BOMB Magazine is a non-profit that was founded in 1981 to fill the void between the way artists discuss their work and the analysis of critics, by making a concerted effort to highlight artists’ voices through in-depth interviews between artists working across mediums and disciplines. The archives at BOMB, which now span more than thirty years, include interviews with some of the world’s most important contemporary artists. In celebration of the amazing work that BOMB has done, we have pulled from their archives a live interview hosted by BOMB in 2004 at the New School between the formidable Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden, and New York-based artist Glenn Ligon. Unfortunately, Glenn Ligon was unable to attend the interview at the last minute, so BOMB editor in chief Betsy Sussler filled in with Ligon’s questions. After reading excerpts from this insightful and light-hearted interview, be sure to check out the BOMB benefit auction live on Paddle8 – online bidding ends Sunday April 29!
Betsy Sussler: Her [Golden’s] current exhibition is called Harlem World: The Metropolis as Metaphor. Now imagine, if you will, that I am Glenn Ligon. I’m really going to try to be Glenn Ligon, or rather, I’ll do my best:
Thelma and I always joke that when something dramatic happens to her it is just one more chapter for The Book, her yet-to-be-written autobiography. One year, for Thelma’s birthday, I decided to do a mock cover for The Book. The title became I’m Curating As Fast As I Can: The Thelma Golden Story, and I placed a picture of her on the front cover. The back cover had excerpts from the book, which consisted of things that Thelma always says, such as “Exactly! Exactly!” or “It was alllllll too much.” For a moment I got ambitious and was going to do a table of contents too. I started making a list of words that would sum up the topics covered in particular chapters. For instance, one chapter would be entitled “The People,” a phrase that Thelma always accompanied with a clenched-fist black-power salute. “The People” referred to the question that inevitably came up at the end of any lecture Thelma did about her exhibition program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. This question went along the lines of “What does the exhibition program have to do with the struggles of ‘The People?’” whom the questioner, invariably male, naturally felt empowered to speak for. Another chapter might be entitled “Shadow Curating,” which referred to the many artists who turned to Thelma in desperation to help them salvage misconceived, misdirected, intellectually rigorless or just plain badly installed presentations of their work by other curators.
For tonight’s interview, I have decided to take some of those words and phrases and make them into the questions I would ask Thelma. I took the letters of the alphabet as my guide and wrote a list of words and phrases that Thelma could riff off of as she saw fit.
In my absence, this list has been distributed to you, the audience, so that you can ask her these questions yourself. I am sorry that I cannot be here with you but I hope that you find the talk enjoyable, and I promise that Thelma and I will be on the cell phone late tonight to talk about each and every one of you, so I hope you all ask some questions.
Thelma Golden: Okay, first of all, the reason why Glenn is not here, which you explained in a very polite way, is because Glenn bought a Palm Pilot about four years ago, and he doesn’t use it… Friday, Glenn gets a call from Yale and they say, “You are scheduled to speak here,” and of course, the night they think he is coming is tonight. Now, I say to Glenn, “Well, did you look in your Palm Pilot?” But, just to, you know, drive home the point, he said, “No, it’s not in my Palm Pilot,” and I said, “Well, Glenn, this is, like, an issue.” So, that is why Glenn’s not here. It is not anything other than Glenn’s refusal to use the Palm Pilot. I just wanted to say that.
BS: So, Glenn’s questions…
TG: Glenn told me how he wanted to do this and when he was going to be here, I sort of thought, No, I’m not going to do this. We were going to have an argument about it and discuss it. But Glenn made a series of paintings that were encompassed in a show calledColoring at the Walker Art Center about three years ago. He used these coloring books that were created in the ‘70s, mostly by black publishers, and they were alphabet coloring books that Glenn then took each letter from and equated it with a word that had something to do with the black power struggle. So in these books it said, “A is for Africa,” “C is for Cornbread.” I mean literally, and it went through the whole alphabet. Glenn did this wonderful series of paintings from that alphabet. Any time a letter would come up, we’d say, “B is for…” So, Glenn decided that we were going to do an alphabet tonight equivalent to the alphabet that he created for the drawings and paintings that became Coloring. So, you don’t have to do them in order.
I completely disagreed with this method (laughter).
BS: “F is for Freestyle.”
TG: A couple of years ago, maybe more than that, Glenn had a survey show at the ICA in Philadelphia, and the essay I wrote in that catalogue was called “Every Night” because Glenn and I talk on the phone every night. We also talk on the phone every day; we talk on the phone a lot. And in that essay I talked about how Glenn has been very critical to my formation of almost every show I’ve ever made because usually I come up with an idea that is so ill-formed, but I talk about it so much with Glenn on the phone that sometimes it becomes something. And Freestyle was definitely that. There’s an argument between Glenn Ligon and Gary Simmons as to who came up with the title Freestyle. I thought it was Glenn. Gary says it was him. But, whatever. Freestyle was my acknowledgement that the artists I was most committed to, who, in my mind, had been emerging artists early in my career, were now all at mid-career. I was feeling that I was missing what it meant to be involved with emerging artists and I was missing what it would mean to make a show like that. And I began to tell Glenn how I felt invested in what had become of the projects around the group of artists I was most committed to, but it all had gotten so big and so essential. I thought, you know, what would it be like to just go back? At the time I had also just gone back to work at the Studio Museum and I felt the museum needed that. It’s almost like we had to start somewhere, and Freestyle became the beginning again. I began looking at artists and, inevitably, I would talk to Glenn about them. Again, it wasn’t a show yet. I was just looking and I would say I saw this, and I saw that, and it became an exhibition. I didn’t imagine that it would have the important effect on the museum that it did, though I’m glad it did. However, I didn’t see that when making it. I saw it more as a personal thing that I was doing, as opposed to something for the institution.
