Glenn: [00:00:00] There was a moment when I thought, oh, I have to make it look like art. Whatever my idea of art is, or whatever conventional idea of art is, and usually the things that are the farthest out that look the least like art to me, are the things that become the most important.
Helga: The American painter, Glenn Ligon is one of my people, my folks, and one of the most recognizable figures in the modern art scene.
His distinctive political work uses repetition to abstract the texts of 20th century writers. I'm Helga Davis and welcome to my show of conversations with extraordinary people. In this conversation, we talk about his childhood and what it means to have a parent who fiercely and playfully [00:01:00] supports you.
We also discuss the essential lesson that there's value in the things you do differently and why he won't take an afternoon nap in his own studio.
And I had a performance, I don't remember where, and what I remember about that final performance was coming out on stage and seeing you and Courtney Bryan and Pamela Z and Samiya Bashir sitting in a row in the audience. And I completely freaked out.
Helga: Yeah. And yet when I saw the four of you sitting there. I [00:02:00] can't believe I'm gonna cry. It's so silly or not. I said, my people are here.
Glenn: Yeah, they're your people. And then my Thelma Golden, our friend Thema Golden says, your folks,
Helga: My folks are here.
Glenn: Your folks
Helga: And I felt lifted. I felt seen. And all of a sudden that performance became a different thing. I felt that I was doing everything for you. And in fact, at the end, I have a moment where I have a monologue that I deliver where I come down off the stage. Right. And you were there on the end. And I put my hand on you.
Glenn: Yes, I remember. I remember. Which was both [00:03:00] shocking. Like break that fourth wall, but also riveting because I knew you and I wasn't expecting that. But also to be embraced in the space of a theater. Cuz you know, I'm a visitor to Rome. I'm at the academy, you know, doing a residency for three months. I don't have the Italian, but I found some folks, you know, and we decided we need to go see Helga to just, that's it.
Helga: The thing that also happened that is a little bit harder is that while I felt lifted, By the four of you. It was the first time ever I felt separate from my people.
Glenn: Because you had been on tour?
Helga: Because I had been on [00:04:00] tour and I had been with my other people. Right, right. And I, I've never felt different or apart or separate from them. And in the moment when I saw you all and we embraced after the show, suddenly I belonged to someone else.
Glenn: And then what happened the next day? .
Helga: Well, I mean, after you all left. I think, didn't we go somewhere and eat?
Glenn: Yes, we did.
Helga: And that is the great equalizer. You're right. And that, that was the great equalizer. But I wonder, and I think about the spaces that you occupy and the people who [00:05:00] clearly love you, who love your work, who support your work, who are not always people who look like you. And I'm curious to know what your experience is being in those spaces? And does it make a difference? Do you feel, do you feel protected by your work?
Glenn: I think I always assumed that the majority of my audience was not going to be people that looked like me.
Helga: Why did you assume that?
Glenn: Because I remember my mother saying, when I said to her I wanted to be an artist, um, the only artist I've ever heard of are dead—Picasso, Matisse, who were in fact dead when she sent that.[00:06:00]
And more importantly, why do you always have to follow what white people do? Because being an artist is what white people do. Because even though I think that she had aspirations to be a singer, I don't know if she would've made it professionally, but she loved it. The idea of being an artist was so far out of her experience that it was what white people did. And so it made no sense to her. Uh, and she came around a bit, you know, after many, many years.
Helga: Is she still coming around? Uh, in some way?
Glenn: She has passed, but lived long enough to, you know, come to an opening at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, which was in a loft in lower Manhattan at that moment.
And in the middle of the [00:07:00] opening there was a blackout. And I thought she must have thought like, what the hell are you entering this world for? They can't even keep the lights on.
But I think the assumption was that the art world was, wait, and I'll tell you a terrible story. Robert O’Meally, who's professor of African American Studies
Helga: Was at where?
Glenn: He was at Wesleyan at that moment. Um, and then subsequently went to Columbia. Uh, but he taught an Afro American class when I was at Wesleyan and invited me to go see a lecturer he was going to attend at Yale—Romare Beardon, and this would've been maybe 1980, 1981. [00:08:00] So I go with him to his lecture, big lecture hall, packed with people. It starts late. We're looking for where's Beardon, where's Beardon. This man in coveralls, big, big guy, coveralls comes out, he starts adjusting the microphone.
I'm still looking off to the side where Beardon? And then he starts the guy, you know, adjusting the microphone starts speaking, and I realize I have so little image of what a black artist looks like, that even when they're on the stage, I don't recognize them because nobody in my classes, you know, is telling me about black artists.
There are no role models there. I hadn't found my folks. Toni Morrison says, you know, I may be misquoting, but she says in an interview, um, when she moved to New York, her mother said, well, why are you doing that? You don't [00:09:00] have any people there. And she said, I'll find them. And it's sort of like when I moved to New York after college, I had to find my people, you know, Lorna Simpson, Thelma Golden, et cetera.
You know, had to find my people. But the art role was very white. The dealers were white, the curators were white except for Thelma. When I joined my first gallery in New York, you're like, oh, you're the first one. And I knew exactly what they meant cuz I was the first one, you know?
But that was the situation for a lot of us. So I always assumed in some way that the great portion of my work would not um, I was gonna say, that's an interesting question. What I was going to say was not for black people, but that's [00:10:00] very interesting to say that. I guess what I, my correction would be, the majority of my audience would not be black people, but it's interesting to say not for black people.
And I think there's a generational shift now, younger artists that I talk to who I think take the blackness of their audience and their address for granted, and everyone else, you know, it's an open call, everyone else can come along but not making work for white folks.
Helga: Do you, do you recognize that taking for granted? Do you feel that you benefit from that now also?
Glenn: I benefit in terms of the ambition and scope of what they think they can do or what they are [00:11:00] doing. Um, the lack of separation between various areas of their practice that they can feel like they can bring their full selves to their work, you know, and insist upon that.
And because I'm an older generation, I'm a bit more cautious and cynical cause, um, just I've been around too long and people said too many crazy things to me, and I'm thin skinned, so I take that in and don't know how to, you know, ignore it like it's pork, as they used to say.
Helga: Um, who said that? I’ve never heard that ever in my life.
Glenn: It's on a record, it'll come to me. Um, but yeah, I think the kind of fearlessness of it, but also I feel like, um, [00:12:00] it's a complicated space too because I think that sometimes people don't understand that opportunities don't come with care.
That you may get a show somewhere, but did they take care of you? Did they talk to you about your work? Did they understand your work? You know, uh, I just did a show recently and the curator who I’d been working with for a number of years, uh, came on the docent tour that I was giving, you know, the tour to tell the staff what this show is about.
And I thought, surely, you know, all of this cuz we've been talking for the last four years. But they're, they were taking notes. Now, the good spin on that is like, well, maybe I'm gonna say something to the docents I haven't said before. The bad [00:13:00] spin on that is like, mm didn't read all those books. It's sitting in a pile in the office, but didn't read them. But here we are with the show.
Helga: The other thing that we have in common, which I did not know until yesterday, is that we both went to the Walden School.
Glenn: Oh right, of course. Yeah.
Helga: And I just wanna read a little bit, cause you know I had to go to the Wikipedia page to see how the Walden School has been memorialized. And, uh, Walden was known as an innovator in progressive education. Okay? Faculty were addressed by their first names, and students were given great leeway in determining their course of study. The Walden School was founded in [00:14:00] 1914 by Margaret Naumberg, an educator who later became an art therapist. Uh, it embraced individual transformation as an education principle, and that the competition between students was minimized.
And so I start, then at the bottom, there's a thing that says, notable alumni. And I just broke out into a sweat because I know some of the, some of those names right. But, who made the list? .
Glenn: Well, I can just imagine.
Helga: Okay. Don't imagine. So right under Michael Diamond, member of the Beastie Boys is Helga Davis, multidisciplinary artist. [00:15:00] And then we turned the page right under Gene Lee is Glenn Ligon, conceptual artist.
Glenn: Wow. I didn’t know Gene Lee went there. Walden? How long did you go to Walden?
Helga: I was there for all four years. I was there, I was there after you obviously I was, I was there because I didn't meet you there. Um, but I was there for four years. How long were you there?
Glenn: 12 years.
Helga: Oh really?
Glenn: I started in first grade.
Glenn: Yeah. No. Yes, yes. Uh, started in first grade
Helga: I'm asking, I just wanna say, I'm asking you that question to see what part of that experience points to your, your [00:16:00] your track as an artist. And what, what happened to you there, that perhaps facilitated the freedom you felt to say, mom I'm gonna be an artist, right? Or I am an artist.
