Interview by David Drogin
David Drogin: Your work has an incredible range of media, subject matter, sources, and references, tied by a common thematic thread of legibility—sometimes in a literal sense of actually being able to read words but also, more generally, in calling attention to the comprehensibility of meaning, even if it’s not a text. It’s a thread that you can see from early text pieces but also in the neon works or self-portraits.
GLEN LIGON: From the first text paintings, which used quotations from authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Genet, Walt Whitman, or Ralph Ellison, this question of legibility was foregrounded partially because the quotes that I was using in those early paintings always had the word “I” in them, and the titles of the paintings didn’t clearly identify them as coming from specific authors or specific essays or novels. So, there was always confusion for the viewer about who that “I” was. Over time, it became known that “Glenn Ligon makes text paintings using quotes,” but even then, there was still confusion about that: What does it mean to take on another person’s words as a way of talking about the self? One of the things I’ve always been interested in was the connection or collision of identities—that something written by Hurston in the 20s could seem incredibly relevant and autobiographical in some sense, that one could inhabit it, in the way that when you were a kid, you wanted to be a rock star, and everything about that rock star seemed to express who you were. It’s the same kind of relationship to those texts for me: The text is something that I wanted to inhabit, and the way I chose to inhabit it was to make paintings that have quotes that create confusion about who’s speaking.
Drogin: Even thinking about the non-text pieces, you can see that. I’m thinking of a print called Self-Portrait, but it was of Stevie Wonder…
LIGON: Self-Portrait at Age Eleven.
Drogin: There’s an idea of inhabiting or wanting to inhabit some identity that appealed to you. Do you find in works that are about that, that it mostly has to do with something from your youth? That piece is about age eleven, and in the early text pieces, those were books that you were drawn to as a teenager and young adult, right? In other words, is there something there about—if not nostalgia—about early dreams of what you wanted to be?
LIGON: No, I think it was more about how the past comes into the present. I was using quotes by writers like Ellison, Hurston, Genet, or James Baldwin in order to say that even though we’re in a different historical moment with different political realities, those texts still have relevance and meaning and seem to express the current moment in a way that is very vivid for me. It’s not simply about a kind of identity formation in the sense of “these are people I want to emulate.” It was more about, “these are the people who are speaking to me at the moment.” But your comment makes me think that my work has always been about the near present, not the present. The quotes are from fifty years ago, not five years ago. I’m always mining the archive for the source material of the paintings.
Drogin: Do you think that’s because really recent material hasn’t had a chance to potentially change its meaning? In other words, with recent sources, not enough time has gone by to see how that will hold up historically or through changing contexts?
LIGON: Right, it’s too over-determined. In the first text paintings that I did with Hurston texts, it was at a moment when she was being rediscovered. Her books had gone out of print, and so they weren’t texts that were in the world in an “every grad student is reading this” kind of way. They were texts that were just coming back into the public consciousness through the efforts of writers like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, who were rediscovering them and bringing them back into print.
Drogin: Right, again the historical, the stuff that’s had time to ferment in the historical or artistic consciousness that’s appealing to you.
LIGON: And I guess it’s also about a loosening up: over time maybe those texts become over-determined, but in another way they become more available for use, the relationship that one can have with them isn’t so fixed anymore.
Drogin: Going back to when you said you were using the Hurston texts and that there was a moment of rediscovery for her—maybe at the time that you were first doing those works, those texts would have registered in the viewer’s mind as somewhat recognizable because it was a moment when that author was having a renaissance. Taking off from there, how important is it that the viewer of these pieces recognize the source of the quote? Or is it actually all about that play, all about that recognizability and the possibility of not recognizing the source?
LIGON: I think it circles back to this question of legibility, too. That the source of the quotation is not immediately apparent relates to the merging of identities that I was talking about. But also I felt like these were authors that should be known. I remember when I was in the Whitney Independent Study Program, I had a very small shared studio. The person I shared that studio with was working with Charcot’s photographs of hysterics. She asked me what I was working on, and I said, “Oh, well I’ve just been reading James Baldwin essays, trying to think about how to make work out of them,” and she just looked at me like, “James Baldwin? Who’s that?” The name was totally unfamiliar to her. So, I thought it was interesting to make work where, if one did a little research, one could find out where these quotes were from, and the miracle of the Internet has made my job a lot easier. When I started doing these text paintings, Google wasn’t available, so it was a bit more difficult for the viewer to find the quotes. Another time, I did a lecture at the Whitney, and someone in the audience said, “when I look at your text paintings, I don’t understand what they’re about, but when I look at a DeKooning, I know what that’s about, I understand that.” And my first response was, “there’s a sentence at the top of my painting that’s very legible, and it repeats to the bottom. So what about that don’t you understand?” It occurred to me that this was not only a question about, “is text in art art, and what is all this illegibility about?,” but also a question about content: He was saying, this is content that I don’t think is appropriate for art, and therefore I don’t understand it or don’t want to.
Drogin: Or maybe on a level of the basic viewer, if it’s something like a DeKooning, in which the meaning is seemingly open-ended—although there’s antagonism to that kind of art, too—viewers feel comfortable because they feel they can bring to it whatever they want, whereas in a piece that has a specific text, the meaning is anchored, in a way, and therefore, it can be more challenging for them, because they feel like there’s something that they specifically need to understand, or they feel they need to be able to recognize the source.
LIGON: Yeah, but what is more challenging than abstract art? I felt like the knowledge of his ability to “read” a DeKooning had become so naturalized to him that it just seemed like something he could do: that he could just walk into a museum and understand that thing in front of him, which I found a bit troubling because it sort of erased what the process is—the process of learning about a piece, looking closely at it, reading reviews—all of that was just gone. It was, “I get this work, and I don’t get your work.”
Drogin: Your thinking about “challenging” the viewers involves having them learn something. You want to encourage them to understand who Baldwin is, or you use Google, and maybe the viewers will too—they’ll go home, type a sentence that they’ve seen in one of your works, do the research, and find something out. So, it’s a kind of edifying experience for them, but at the same time, a lot of your work is about preventing legibility and problematizing understanding too, which sets up an interesting dichotomy.
LIGON: There’s a sort of pessimism in my work, a pessimism about making things explicit or understanding things and transmitting that understanding. One of the things that is interesting about a writer like Baldwin is that he’s trying to take very difficult subject matter—race relations, colonialism, etc.—and through his essays, make sense of them. In Baldwin’s essays, I became interested in the gaps, the things that cannot be expressed and can’t be explained as well as the difficulty of the subject matter he’s trying to tackle. The paintings that I made using Baldwin’s essays stage the complexity of his ideas for the viewer through the act of presenting a text that is very difficult to read, that goes in and out of focus, that is alluring because it’s paint and coal dust on canvas, but also frustrates communication.
Drogin: Even in pieces that aren’t quotes or text pieces at all, there’s this issue of challenging the viewer’s ability to understand the image or understand identity. I’m thinking of the self-portraits of the back of your head, for instance. It’s a theme that’s kind of explicit in the text pieces in which legibility becomes difficult, but it goes beyond that to these other media that you’ve been dealing with. Even in films that you’ve been working on, the legibility is challenged because there’s the video The Death of Tom, that’s purposefully out of focus. You’re inviting the viewer to understand something, but also throwing up obstacles in the way, because that’s how understanding something really is, or that’s how reading a text is: it comes in and out of focus.
LIGON: Yes, and part of that is a reaction to the artistic climate when I started making work, a reaction to the mandates around the work of artists-of-color for a certain kind of legibility. Critics would say, “your work is about identity,” and that would seemingly be enough to say. I was always uncomfortable with that kind of easy digesting of the work, as if artists-of-color are simply expressing who they are, as if one had unfettered access to who one is, and one could just say it…
Drogin: And as if each person trying to understand that wouldn’t understand it differently.
LIGON: Exactly. And so the work has, in some ways, been a kind of resistance to that easy narrative of identity.
