is to make a painting, what it is to make a work of art. His work is very personal, but at the same time it’s very universal. It comes out of his personal background and life story. You can see Glenn’s thinking in every work.” Sollins went onto explain how Ligon’s citing of historical figures and writers like Zora Neale Hurston helps viewers ruminate about themes of race in our society. “There are just many, many levels of meaning you can find in Glenn’s work,” she elaborated. That level of rich complexity has attracted many admirers, including President and first lady Michelle Obama who selected one of Ligon’s pieces, Black Like Me No. 2, to adorn their private quarters.
TheGrio spoke with Ligon about art and self-expression, and the evolving place of black artists in the rarefied fine art community.
theGrio: Your medium is pretty unusual. It’s been described as a combination of oil crayon, letter stencil, sometimes photographs, text, and even neon lights. You could call it a collage style. Would you describe it that way?
Glenn Ligon: No, I use different [materials] for different kinds of work. I [also] use silk screens. That’s where photos might appear. Or text in oil paints. So basically each project is generated by what it needs to be and the format it needs to be in.
There’s a quote attributed to you that I have seen in a few of your bios: “It’s not about me, it’s about we.” Who is the “we” you are describing?
All of us in the United States. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “me” that’s separate from everyone else. I don’t know if I’m portraying a “we” in my art. I think I’m talking about American history, and that involves all of us. When you have a subject like that, invariably you are talking about a “we” as a collective.
Your work, Black Like Me No. 2, is one of the pieces that President Obama chose to have in his private quarters in the White House. How did it feel to have President Obama and the first lady select one of your works?
I think it’s terrific that we have a president and first lady that aren’t scared of art, that believe that art is something they should live with, something that they should take their children to see. I’m thrilled of course.
The term “intertextuality” has been used to describe your method of creating work. Would you say that this describes your technique, and that you rely a lot on previous texts to inform your own work?
I think that there are lots of interesting things that are out in the world that have been said already. I don’t need to write something, or write them again.
Your work is in the collection at Museum of Modern Art in addition to other prestigious institutions. Can you comment on the position of blacks right now in the world of fine art?
When I first started showing in galleries, I was often the first African-American artist in the gallery. Now, I don’t think that for most galleries that’s the case. All the young artists that I know have galleries. So, I think there’s been tremendous change. That may be partially because there are many, many more galleries than there used to be 20 years ago. The market has opened up. But I think there’s also recognition that artists of color have as many interesting things to say, and have as much market viability, as anyone else.
Whether there is long-term institutional commitment to artists of color remains to be seen. It’s one thing to have a work at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s another to have ten works, or twenty works. That’s the next challenge — to get institutions and collectors committing in depth.
Are there other lesser-known artists that you think deserve more recognition by the mainstream?
There’s an abstract painter named Jack Whitten who I think is terrific. It would be great to see more of his work represented in shows. I think Bob Thompson — who was young in the ‘60s — is a terrific artist, and I think his work has suffered from lack of institutional presence. I would love to see a show by David Hammons. He was very well known and very well collected, but he hasn’t really had museum presence in the last couple of years.
How did it feel to be featured on Art 21? Is this a milestone for your personally, and also for the collective, in terms of gaining national recognition as an artist of color?
I think the importance of a show like that is that Art21 reaches a national audience, and that’s great, but it also reaches an audience of students. I have a friend, a fellow artist, who was on the show a couple of years ago, and she said that every time she gives a lecture at an art school, all of the students have seen the episode that she was on. It’s become a really important tool for young artists to see inside another working artist’s studio. That’s the importance of it for me.What do you think the role of the fine artist is in society today? Do you think a black artist has a different role, or a more specialized role?
No, I think my role as an artist is to be a good commentator and thinker about society, and that’s true for any artist. I don’t know if I think there’s a special responsibility a black artist has. I hate giving artists responsibility, because that usually means that there’s some work they should and should not be doing. And that’s not what art is about for me.
What is art about for you?
It’s about thinking. And it’s about thinking honestly and thinking deeply. So whatever objects, or videos, or photography you make by that activity of thinking — that’s an artist’s responsibility. To think long and hard and well, and make objects that make the public think long and hard and well.
Can you name one or two pieces of art you’ve created that have garnered a response showing that the public thought deeply in response to your work?
I did a series of paintings that were based on Richard Pryor comedy routines. They were in a show called “Black Male” at the Whitney Museum that was curated by Thelma Golden who is currently the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. And one of the interesting things about showing those paintings there was there were debates in front of the paintings. Groups of people coming to do tours would argue about whether it was proper or correct to see Richard Pryor jokes on the walls of the Whitney museum. That kind of debate in front of art work I think is fantastic. That the public feels that the museum is a space not where you’re just quiet, and you look at things, or you’re told what they mean. But a place where you can have arguments. Where there can be conversation and dialogue and debate.
Are there any media that you’re considering aside from fine art? Have you ever collaborated in a public works project that brings your message to a wider audience?
I’m doing a neon project for the New School. They’re building a new building on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, and it will be a permanent installation in the lobby of that building.
Your work has been described as “an exploration of race, language, desire, sexuality, and identity,” all of which are changing quite a bit at the beginning of the 21st century. How do you think those categories are shifting?
The biggest shift is that those categories don’t [have] the same kind of rigid [boundaries] and I think that that causes a lot of anxiety for people, and it’s also a cause for kind of a celebration.
Many pop stars now — particularly artists like Lady Gaga — have been sampling the fine art world in order to make their pop presentations somewhat avant garde, yet still palatable to the mass audience. Do you think that is a valid use of the creative forms that come from the fine art world? They don’t do a lot of attribution of their sources.
Well, I think that artists are always researching for development in other parts of the culture. It doesn’t surprise me that Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or whomever is taking from the visual arts or the dance world whatsoever. But I think that [fine] artists take from pop culture, too. So I don’t know if it’s always a one way exchange. I think it goes both ways.
What are some other exciting projects you’re working on?
I have a retrospective that started at The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a 25-year survey of my work, so I’m excited. It’s the last time lots of that work will be seen together, so I’m hoping that the show will be well-attended. And I’m working on a gallery show for next fall in New York.
You’ve had a very long and impressive career. Is there any particular highlight?
I think the most exciting thing for me was having work in the White House. [And g]etting to meet President Obama [at] a fundraiser and him acknowledging that I had work in the White House, and him commenting on it. So that was great.
Moving forward, do you think that black artists and black art will become less necessarily categorized as black?
Yes, I think so.
What’s the most inspiring piece of advice that you’ve ever received? Can you share with our audience how you’ve stayed motivated to achieve such a high level of success in such a challenging profession?
My uncle Donald once told me when I told him that I wanted to be an artist: “Do what you like and the money will follow.” He didn’t say it would follow immediately, but he said it would follow. I take his advice very seriously.
Glenn Ligon will appear in Season 6 of “Art in the Twenty-First Century” as part of the Art21 series airing on PBS tonight at 9 PM EST.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb