Four Questions for Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA opens to the public on Sunday—and is on view now for members. In anticipation of the opening, we asked the artist a few questions about his first major retrospective.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, collection of the artist, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon, photograph by Ronald Amstutz

The word “America” appears in some of your works (including in Rückenfigur, acquired by LACMA in 2010) as well as the title of the exhibition. Why did you choose that for the title of your retrospective?
The word appears in many of the texts I have used in paintings and neons, and American history and culture has long been the subject of the work. Using the word “America” as the title of the exhibition was a good way to sum up that ongoing interest.

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the 2010 Collectors Committee, © Glenn Ligon, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Early in your career, paint on canvas was your medium. What inspired you to eventually move into other mediums, including photography, drawings, sculpture, and neon?
I chose to work in other mediums because they allowed me to more succinctly address the issues I was grappling with in the work. For instance, the piece Notes on the Margin of the Black Book started as a drawing project but I quickly realized that if I was going to comment on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs it made more sense to use the actual images than to recreate them.

Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991-1993, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; gift of the Bohen Foundation, © Glenn Ligon

Notes on the Margin of the Black Book is a reflection on the cultural debates surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe at the time. What was it about Mapplethorpe, or the greater debate, that compelled you to do that piece?
The debates around those photos were a snapshot of larger debates going on in the culture about representation, sexuality, censorship, the role of art in the culture, etc. The piece was an attempt to broaden the range of reference in my work.

How does it feel, thirty years into your career, to see so much of your work presented in whole? To see your works from the 1980s juxtaposed against more recent works?
Retrospectives are a good way to see what you have done and what you still have to do. It is a fantastic opportunity to see things I have not seen in years.

Scott Tennent

2 Responses to Four Questions for Glenn Ligon

  1. betsy says:

    Visited PST and this exhibit Friday. I very much wish the Ligon material had been far, far away from the Asco collection. By the time I made my way thru Asco, I was weary from seeing anger/angst. I should have researched the various presentations beforehand, perhaps. And now I am sorry I didn’t skip Asco (which I found depressing) to go directly to Ligon and PAY ATTENTION. His work is terrific, and may I say, a real bookend to the Kienholz. I live out here in the 909, but will try to get back in to LA before the Ligon departs. Thank you for this meaningful exhibit.

  2. sandra lazzar says:

    I found Glenn Ligon’s work to be incredibly profound when I first saw it during the late 1980s. His work was grounded in the pulse of Americas subconscious racial riff. Ligon’s work spoke from a generation of artists, not exclusively of Color, to a generation of America that had either struggled to maintain or topple a status quo of segregation. Today, I found myself experiencing Glenn Ligon’s show at LACMA. A survey of at least 25 years of work. What I found was the evolution of intellectual clarity in the late 1980s to complacency in the late 1990s. Ligon’s direction in the 90s exemplifies the elitism and rise of a class system within people of color. This intellectual perversion can be found in his portrait series of coloring book images that include an emasculated rendering of Malcolm X. Maybe Tyler Perry or any other cross dressing person of color can manipulate the image of Black men in order to gain access to a broader American audience but at the end of the day it is still an image of emasculation or better yet castration. One may find similar “cursory of observations” and other phenomenon in Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering by Elizabeth V. Spelman. It has been stated that a wall flower has to dance to be seen. But being seen is not the same thing as being acknowledged critically. Glenn Ligon has been seen and has been acknowledged but he’s still “dancing” for an elite class because his work is now part of that class. “Negro Sunshine” is neither darkness or brightness. It is the in between, it is the straddling on the fence for whom ever pays attention. Indeed the rooster is coming home but not to roost. Just coming!

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