Drogin: That’s true in the “Runaway Slave” series and in the coloring book series, in which you made paintings and drawings based on children’s drawings in 1970s coloring books with Black Power imagery—how does a child today come to material that really has no personal, historical resonance for them? And then you’re reinterpreting what they’ve done, highlighting the idea that each person is contributing something different to a thing that originally had one kind of meaning.
LIGON: In the “Runaways,” it was about getting a bunch of people together to describe me. The mandate was to describe me as if I were missing and you had to describe me to the police. And those descriptions varied so widely that they sort of called into question the notion of a unified identity. It was really about each person’s take on what my identity was and using the totality of the descriptions as a way of thinking about what identity might mean. In the coloring book series, as you said, it was about a child’s relationship to images that have a very different kind of resonance if you were an adult. A five-year-old’s relationship to an image of Malcolm X on a coloring book page is that it’s simply an image to color, but for an adult—me—trying to make a drawing or a painting based on a five-year-old’s drawing of Malcolm X that has lipstick and blue eye shadow has to deal with all the ramifications of defacing an icon and think about how adult viewers are going to respond to that defaced image. The multiplicity of meanings across generations from one historical moment to another, from person to person, is always what I’m interested in.
Drogin: Sometimes when I show your Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features/Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features to my students, it’s one of their favorite pieces. It’s the same photographic self-portrait, silkscreened twice with one image adjacent to the other, so although there may be slight differences because it’s printed twice, it’s basically the same image. I get them to look at it, and I don’t tell them that it’s the same at first, and they actually start imagining that there are differences between the two figures because they’re desperate to see them, and they take the title at face value. People bring expectations to being able to understand a work, so it comes to this issue of legibility, that you as an artist can bring things out that are there embedded in the viewer’s mind even when they aren’t in the actual image. In a recent work that you had in a show at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, you based all of the paintings on a photograph of a painting that had been in Documenta in 2002. Regarding your attraction to historical material that has had time to ferment and change, you’re now even coming to use your own artistic production, not just texts from the 1920s and 50s.
LIGON: I think it’s a sort of return to my roots, so to speak. I was very interested in Abstract Expressionism when I first started painting. By the late 80s, I had abandoned that investigation even though I was still making paintings. But as I’ve worked with making new paintings out of existing images, they become more and more abstract—just think of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. That distancing process of taking an image of an existing painting, making a silkscreen out of it, and making new paintings from it—and those new paintings having gaps and fissures in them—is, for me, making an abstraction out of text-based work, basically.
Drogin: Because the image itself, but also its meanings, begin to erode. You say photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, but in our age, now saving a JPEG as a JPEG as a JPEG makes the same thing happen. Each time, you’re compressing and losing the information a little bit until it eventually becomes completely illegible.
LIGON: Yeah, that sort of degradation of the image causes a certain difficulty in a way because it’s further and further away from the source material that generated the painting, and so, the question becomes, does that degradation of the image then mean that the text is no longer relevant at all? If the painting started out as being about the difficulty and the struggle of the viewer to read an image, if you then take what was already difficult and make it abstract, what does it say about the engagement with that text? That’s not a question that I’ve really answered yet, and maybe in some ways, it’s a response to this particular historical moment in which questions about race and identity and things have become very difficult and blurred—they always were, but I think more and more, those questions tend toward abstraction.
Drogin: These paintings are also compelling in part because they become about the persona of an artist. A piece that’s in Documenta is a kind of landmark in your own career, and you’re returning to that, so it’s about the texts—their original meaning and their loss of meaning over time and as they get repeated—but it’s also about who you are as an artist, addressing this issue of “oh, he’s a text painter,” and then degrading it or eroding it to question your own history as an artist. And, returning to your own work as a source was already part of your practice in 1998, in the prints based on a condition report.