Glenn: Well, I think as you know, having gone there, the Walden was, you know, whether they used to say free you to be you and me, you know, you could kind of self fashion there. Um, I started in first grade because my brother and I were going to the public school across the street from our house in the South Bronx. And they had run out of work for us to do in kindergarten and first grade. Literally run out of [00:17:00] things for us to do.
Helga: I can't laugh cause it's so horrible.
Glenn: So my mother got called in one day for a parent teacher conference and it's because I done some alphabet book which I guess was supposed to take up the whole class period, but they'd only written out for A, B, C, D that we were supposed to spend 45 minutes figuring out a word that started with A, B, C, and D.
So I asked the teacher to write out the rest of the alphabet for me, and I filled out, you know, words for, and then the next day my mother got a call from the principal of the school asking her to come in to talk about her kids because my brother was also kind of underutilized. They made him, what was it called?
Milk monitor. Because he was [00:18:00] finishing his 45 minutes worth of assignments in this class in five minutes. And they're like, well, what do we do with them? I was like, oh, create this job for him in first grade. So my mother came in for this conference and um, the principal was very excited and said, you know, you really need to get them to a different kind of school, private school.
My mother separated from my father at that point working as a nurse's aide, Bronx Psychiatric Center in the Bronx. Did not have money to send two kids to private school. You know, we were living in public housing, so this was a fantasy, but she said, um, that's something that one of my teachers said during this meeting pissed her off so much that she's like, she's like, I'll figure it out.
The teacher apparently said, well, your kids may be smart here, but if they were in a real school, they'd probably just [00:19:00] be average. And my mother decided I'd rather them be average in a real school than given up on in this piece of school across the street from our house. So she found the school that gave the most scholarship money. but ironically, one of the most liberal schools in the city.
Which is probably why they gave the most scholarship money. Um, so that environment, you know, when you're going to a school with kids who live in duplex, penthouses on Central Park West, and have art collect world class art collections in their apartments, um, who end up being rock stars like Diamond, for instance, um, there was a certain kind of license for me to imagine something different than the trajectory—which I wouldn't say is actually now I'm thinking about is not actually a true, because the fact that my mother made that effort to send me and my brother to that school meant there was a trajectory she thought we should be on, which maybe wasn't being an artist ,
Helga: I didn't wanna say that but—
Glenn: Wasn’t being an artist, but was a trajectory different than the one that she had grown up with the, you know, expectations for her as a young girl growing up in a sharecropping family in South Carolina, you know, those, that, those expectations were not the expectations she had for my brother and I.
So this movement to Walden, you know, for our education was an important part of her dreams for us. But, you know, the scholarship child gets new dreams.
Helga: Did you feel like a black kid in [00:21:00] Walden?
Glenn: I. I felt like a black kid in that I had to figure out how to not be perceived as a black kid. Cuz that came with a lot of assumptions and expectations and, oh, you don't know how to do this you don't know how to do that. Oh, this is not your experience. Why would you be interested in this?
Helga: Or only a black kid. Is a better way of saying it, I think.
Glenn: Or only a black kid. Yes. Right, right, right. Right. Now I'm, I'm for some overvalued blackness, you know, well, you know, because of its involvement in the Civil rights movement and, you know, Goodwin Chaney, Andrew Goodman, you know, one of those, uh, uh, black, uh, sorry, one of the, um, I, why am I saying black? [00:22:00] Um, civil rights, yes, tragically killed. But the high school at Walden was named after Andrew Goodman. Um, so there was a deep involvement, I think, interest in, uh, justice in, in a broad sense, in that school.
And maybe, and, you know, in some moments a kind of over, uh, valorization of blackness, you know? Um, but, um, but you know, when you're a kid, you want to fit in. And for me, fitting in meant, like when I was at a friend's house for a sleepover, I didn't want to be the black kid there. I just wanted to be a friend of whomever's house we were at.
Um, and so I think I, in some ways, you know—also when I was [00:23:00] going back, you know, from home, home, you know, an hour and a half on the bus and subway to the South Bronx. And so there's a bit of attitude adjustment that had to happen the nearer I got to my house, cuz if you didn't, if you look like a private school kid coming home to the South Bronx, you would be treated as such and you would get jacked up every day. So, um, but also I think I was bookish so I stayed inside. You know, my brother was the opposite. He could be outside all day long. My mother used to force me to go downstairs to play, she said go out and play, you would need to go out for an hour. So I'd go downstairs and sit in the back of my building where the maintenance men had a workshop and they had a time clock and when one hour pass, I'd come back upstairs. So I was literally outside for exactly [00:24:00] one hour. One hour. She said you had to go out for an hour and play.
