When Glenn Ligon was an art student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, he attended a talk by a black artist at Yale. A few minutes before the speech was to start, Ligon sat in the audience watching a black man in coveralls fix the microphone — not realizing that the man was, in fact, the speaker. At the time, Ligon said, it had not consciously occurred to him that there were black artists, even though he was a black art student.
Ligon, an artist whose work deals with race and sexuality, discussed major influences on his work at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea Thursday. About 20 people attended the talk, many of whom were art students or affiliated with the Yale University Art Gallery.
Working in mediums from oil paintings of text to photographs on silk screen, Ligon has “pushed forward a dialogue in the arts that few people his age can claim,” said Jonathan D. Katz, the Executive Coordinator for the Larry Kramer Institute for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
Much of Ligon’s work, he said, was inspired by his research at the Gay and Lesbian Archives in San Diego — which he described as “a touchstone that I keep coming back to.”
While Ligon was an undergraduate, he was an abstract painter. But he said the form’s vocabulary could not capture the ideas he felt an “incredible emotional need” to express. He was led to text-paintings when a sentence written by Zora Neale Hurston struck him.
“I literally couldn’t get it out of my head,” Ligon said.
Ligon began to work with stencils and oil-based paint, writing sentences that had impacted him and repeating them over and over until the work became “messy and disintegrating.” He said that for him, the work was as much about the disintegration as it was about the text. Hurston’s sentence, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” was the subject of one of his pieces.
Among the works Ligon discussed was his scrapbook, “Notes on the Margins of the ‘Black Book,’” inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Black Book” collection. Ligon wrote captions for Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nude black men based on his own reactions to them and organized them in a family photo album. He placed pairs of captions between sets of two photos arranged vertically so the viewer could not see the photos “without a plethora of voices, without a context.”
Ligon also commented on his personal approach to art, saying that his goal has always been self-transformation.
“That’s first, the career is second,” Ligon said.
One of his current fascinations, he said, was a Hans Christian Anderson story about a shadow that leaves its body and is not the same when it returns. He said he was considering doing a piece using the story.
“I love the idea of not recognizing yourself when it comes back to you,” Ligon said.
Identity has been a focal point for Ligon. He said even after he had displayed his work in art shows for six or seven years it was difficult to see himself as an artist.
Imo Imeh GRD ’09, who is working on a Ph.D. in art history, said one does not often have the opportunity to hear “a great artist” such as Ligon.
Berkeley Master John Rogers also had high praise for Ligon.
“He’s a powerful visual artist and is obviously a great intellectual as well,” Rogers said.
Ligon’s work has been displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s museum for modern and contemporary art.
Ligon visited Yale to give a lecture that was part of an ongoing series organized by the Larry Kramer Institute.