Inside My Head: An Interview with Glenn Ligon

American artist Glenn Ligón is bringing together artworks spanning decades, continents, and themes that closely relate to his work with race and gender in post-war America. He presents works by, among others, Robert Morris, Lorna Simpson, David Hammons, and Bruce Davidson, alongside his own, at Tate Liverpool. Ahead of the exhibition, he discusses his relationship with these artists and their lasting significance with Tate Etc. editor Simon Grant.

How did you go about making the selection of works for the Tate Liverpool exhibition?

It was made in collaboration with Tate Liverpool artistic director Francesco Manacorda and director of Nottingham Contemporary Alex Farquharson, who originated the project. There are a core of artists crucial to my practice who I immediately knew I wanted in the exhibition: David Hammons, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Adrian Piper, Willem de Kooning, Cady Noland, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a few others. They formed the center around which the rest of the show coalesced. The list also included artists such as Giovanni Anselmo and Robert Morris, who I wouldn’t have considered in relationship to my work until Alex suggested them.

The idea is to juxtapose my work with artworks that lead to my practice or might suggest a direction in the future. For instance, looking at Robert Morris’s felt piece Untitled from 1967-8 helps me to think about sculptural objects that are attached to the wall but have a strong three-dimensional presence. I have always thought of my neon work as moving towards sculpture, but the Morris gives me ideas on how to push that investigation further.

There is a refreshingly eclectic mix of artists from various decades, including Willem de Kooning, Melvin Edwards, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, David Hammons, William Pope. L, Sun Ra, and Beauford Delaney …

De Kooning is in the show because at the beginning of my career I was fascinated with abstract expressionism and would make pilgrimages to see his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He taught me how to paint, but I soon realized I didn’t want to make paintings that looked like his. That is the moment when I moved towards text-based work. Hammons is included because his interest in the discarded, the abject, the broken-down was diametrically opposed to what I thought my work was about, yet he was the one who taught me there is much to be learned from what a society has left behind. His work caused me to broaden the range of source material I was using for my paintings. For instance, one could argue that the comedian Richard Pryor was as astute about American politics and social life as the novelist Toni Morrison, although they were working in very different arenas, but before thinking deeply about Hammons’s art I would have never made Richard Pryor joke paintings. Delaney is in the show because he makes no separation between figuration and abstraction, and I want to think more about how text (which is a kind of figuration) can move towards abstraction. Also, he was a great friend of writers such as Henry Miller and James Baldwin, and literature has been an important touchstone for me too.

In what way has your own biography fed into the selection?

When curating an exhibition of this nature biography always plays an important part. What I am tracing is a timeline of sorts: where I was, where I am now, where I might be going. The de Koonings and Pollocks that were early influences on me no longer have the same hold on my imagination, but it is important to show how they served a crucial role in my development. I also want to think more about music’s relationship to my work, so that is why artists such as Jennie C Jones and Sun Ra are in the mix. Although coming from very different places, both show us how sound and the visual converge.

You have written about this project: “I realized that juxtaposing my own work with that of others could be an extraordinary way to show a viewer how those encounters and clashes fuel the creative process.” Could you say a little about the relevance of some of your works – particularly the text-based ones – within this context?

One of the reasons de Kooning, Pollack, and Franz Kline are in this show is that when I started making text work I was still thinking about “allover painting,” that is painting that treated every area of composition as important. While on first glance it would seem that the content of my work takes me far away from the concerns of those artists, the formal structure of my paintings is indebted to them. Similarly, some of the earliest drawings I did have very expressionist grounds into which text was scrawled. The juxtaposition of the work with paintings and prints by Cy Twombly makes that influence explicit.

What do you think could be the impact of a show such as this on Tate Liverpool’s way of telling the history/story of art in its displays?

One of the problems of museum display is objects are adjacent but never touch. I mean they literally never touch, although they do metaphorically. When a curator is making a show they ensure that each object has enough space around it so it can be contemplated without too many distractions. The work must function within the narrative of the exhibition as a whole, but also retain its autonomy. There are so many works in it and such limited space that they will, by necessity, be too close to one another for some people’s taste. The works will blur in some people’s minds, which reflects how the exist in my mind, where a Hammons body print is blurred with a Twombly painting, which is mixed up with a Bruce Davidson image of subway graffiti, which reminds me of a Basquiat drawing. The space where all of these works exist in my head is quite a cramped one, and the beauty of that is that unexpected ideas arise from the juxtapositions which this cramped space creates. If I had my way, all the works in the show would be installed touching one another.

In the book of your collected writings, Yourself in the World, you paraphrase a Franz Kafka quote: “Art is a mirror which goes ‘fast’ like a watch – sometimes.” In other words, it not only reflects society, but predicts where society is going. What would be your view in light of where the visual culture of the West is to date?

Let me quote a slogan on a T-shirt by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to answer that question: “THE DAYS OF SOCIETY IS NUMBERED.” That is, I don’t know if it still makes sense to make clear distinctions between the West and the rest. Artists don’t work in isolation anymore. They are aware of what is happening in a global sense and define their culture as a global one, so there is a loosening of national or racial identity. A curator I know once did a lecture for other arts professionals about a group of artists working in Africa. He referred to them as “Beento” artists. When asked what region they were from, he replied” “No, not ‘Beento”; “Been to,” as in, “been to London,” or “been to New York.” His point was that we think globally about economics and politics and we need to start thinking globally about artists and culture, too.


This interview was first published in Tate Etc. (Issue 34, Summer 2015), with which Momus is engaged in a partnership.

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