Helga: Were you making stuff already?
Glenn: Yes, I was interested in art. Um, I don't know where that came from, but I would make, you know, Christmas cards for my relatives.
And so I was always drawing and, you know, and, and certainly encouraged in that I was sent to pottery classes in Greenwich Village and I did after school, drawing classes at the Met, you know, so,
Helga: And all of these were programs that were free. And your mom got you in there, or she just made sure you were there?
Glenn: I think she made sure I was there. I'm sure they weren't free, maybe subsidized? Um, and my mom's sort of, you know, any book that my brother and I wanted to buy was fine. You know, expensive sneakers? No. Drawing classes after school at the Met? Yes. [00:25:00] You know, but I don't think with a sense of I'm gonna become an artist, maybe the sense of like, this is what a good citizen should know something about art among other things. Um, so there was encouragement and bafflement at the same time.
Helga: How does that show up in your work? Do you think it still shows up in your work now? Or how did it show up in your work earlier?
Glenn: I think maybe a level of experimentation. I remember this story now, I'm gonna cry. I think I must have been eight or nine years old. And my mom got a set of dishes by Correll, um, and they were advertised as unbreakable. [00:26:00] And the curious child that I was, was asked, I asked, why is this unbreakable? And my mom, you know, single parent, you know, fighting for that child support from dad, living in the projects was like, I don't know. Let's see. So we, she took a plate out and she gave it to me. And I dropped it. I dropped it on the floor, shattered into a million, jagged, you know, dagger like pieces. But thinking about that later, cuz we were still finding pieces of that plate for like weeks afterwards. But thinking about that, I was like, my mom was open enough to my curiosity to do crazy things like let me smash a plate she had just bought. Just because I was curious and that [00:27:00] was the kind of child I was. So that encouragement of like, you can try things , you can make your own way, you can figure stuff out. You know, I think started with her. Because in some days I felt like I made my own life. Like being an artist. There's no like people now it's like law school, you know?
Helga: What does that mean? It's like law school.
Glenn: You know? You go to this program and you're guaranteed this kind of career and people start looking at your work when, you know, when you're an undergraduate and you know, but back in the day it was kind of like, I don't know, what does it mean to be an artist? I worked at a law firm proofreading for years, you know?
Helga: While you were painting?
Glenn: Yeah. And told everybody that's what I did. Oh, I'm a proofreader at a law firm, you know, they pay me $12 an hour, which was back in the day a [00:28:00] fortune.
But I never said I was an artist until I got a grant from, you know, the government. And I was like, ooh, the government thinks I'm an artist, so I must be, but you know, it's just cuz I didn't have this sort of, network peer group. I have to make that, you know, and I think in some ways I envy younger artists cuz they come out with it more. It's more readily available.
Helga: Yeah. Except that they come out with it. And the work I think has already been, um, made to fit a thing that they think they can sell eventually. And I'm not saying everyone.
Glenn: Yeah. Yeah. I, I agree.
Helga: But it's edited. [00:29:00] So you get a visit from a gallerist or whoever comes to see and they start saying things to you like, oh, I think this would be blah, blah, blah. So I had a performance and I had composed some stuff. It was very heavy. It's a work I did with Davóne Tines.
Glenn: Mm, yes. Amazing singer.
Helga: And we were still trying to figure out the end of it. Uh, it involved some dancers and I was singing something that had one lyric, when you hold me like this, I can't breathe. And the idea of it was that there would be two sets of dancers. One set would be a kind of love [00:30:00] dance, and the other would be reenacting the death of a black man by choking, by being in a choke hold and that the audience had to watch both things at the same time.
They couldn't choose. And Davóne was very clear that he didn't wanna watch black people killing black people on the stage. And so we were, we were trying to figure it out. And then someone who loves Davóne and who loves me offered to help us develop the work even more, to further develop the work. And in between that person and Davone and I was one other person who was trying to keep the person who [00:31:00] wanted to give the money away from us so that we could work. And he asked that person, do you think I could suggest an ending? And she told him no. Absolutely not. And don't you know that after we finished, he came directly to me to tell me how he thought the piece should end, and in the next breath said that he was looking forward to supporting the work.
Glenn: What is that?
Helga: Oh we know what that is.
Glenn: Yeah, we know what that is. Okay. But and I've certainly had that,
Helga: But is it any different than the Medicis than the—it's not a new thing to support artists and for artists to [00:32:00] have benefactors. It's not a new thing. Why do we care where the money comes from to do the work?
