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Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait (II), 1996, silkscreen ink and gesso on canvas, 48 x 40 inches; © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

spring/summer 2017


Cited as Barack Obama's favorite visual artist, Glenn Ligon has produced conceptual artwork for over three decades. His vision is sharply focused on examining the of heartbeat American culture -- measuring its pulse by exploring a myriad of social and cultural themes using various media.

We had the pleasure of speaking with him about his  artistic process, life-long connection to art and the ultimate goal of his art.


- The Auburn Avenue Editorial Staff

Malcolm X (Version 1) #1, Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X (Version 1) #1, 2000, Flashe paint, silkscreen ink and gesso on canvas, 96 x 72 inches; © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London. Vinyl-based paint, silkscreen ink, and gesso on canvas.
Glenn Ligon, Double America, 2012, Neon and paint, 36 x 120 inches; © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988, Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 25 inches; Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Thank you for taking time to speak with us. Let’s start by going back. Can you remember the very first time you fell in love with art?  


It must have been in elementary school. The school I went to when I was growing up in New York City didn’t treat art classes like they were extra-curricular or the thing you did to fill the time until your math and science classes.  Instead, art was treated as a way to critically analyze and understand the world.


How has life informed your art, or vice versa?


I grew up in a public housing project in the South Bronx. Someone doing an interview with me a couple of years ago asked what it was like to grow up in a “cultural desert.” I had to remind them that hip-hop, a musical genre that has spread across the globe, originated in the “cultural desert” they claimed I grew up in.  It was also a time when graffiti artists were using spray paint and words to create a new art form. Both of these things were huge influences on me.


Your vast collection of artwork includes references from notable writers, political figures, celebrities, musical artists, etc. How do you determine which references make it into your pieces? 


I use text in my pieces when the text won’t leave me alone: when I keep coming back to particular passages in an essay or a joke on a comedy album.  When it persists in my head, constantly rising above the noise of daily life, that is when I think that I need to find a way to use it in an artwork.


Further, when conceptualizing an idea, how do you decide which medium you will use to execute the idea?

Sometimes things start out in the wrong medium. For example, I have made a number of drawings using the word “America.” They are fine, but I made stronger work when I used the word “America” in neon, where the sense of the word as both something shining and in shadow was obvious.

A fair amount of your artwork is known for being text-based, incorporating simple yet powerful words and phrases. Can you speak about your perceptive identification and use of such language, as well as about the intentionality of presenting it in your work?


The text is from people whose ideas I wanted in my work. An artwork, however, is not an essay. Each has its limits and strengths, things it can and cannot do. The crossing of text from the space of literature to the space of art allows it to do different things, which is what excites me.

Your neons have garnered considerable acclaim and notoriety in recent years. What is your take on the response to these pieces, specifically in regard to “Warm Broad Glow,” “Rückenfigur,” and “Double America?”


Each neon uses simple words that have complex meanings. I think viewers respond to the pieces because there are many ways to enter into them. After all, everyone understands the literal meanings of the words “negro sunshine” but what do they mean in the artwork? I am interested in that ambiguity.


The intersection of race, politics, identity, and history often underscores the ethos of your work. Is there a method by which you frame or integrate these constructs when crafting your art?


I am interested in how race, politics, identity, sexuality, history and other things interact. In particular, I am interested in how the past intrudes into the present.  James Baldwin said that history is in us and I want to think about how history and other forces shape the way we live.

When you look at different pieces from your oeuvre, what do you see? Are there any particular pieces that evoke prominent emotions? 


In my heart, I am a painter, so when I make a good painting I am the happiest.


From your perspective, what is the goal of your art?


To ask good questions. 


Tell us a little about the creation of and inspiration behind your upcoming project, Blue Black


Blue Black is a curatorial project at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis that is in response to an Ellsworth Kelly wall sculpture of the same title that is permanently installed in one of the Foundation’s main gallery spaces. When I first saw the Kelly piece I thought one could do an entire exhibition on how artists have used the colors blue and black in combination over a range of mediums. It has been exciting to see this all come together.


Going forward, are there any passion projects that you wish to undertake?


I have been asked to write about the work of many other artists for books and magazines over the years.  While I enjoy it, I now want to figure out how to incorporate more of my own writing into the artwork I make. That would be a major breakthrough for me.

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