When Nottingham Contemporary Director Alex Farquharson gave Glenn Ligon the opportunity to create his own ‘fantasy’ exhibition, the artist was initially hesitant. ‘It seemed like a big undertaking, and I wasn’t sure it could be done,’ comments Ligon, whose works feature amongst Barack Obama’s private collection.
But when Farquharson sent what he describes as a ‘fantasy football PDF’ of artists who might feature in the show, Ligon began to change his mind: ‘I started to think ‘this could actually be pretty good,’ he admits.
Here, Farquharson talks to Glenn about the resulting show — a group exhibition that sees Ligon’s own art set against works by the artists who have shaped his practice.
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Lost My Voice I Found MY Voice), 1991. Collection of Emily Fisher Landau/Amart Investments LLC
‘It feels like we’ve reached a very exciting moment,’ says Farquharson. ‘Having worked on this for two years, Glenn’s arrived and we’re unpacking works before the show’s opening. There are 45 artists in all, some who aren’t artists, but who Glenn is nominating as artists for the purpose of the exhibition. The result is something like a personal art history; I think of it almost as Glenn’s ideal museum.’
‘The show is a way to place my work in collision with other artists — some I have thought deeply about, some that are new to me that I want to think deeply about,’ Ligon confirms. Dubuffet and De Kooning are cited as figures who have particularly shaped his output, with icons of black contemporary art like David Hammons featured alongside artists who engage in LGBT issues, including Félix González-Torres and Zoe Leonard.
‘It’s an exhibition that’s really an unfolding of the artist’s own work into the practice of many others,’ says Farquharson. ‘I think Glenn would consider that his own ‘breakthrough’ works have been based on a process of citation on multiple levels — from visual art to literature, history, politics and wider culture.’
Chris Ofili, Afro, 2000. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. © Chris Ofili. Photography: Tate Photography
Text forms an integral element of the show, joining visual works to form a portrait of Ligon’s practice as an artist, and the experience of being an artist in America. ‘Glenn is also one of those rare examples of an artist who writes about other artists,’ Farquharson explains. ‘Perhaps unsurprisingly, the exhibition features a number of artists who do the same’.
‘The catalogue has become a very important part of the project — though in a way, catalogue feels like an insufficient term. It’s more than that: Glenn has edited an anthology of texts that have particular meaning to him — including Proust, Adrian Piper, and Wayne Koestenbaum. His own contribution is a series of extraordinary letters to seven of the artists in the exhibition.’
Ligon’s own art is rich with text. Born in the Bronx in 1960, the artist took part in the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York, turning to paint as a means to interrogate notions of masculinity, race, and America’s loaded political promises. His paintings from the period reproduced writings by authors including Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston — their words repeated to the point of near-intelligibility.
Installation view of Dan Flavin, Untitled (To Elizabeth and Richard Koshalek) at the Walker Art Center, 1971. Photo: ©Walker Art Center Archives © 2015 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
On the cover of the exhibition catalogue, three figures move along a narrow corridor at the Walker Art Center, the space lit by a Dan Flavin installation that spans the ceiling. ‘We wanted an image that expressed this idea of art as an encounter,’ Ligon comments. ‘There’s something about the colours the people were wearing, how they are walking, their afros — and this long corridor — that suggests a journey.’
The image is one that encapsulates both Ligon’s approach to the show and his own production: ‘In many ways an exhibition is always like being in someone’s head.’ For Farquharson, it is an incredibly personal approach to curation: ‘The title of the exhibition, Encounter, suggests something social, even erotic.’ Though his initial response is a snort of laughter, Ligon doesn’t dismiss the idea: ‘There are works you fall in love with — that you come back to over and over again.’
Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X #1 (small version #2), 2003. Courtesy the Rodney M. Miller Collection.
One such piece is an essay by James Baldwin, written at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in America. ‘The author’s dealing with that and his own experience as an exile in post-colonial Europe — yet remains incredibly hopeful about American democracy,’ comments Ligon. ‘Though it was written 50 years ago, it always resonates differently according to current events. Each time I encounter it I fall in love again.’
The artist’s political sensibility has not gone unnoticed: when Barack Obama moved into the White House, Ligon’s 1992 canvas Black Like Me No 2 was selected for his private quarters. When the pair met at an official function, Ligon recalls Obama’s genuine interest in his work with admiration: ‘He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, we have a set of prints too, but we have to move them out because of the light… I was super impressed.’
Recent upsurges in the US — notably in Ferguson, Missouri — and the strides Obama has made for LGBT rights, have given Ligon’s investigations into race equality and sexuality new relevance. Like the Baldwin text he so admires, they are ‘resonating differently’. Though Encounters and Collisions is an homage to the works Ligon ‘loves’, it is also a much broader, much more astute assessment of how we understand text and image in the broader context of political shifts.
Main image at top: Charles Moore, Demonstrators Lie on the Sidewalk While Firemen Hose Them, Birmingham Protests, May 1963. Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York © Charles Moore
Christie’s is delighted to be sponsoring Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions at Nottingham Contemporary, 3 April - 14 June
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