Glenn: Well, because as you said before, I think it is, and I struggle with this all the time, you know, I got offered a commission and it would be a big project and I don't know if I feel like doing it.
Helga: But is that because you're at a place in your career when you, where you could just not feel like doing it and not do it?
Glenn: Yeah, but it's different, which is different. But also I feel like it's not a good idea. It's somebody who wants something that I wasn't gonna make and they're offering to pay for it. And so it's a good idea financially, [00:33:00] but it's not a good idea conceptually for me to spend all my time making something that I'm not so invested in. And so I have a kind of luxury to say no, but this happens all the time.
You know, when I was a younger artist, he was like, oh, we could have sold 10 of those. But I don't wanna make 10 of those.
Helga: Okay. So let's talk about that. When you're a younger artist, how are you supporting yourself? So you were a proofreader at a law firm, right? Were you, were you still living at home?
Glenn: Uh, no. I left the Bronx as soon as I could, so I, right after college, I had roommates. I lived in Brooklyn. My mother was like, Brooklyn's scary. Why do you wanna live in Brooklyn? It's like, because I grew up in the South Bronx , how scary could Fort Green be? It's just she didn't have many folks there. That's what that was about. Yeah. She didn't know anybody there.[00:34:00]
Helga: Okay. So you had a bunch of roommates.
Glenn: Bunch of roommates, you know, make my work, not really selling anything. Worked at this law firm full of amazing people, you know.
Helga: But what does that feel like? You're not selling anything. How long? How long were you not selling anything?
Glenn: Hmm. Eight or nine years.
Helga: That’s a long time. No?
Glenn: Yes. That's a long time now. Back then that I think was probably normal now. It would be a long time because kids are very grand now, you know, just got outta Yale and like, and many zeroes behind that one, you know? In the sale price. So it's a different world, but, um, yeah, I, but also I feel like it took me a while to find, you know, my thing, my voice, what I wanted to do versus what everybody else was doing, or what I thought I [00:35:00] should be doing, I should be interested in.
I had a professor in college, this a bit of a diversion, but who, um, was in the faculty dining hall, her name is Jacqueline Gurevich, um, who was in the faculty dining hall, having lunch with a colleague. And was overheard by a friend of mine talking about me. Oh, I have this student, uh, it's kind of amazing. He's doing this still life, but he's doing it one by one.
And it's like, what do you mean? Well, he's painting the shelf, then he painted the bowl that's sitting on the shelf. Then he's painting the fruit in the bowl as if he were constructing this still life in paint rather than painting everything. A bowl of fruit, a bowl of fruit, you know, and my friend who shouldn't have been dropping on professors in the faculty dining home and shouldn't have told me what a private conversation was.[00:36:00]
But what was striking to me about that was it was my professor saying he does something different than everyone else is doing. And I value that. And in retrospect, that was super important. It's like, oh, you know, the thing they do that's not like what everybody else does is actually valuable.
Helga: I think this is such an important thing for people to hear. Whatever it is they do, whatever it is they do. You're listening to Helga. We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment. Thanks for being here.
Avery: The Brown Arts Institute at Brown University is a new university-wide research enterprise and catalyst for the arts [00:37:00] at Brown that creates new work and supports, amplifies and adds new dimensions to the creative practices of Brown's arts departments, faculty, students, and surrounding communities. Visit arts.brown.edu to learn more about our upcoming programming and to sign up for our mailing list.
Helga: And now let's rejoin my conversation with Painter Glenn Ligon.
The thing I'm, I'm also curious about in your world is whether or not, so now that, now that we're talking about market and collectors and sales and that kind of thing, are you getting what you deserve ?
Glenn: Hmm. [00:38:00]
Helga: In terms of notoriety? In terms of compensation? In terms of ability to be seen in, in different kinds of environments?
Glenn: I, I think that it is a continual struggle to get what one deserves, but also I think some things that I thought I wanted, I don't want now as I've gotten older, I feel like, I don't want that.
Helga: Like what?
Glenn: Um, I don't wanna be doing shows back to back all over the world. I don't wanna design sneakers. Now, back in the day, I used to get, you know, I'd read [00:39:00] art magazines and I'd see a review of a show and I'd be mad, you know, they're like, I didn't mention my work. And then I would catch myself like, Glen bitch, you're not in that show. But the ego just like, the ego. And I feel like the older I've gotten, the less of that is there.