LIGON: Yes, the Untitled (I Am a Man) painting from 1988 based on signs carried by protesting sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennesse in 1968, which is one of the earliest text paintings that I did. Ten years after I made it, I took it to a friend, who is a painting conservator, and I asked him to look at the painting and do a condition report, which is a conservator’s report written on an image of the painting, detailing all the issues that would be addressed if the painting were coming into a conservation lab. And so, as you said, it’s a return to my own production, but in the case of those prints that came out of the condition report, it was about detailing not only the physical aging of the painting over time—all the cracks and paint loss and all of that—but also changing ideas about masculinity, changing ideas about the relationship we have to the Civil Rights Movement.
Drogin: We’ve been touching on the issue of eroding materials and meanings and disintegrating source material. You talked about how meaning or even actual letters erode, so people have to bring their own understanding into it, having to fill in the gaps themselves—this, which made me think of the series related to the Million Man March, in which there’s a sign, a big banner that people are holding up, but you erased the text from it.
LIGON: Yeah, I became really interested in the Million Man March organized by Louis Farrakhan in 1995 partially because there’s a long history of mass demonstrations of African Americans on the Mall in Washington D.C. to remind people that we’re here. I thought it was ironic that people who had been here four hundred years need to remind our fellow citizens that we exist! But the march also had a component called “The Day of Absence,” which is what people who were not specifically invited to the march—i.e., women—were supposed to do in solidarity with the march. So, I started with the idea that I would look at images of the march and think about absences that mirrored the literal absence of women on the Mall. So, one of the images I took was a banner that was unfurled on the Mall during the rally that said, “We’re black and strong.” I had a tiny image of it from a magazine and started blowing it up on a Xerox machine, and I realized that when you blow something up, it sometimes gets lighter and lighter, and at a certain point, the text disappeared. I thought, well, that’s kind of what I’m interested in—these images in which there’s something there, and it gets bigger and bigger, and then that something disappears. The piece started as a four-by-three-inch photo and became a ten-by-seven-foot silkscreen piece in which the text on the banner had disappeared but returned as the title of the piece. That painting is titled We’re Black and Strong, but the image that the viewer sees is a banner unfurled with nothing on it, a blank space.
Drogin: Anonymity was striking in that series. I also think of the one with all these hands that were raised up, so you have a sense of all these people, but again, because of how the image has been manipulated and blown-up, it loses some of its specificity. You have no idea who all those hands belong to, and out of context, you don’t even know what they’re doing. Hands raised in the air could be a rock concert, or it could be a prayer meeting.
LIGON: I’m really interested in book covers and am working on a book that looks at representations of race on the covers of books by and about African Americans. This trope of the expressive black hand appears over and over again on book covers: the raised fist; the uplifted, searching hand. It is an interesting moment of synecdoche, of a part, the hand, representing the whole, the race. But, as you said, in the image that I’ve presented, it’s quite mysterious; you don’t quite know what hands are being raised to, what the context is. And I think that was about this ambiguity around the march: What were its aims? What was it trying to do? Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country? All those things were expressed in that image.
Drogin: And also, just like the issue that you raise with your own work in terms of what different viewers bring to it, how did the public interpret this gathering—this rally—as a threat or as something edifying? That ambiguity is in your work about it.
LIGON: There’s this funny gloss in the reading of that image because there was a huge controversy about the number of people who actually attended the Million Man March, so in my jokey moments I think, oh, people are raising their hands so they can be counted.
Drogin: That series drew from a historical event, but we’ve also been talking a bit about incorporating yourself and incorporating your own history, even your own past artistic production. So, in many of your works, there’s an intensely personal side—your own text paintings, a condition report on your own work, descriptions of yourself, images of yourself. And there’s even a film of you speaking to an analyst, which is normally the most private, enclosed space and circumstance you can have. Even though the visual material is of feet and a Kleenex box, it’s still got this incredibly personal audio.