BS: So, let’s get to the personal. “T is for Thelma Golden, Curator vs. Thel.”
TG: I have a problem that some artists acknowledge and take deep advantage of, in that I really don’t work with artists that I can’t deal with personally. I don’t know how to focus solely on the object. The distinction between me as a curator and me as a person sort of merges. I don’t mean this in relation to making a collection show or a group show, but I’m talking about, for example, doing a survey show of someone. I need a certain amount of intellectual intimacy in order to be able to approach the work effectively. That intimacy can come in any number of forms, but it means that those two lines get crossed often. For some people that’s probably professionally problematic, but for me it seems the only way I can work.
BS: All right, we are going to open this up to the audience. Abby, do you want to use the microphone?
Abby Goldstein: How do you think you’ve influenced Glenn?
TG: Well, I think after tonight he is going to use his Palm Pilot. (laughter) All of my influences on Glenn are totally pedestrian, honestly. Glenn has a cleaning lady because of me. That just felt like something that needed to happen. You know, I just made it happen. What are the influences? I can’t say what they are because he would be so mortified. They all are so completely pedestrian. I have to say that I feel very privileged to have this kind of relationship with many artists as I think many curators do. It is inevitably the way in which you have to exist with artists. For me, there has been an intensity to it because it also happened at a moment when we all existed in a world with this incredible amount of presence, so we had to revert into each other all the time to make sense of it. So, I would like to think that I have had an influence on the way in which Glenn sometimes thinks about his work because often he doesn’t think about certain things. More than anything, when I go into the studio and I pull things out. I feel like that’s a big thing I do. Glenn does that, “Uchh. Don’t like it!” and I’m kind of like, “Okay, let’s take that out, and just leave it for a few days,” and then he’ll say days later, “Oh, that painting’s not so bad.” Often I hope to provide the ability to have this open dialogue because it is incredibly ongoing for us, and it can range from the absolutely ridiculous to the incredibly serious and all the things that meet in between. But, I don’t know if I could mark what he would say it is. I can’t even imagine what he would say.
Audience Member: “X is for Xuly Bet.”
TG: That was Glenn’s attempt to get to what I know he would put off as my obsession with fashion, which is really his as well, though he thinks mine is more intense. It’s well known. I don’t really collect art. I have no interest in it. I am always amazed. You go to these other curators’ homes and it’s like a mini-museum and I am completely uninterested. For artists who know me, this is very funny. But the thing I do have is tons and tons and tons and tons of clothes. And often I have a certain kind of curatorial approach to them. I have certain things that will never be worn but I had to have them for some larger curatorial idea. My obsession around this has to do with my interest in black designers, Patrick Kelly being one of them. He worked from 1985 to 1990, he died New Year’s Day 1990 and had collections from Fall/Spring/Summer 1984 to Summer 1990. I bought a dress of his in the winter of 1988 and from that point became completely obsessed with Patrick Kelly. Unfortunately, so many black designers like Patrick Kelly aren’t alive anymore. Xuly Bet is still alive and still making fabulous work. I came to the Patrick Kelly show because Patrick Kelly was the business and life partner of a man named Bjorn Amelan, who now is the business and life partner of Bill T. Jones. See, it’s all circular with me. This is it. This is my whole life in this list. Bill T. Jones and I met probably around 1986 or 1987 when the William H. Johnson show was traveling around and we were both invited to dinner for the William H. Johnson show. It was like 300 people, and we were the only a few black people. William H. Johnson, as some of you know, was a black artist who worked at mid-century and died insane. He had two bodies of work: the one he made outside of America, which were these beautiful, gorgeous landscapes, and the one he made inside of America, which were these intense works that bordered on caricature of black people. Aesthetically schizophrenic. I saw Bill at this dinner, and I of course knew who he was. When he saw me, we had to do that thing where since we were the only two, we had to pretend we knew each other, right? Because everyone assumed that. I thought it was really interesting because here was William H. Johnson’s work and basically blackness is what drove him crazy: being a black man in America, right? And here was Bill whose work was all not about that; he had turned it all into work.
Audience Member: Do you have any regrets?
TG: Professionally do I have any regrets? No, I don’t. Part of it is because all of it seems as if it happens because it’s meant to. I feel sorry sometimes that I did a show like Black Male so early in my career. It didn’t give me the opportunity to practice a little before jumping out there. But, at the same time, if I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.
Be sure to check out available works by Glenn Ligon in the BAMart Silent Auction and the LACMA benefit on Paddle8!