It's more about how do I make situations where I can do my work the way I want. I remembered an art friend Chris Ofili saying after a big retrospective show, he's like, what's a, you need to get back to work immediately? Cause these kinds of shows kill you off, you know, too much in the past, you know, start dwelling back there.
Now you keep, keep working. But also the good thing about big shows like that is that you can do whatever you want afterwards. And when he said it to me, I was like, I don't know what that, whatever it is I want to do is, so maybe I should figure that [00:40:00] out now. You know, maybe this is the moment to figure out what is it exactly that I want to do.
What's the big dream? You know? Which seems funny to me and it's well you know? Cuz I think that, you know, I made some huge paintings using James Baldwin and I was laughing about this cuz I thought a younger artist would've started with a huge painting. Took me 20 years to make the huge painting. You know, just so the scope of, I think I'm, I'm growing into the idea that there are things that I want to do and I've worked hard enough to set up the situation where I can do them now. But what are those things, you know? What are, what really are those things versus what people think I should do? You know?
Helga: When I had a conversation with Henry Threadgill, he spoke about needing [00:41:00] a lot of time to do nothing. And I don't think it's doing nothing. I think it's just time to give your brain the opportunity to process, to, to find its inspiration, to find the thing that, uh, that it's, it's like any relationship.
You know, you meet and then you're excited and then you don't need sleep. You don't need food, you don't need anything. You just need to be in that thing. And I'm wondering, do you need moments when you're doing nothing to just be with yourself and, and allow things to come in order to make the next thing?
Glenn: More and more so, uh, [00:42:00] I have people that work with me in the studio, um,
Helga: Ooh, what do they do?
Glenn: Uh, All the things that I used to do, like answer every email, you know, uh, every request for images, you know, scheduling stuff like what day are you available, that kind of stuff. But also to help make, do the prep work for making work.
You know, like I have a guy who does all the production work, so he's the one that's stretching those canvases. I used to do that, you know, and I realize like, you know what, I could have more time to paint if somebody has stretched this campus. It's not important to me to stretch this campus.
It's important to me to put some paint on it. So people to help me do that. Um, but I also realize that. I like to be in the studio alone, and the studio is spacious enough that I don't have to see. The other people, but I hear them and I realize that even if I hear them, I feel responsibility to them.
I feel like if they're working, I should be working. So we reduce the days that they work. So they work three days a week, so that Monday and Friday I'm by myself. And this is their choice, you know? Like everybody wants to work less now, you know, so, or everybody wants to work part remote part in, and I was like, fine, let's have remote days then.
So Monday and Friday I'm there by myself. And I have a totally different working process, even though I don't, you know, on [00:44:00] Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I come in, I say, hello, how was your weekend? I go to my side of the studio. I don't talk to them for the rest of the day, but I'm aware of them. I, I feel that. I'm like, oh, I feel like taking a nap now. But, mm, that's weird cuz there's somebody, right there. That’s weird.
Helga: Why? It's your studio and it's your process. Why not give yourself that? And it also gives them permission, and you can tell me I'm wrong, gives them permission in their practice to see that you don't always have to be on, you don't always have to be—that productive can look like many things.
Glenn: I think maybe it is some sense of fairness and that doesn't—
Helga: That's bullshit. Nope. I call bullshit. [00:45:00] You don't want them to see you sleeping. You're a black man taking a nap in the middle of the day. On your couch. And you don't want them to see that.
Glenn: That's probably true. But I would also say, um, no, you're probably right. But I remember a really dear, dear friend, uh, artist named Byron Kim. We worked at a law Firm together. I worked the morning shift, he worked the night shift, and I didn't know Byron at all. I just knew that there was a guy who came down every morning after his shift with his work done, whereas most of the people on the night shift would come down with half their work done because they'd been sleeping in a conference room for half the night. And I was like, I don't know this Byron Kim, but I like him. And we're friends to this day. You know, [00:46:00] this was 35 years.
Helga: You liked him because he, he had a work ethic.
Glenn: He had a work ethic. And he also was not screwing other people because when, in those kinds of situations, when you don't do your work, you're just screwing the next people, you know? The people who come in the next morning.
Helga: Fine. Okay, but in your studio you're not screwing anybody. It's, it's, it's your work and your process. My brother Glenn, I am here to liberate you today. Amen. Or not.