LIGON: In some ways, I’ve always thought of my work as self-portraiture, but never straightforward representation of the self; it’s always self-portraiture filtered through forms that seem to be against portraiture, like the runaway-slave poster or the sign carried by sanitation workers on strike in ’68, or even the Orange and Blue Feelings, which is a video of a therapy session, in which you see the therapist’s body, but not her head, and you just hear my voice. What do you look at in a therapy session? You don’t look at your therapist all the time, you look at his or her feet, you look around the office. That withholding of my image is a withholding of my reactions, as the face and body language tell us so much about what is really being said below the surface of the words. When I was making the video, I realized that the viewer wants to see who’s talking and you never see that person. And so even though it’s promising you an Oprah-like revelation, somehow because the image of the person is not there, it’s quite frustrating.
Drogin: Right, again it’s returning to that issue of throwing up obstacles in confrontation with how someone expects to be able to understand something.
LIGON: But also, in the video, you can’t trust what you’re hearing. There are moments when what’s being said is not synched to what you’re seeing on the screen. And that wasn’t a deliberate strategy in the beginning. It started out as an audio piece, and then halfway through it, I thought, “no, this is a video,” but since I had more audio than video at that point, I just put them together arbitrarily. So, the therapist reacts to things that are not being said.
Drogin: Recently, you’ve been doing a lot of work with neon, and to a certain extent, they’re pretty straightforwardly tied to the rest of your corpus in terms of the neon being turned around, facing the wall—making things not as immediately readable as you would expect them to be. What else do you find compelling about them?
LIGON: The neons are my attempt to understand sculpture in that they’re three-dimensional objects that hang on walls. And what’s interesting about them is that they have a very different kind of material presence than the paintings. There’s a piece called Rügenfigur, literally, “back figure,” which is the last of a series of pieces using the word “America.” The first piece was the word “America” in very big letters, about fourteen feet long, and it was spray-painted black on the front of the letters, so that the light of neon appears against the wall, and black letters face the viewer. And I found it interesting to work in that way, partially because it was about this kind of—I wouldn’t say “illegibility”— but this kind of occultation of the letter form. It’s a simultaneous presence and absence. That simple act of spray-painting the front of the neon tubes black made these pieces quite mysterious. A number of people asked me questions like, “where does the light come from?” It seemed obvious to me, but I thought, oh, there’s something intriguing about this blackness emanating light. Even when I explained, “it’s just spray paint,” it still remained mysterious for people. The America pieces were based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: the first pages of that novel are called “The Period,” in which you have that famous list that starts with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” It’s Dickens’ attempt at describing the age that the novel is taking place in, and he describes it in terms of oppositions, for instance, “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” Initially I tried to use Dickens’ words directly, and then I realized, no, what I’m really interested in is talking about America, where we’re at, at this point. These pieces were begun before Obama’s election, when we were in the middle of a war (we still are), when the economy was booming—the kinds of oppositions Dickens wrote about were going on in our culture too. The last piece in that series, Rügenfigur, is inspired by Caspar David Friedrich, specifically by a figure that appears in many of his paintings turned around, with his back to the viewer—a figure who is looking at a landscape or a seascape, his face turned away so his thoughts are not available and you can’t read his emotions. Viewers project themselves into the painting through that figure, but at the same time, they don’t have access to his interior thoughts. He’s flipped around and faces the opposite direction from what you would expect. And so, in response to that figure, I took the word “America” and started flipping it around in Photoshop, so it’s like you’re seeing it from the other side, and I realized that some of the letters in the word “America” are bilaterally symmetrical, they’re the same forward and backward. And so, that’s when the idea came to me to make a neon piece just by turning each letter of the word “America” around. When you look at the piece, the A, the I, the M seem to be the right way around, but they’re not because you’re actually seeing the back of the letter. They’re painted black on what was the front and now that’s facing the wall. And then the other letters, the E, the R, the C, are backwards.
Drogin: So, it’s like you’re looking at it from the other side?
LIGON: Exactly, it’s like you’re looking at the back of the piece, except even that doesn’t work, because if you were on the other side, the word would be reversed.
Drogin: It’s just the letters that are reversed, not the whole word.
LIGON: Right. And it makes for a very strange word. So I thought that this was kind of emblematic of where we’re at, too—we’re looking backwards and forwards at the same time. America defamiliarized.
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