how things get done – Glenn Ligon
When did you figure out that art—with a big “A”—was an option for a lifestyle, versus, say, working for ups?
You know, it took a long time to figure that out, because there wasn’t any precedent in my family for being an artist. Although, ironically, when my mother was younger, she wanted to be a singer, which I found odd because I never thought she had a good voice. [both laugh] But at some point she must have had a good voice. I remember seeing pictures of her from the ’40s, when she’d just gotten married. She was very glamorous, very stylish, and being a singer once must have been a possibility for her. When I started showing artistic talent at a very young age, she was encouraging.
What was your artistic talent?
Drawing, mostly. But I also had a deep interest in literature, which became a big part of what my work is about. But back then I was just filling up notebooks with sketches and drawings. So my mother sent me to pottery classes after school. At this point she had separated from my father. My brother and I were going to private school on scholarship. There wasn’t a lot of extra money, but there was an attitude that money could be spent for anything that bettered us—in that black, working-class, striving kind of way. Culture was betterment. Anything we wanted to read was fine. Pottery classes or trips to the Met were fine. Hundred-dollar sneakers? No.
What year are we talking about?
We’re talking about the late ’60s and early ’70s in New York. But, as I said, my mother really didn’t come from artists. Her famous quote to me was, “The only artists I’ve ever heard of are dead.” The pottery classes were meant to be a part of my overall uplift. I knew what it meant to be sent to art classes, but I still didn’t know anything about being an artist. I graduated from Wesleyan University with a [BA] in art. I was really headed toward an architecture degree, but when I did the requirements for the major, I realized I was more interested in how people live in buildings than in making buildings. I was more interested in the interactions that happened inside the structures. So I got an art degree as a default position. When I got out of school, I went to work proofreading for a law firm. That became the thing that I told my mother I was doing—proofreading—because that was understandable. I had a job.
After college you lived in the city?
Yeah, I lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, painting on the weekends and at night, and working at the law firm during the day. Then I switched up so that I could work 12-hour shifts at the firm on the weekends so I could have days free to paint. But it was almost like I had a secret life, because I wasn’t showing any of my work. It was just in my house. In ’89, I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s when I started to get into group shows. Suddenly I sort of “came out” as an artist [laughs] . . . I said to myself, “If the government thinks I’m an artist, I must be one.”
That was when they still gave individual grants.
Yes. And they learned their lesson. [both laugh] They don’t trust artists anymore. Now the money has to go through arts organizations. But, yeah, back then you could get a grant, and I got $5,000—a huge amount of money. It was a turning point for me because I could either keep working at the law firm or I could cut back and think about how to become an artist rather than just make art, you know?