Glenn: It's true. And maybe this need for time, the need to be alone is the beginning of feeling like I make what I want, when I want it, rather than factories working today. You know, like, gotta keep, you know.[00:47:00] Can't take an hour and a half for lunch, you know? Gotta get back in.
Helga: No, Glen, but okay. I'm gonna let that go cause I need to ask you something else. And I see you messing with me.
Glenn: I am, I, I am not messing with you.
Helga: You are indeed. I went to MoMA recently. And I had a destination. And like everyone else who was there that day, I was there to see the Red room, except I was kind of sidetracked by the exhibition that was before the Matisse. And the artist was Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. And I, I, I have to go back to see the Red Room. But I got stuck right here. Right. And [00:48:00] more than talking about the, the, the particulars of the exhibition, there was also a film.
Glenn: Yes. Which I watched when I saw.
Helga: Oh, okay. And he says some things that I, I would like your reaction to. He says, you are the eyes of the earth. Goodness makes the body beautiful. Drawing is my life companion. That he needs everyone and that in fact everyone needs him. And the other one I loved was, in order to be an artist, you have to get rid of shame.
Glenn: Yeah. What's amazing about that work, but also particularly that film of him walking through the town he [00:49:00] lives in and just pointing at stuff on the street. And it's sort of like he's a collector of art, you know, as much as he is a maker of art, you know, because suddenly this little scrap of paper he sees on the street is a face. You're seeing it differently. Because he's seeing it, you know, and that is what was amazing. And also the work is all about inventing a, a language, you know, kind of—
Helga: Also a good practice for an individual to undertake.
Glenn: Which I guess every good artist invents a language, you know? Um, it's just he is actually inventing a language.
Helga: There is that, what about this? In order to be an artist, you have to get rid of shame.
Glenn: Yeah. [00:50:00]
Helga: That was an awfully big sigh.
Glenn: Uh, it's true. It's the shame of whatever subject matter you want your work to be about, which is different than the subject matter other people's work is about, or your take on that subject matter.
Sometimes just the shame of being an artist in the world that thinks that intellectual activities like being an artist are suspect, you know, um, something to be suspicious of, something not quite, you know, uh, people don't understand it, don't understand why you make it, think it's not for them, you know, getting over [00:51:00] that.
Helga: I think this is part of his personal mythology. What's yours?
Glenn: Hmm. Um, wow. Great question and hard question to answer. I would say my mythology is that I have tried to make my work and therefore my career, a model of a certain kind of integrity about how to live in this art world.
Helga: Just the art world though?
Glenn: Well, the world or primarily, primarily the art world. Cuz it feels a bit consuming, but it's not the world, you know. Um, I'm having, and this is not to brag on myself, but, uh, I [00:52:00] was out on the street once, many years ago, um, in Fort Greene um, having lunch in a restaurant on DeKalb Avenue and went outside, was standing at the bus stop and a young black woman came out of the restaurant and ran up to me and said, I was too shy to say it when you're sitting down, but I just have to say that I so admire your work. And I, she didn't say she was an artist, she just had seen work somewhere and she recognized me from the video in the show or my picture somewhere, but totally random like that, you know? And I thought, it is amazing to me that something I made, can compel someone to get up out of their seat and run out to the bus stop and thank me.
Helga: Did it mean something different to you that she was an African American person?
Glenn: Oh, yes yes. And I guess it shouldn't, but it did. It meant something really special. And maybe that's my own failure about, you know, who I perceive my audience to be. Cuz you don't really, in the end know who your audience is. Um, especially because the work circulates, you know, outside of art spaces because it's online and you know, various things. But it did mean something particularly at that moment because I think you always, you maybe you have this too.
Um, I think many artists have this moment where they're like, who am I making this for?.
Helga: Is drawing your life companion?
Glenn: Not in that way. [00:54:00] I would say also, I make strange drawings too. . I make drawings using letter stencil. So other people's words are my life companion, I guess.
Because so much of my work has been about the use and transformation of other people's words, um, inhabiting them through the making.
Helga: What was the text that sent you down this path, path of using text in your work?
Glenn: Zora Neale Hurston. Um, an essay called, uh, How It Feels to Be Colored Me written in the early twenties, and just taking little fragments out of that essay.
She's talking about her time at Barnard being the only black student in these predominantly white spaces. Um, [00:55:00] she has these sentences in that essay, like I feel most colored when I'm thrown against a sharp white background. So I plucked those sentences out of that text and started making paintings, just repeating that sentence down a panel till it became dense at the bottom. Illegible. But, you knew what the text was, it's very clear at the top. So that act of repetition. Writing causes a transformation, causes an abstraction. So that's my work basically.
