Artist Glenn Ligon Talks History, ‘Outsiderness’

The artist talks to The Root about the struggles of his past and his visions for the future.

By Thoai Lu Mar 08, 2011

The New York-based conceptual artist Glenn Ligon is probably most famous for his abstract paintings that incorporate text, appropriating words from writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison, according to Interview Magazine.

Although his art work is heavily informed by his identity as black and gay and living in the U.S., Ligon’s engagement in intertextuality with other works from literature and history explores a general "outsiderness" that many can relate to. 

"It’s not only about race relations, but about what it means to be a stranger anywhere. How does one break down the barrier between people? It’s a global question, and it probably reflects what I’ve been trying to do — reach out more," he said in an interview with The Root.

Growing up in a working class family where there was no preceding artist, Ligon wasn’t always sure how making art for a living would pan out, but his parents were always supportive. "There wasn’t a lot of extra money, but there was an attitude that money could be spent for anything that bettered us… culture was betterment," he said, "Anything we wanted to read was fine. Pottery classes or trips to the Met were fine. Hundred-dollar sneakers? No."

These days, Ligon is making more than just money — he’s making history. The Obamas selected his 1992 painting "Black Like Me #2" for their private quarters at the White House, and that was when the general public started noticing Ligon. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London and many other museums have his work in their collections.

The turning point in his career came in 1989, when the National Endowment for the Arts granted him $5,000 for his first solo show, "How it Feels to Be Colored Me." Instead of putting the money in the bank, Ligon decided to "use it to try to be an artist full time."

Two years later, the Whitney Museum asked him to participate in its Biennial. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum, was impressed by his rigorousness as a thinker. "He has this exciting ability to bring different perspectives to different times in history," she said, "it’s a truly unique vision, intellectually intimate, poetic and supremely beautiful."

Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Ligon loved to draw, and his first heroes were abstract painters like Willem de Kooning, Franz Klineand Jackson Pollock. He also had a deep interest in literature; he explains that a good way to understand his art is to read James Baldwin’s essays, in particular "Stranger in the Village." The only black man there, he inspired fear and curiosity in the people.

Ligon’s painting "Mirror" is an example of how he makes large, text-based paintings with words chosen from literature, repeated over until they blend into canvas. "As I developed," he told The Root, "I realized that the text was the painting and that everything else was extraneous. The painting became the act of writing a text on a canvas, but in all my work, text turns into abstraction."

For more on Ligon’s work, see his interview at The Root.