Helga: So Zora Neale Hurston got you here. Zora Neale Hurston. Okay. And back to this question of mythology. So yours is one that I am a person of integrity.
Glenn: Yes. Which I can give many examples where that is not true.[00:56:00] I’m as hoe-ish as the next person. Um but I guess you said mythology. So the myth is, the word on the street is a, Glenn got some integrity about his practice.
Helga: What are things that you do everyday that you think every person can do to begin to give meaning to, to illuminate, to bring more of themselves into the world? What, what are things that you do? You drink iced coffee and you don't eat? Other than those two things.
Glenn: Well, one thing I've been doing lately, you know, in this studio, but this is why headphones are genius, because you can just be like, [00:57:00] look like you're working and you are working, but you're actually listening to a podcast. Um, but I try to listen to something that's gonna give me ideas. Hmm. So Saidiya Hartman talking to Fred Moten.
You know, the lecture they did that's online. University of Chicago or somewhere, you know, listen to that. Or Arthur Jafa talking about his latest installation. And I do that because I wanna be connected to a community of folks. And sometimes that's not physical connection, that's just intellectual connection.
I hear their voices, I think about the work they're producing, their ideas. Um, and I found that like, in a way, [00:58:00] doing that every day was super helpful in the studio. Because otherwise I'm just listening to, you know, national public radio all day long. And even the repeats, even when it repeats, I was like, oh, I heard this news before
Um, so I try to kind of get my mind working like that. Um, or even just, uh, my, my partner James said, he, he, he's fond of, um, kind of harsh pronouncements. He's like, I don't wanna listen to music I've heard before anymore. Oh, I only wanna listen to new things. And I'm the opposite. I've been playing some Smiths records to death.
There are moments where I thought, okay, let's try that as an exercise. [00:59:00] Let's listen to that album by X I've never hurt before. You know? Bless you. You know? Just to like, think differently, you know, listen differently.
Helga: And how was your mom with all of
Glenn: Um my mom, we never really, really talked about it, though. Of course, she knew, um, that I was gay, you know, all them handmade Christmas cards,
But I think at the end of her life, she made peace with it in a way with, you know, we never had the direct discussion, but she would talk about, you know, cousins and, you know, who must have said something to her about me. And she would not say what they said, [01:00:00] but say, hmm well she been married five times, you know, uh, what's so great about being married to a man?
And I took that as a way, her way of saying like, I don't understand, I don't really wanna talk about it by, but I acknowledge, you know, even like my, my, her marriage to my father, you know, was problematic. They separated when I was three, four years old, you know, so she's like, I was married, it ain’t that great.
Helga: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you wanna talk about?
Glenn: I remember once, uh, I think I was talking to Jason Moran about making work for a show, and I said to him something like, well, I'm [01:01:00] just trying to make it look like art, this piece
Helga: Glenn, what are we gonna do with you, for real.
Glenn: But it's funny, it's a funny thing to say, and he reminded me of it the other day, but it is, but when you're trying to make something that looks like art, that's when you're not making art. So that's why I remembered it because there was a moment when I thought, oh, I have to make it look like art.
Whatever my idea of art is, or whatever conventional idea of art is, and usually the things that are the farthest out that look the least like art to me, are the things that become the most important or interesting or get me the furthest.
Helga: Thank you.
Glenn: Thank you. Oh my God. That's amazing. But I knew it would be. Oh my God, [01:02:00] my mother's turning over in her grave.
Helga: No she is, and she's so proud of you. She is so proud of you right now.
Glenn: I remember my brother went to a show the Hirshhorn had in Washington. All my relatives are in Washington and he's going through the museum and, and, uh, one of the, all the guards in the museum are black and usually black men for some reason.
And this guy comes over to him. It's like, you know, a brother made all this work.
Helga: Yes, I know. That's right. That's where we end. Yes, yes. Oh, that's beautiful.
That was my conversation with Glenn Ligon. I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my [01:03:00] conversation with musician Bartees Strange.
Bartees: And even as I kind of pushed music to the side and started working full-time jobs in my twenties, my mom would always say, like, BJ, that's what she would call me, BJ, Bartees Junior.
She'd be like, don't, don't give up on your music, like keep writing your music. You know, like it's, it's, it's worth doing even though you may not understand it, but you should keep making things, you know, and I always did.