African American Studies
Interviewee: Glenn Ligon
Interviewer: Dr. Oneka LaBennett
Date of Interview: November 8, 2008
Summarized by Sheina Ledesma
Glenn Ligon is a successful artist whose work has been represented in various public collections, which include the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern in London. Glenn was born in 1960 in the Bronx. At the time of his birth his parents lived in the Forest Projects on Trinity Avenue in the South Bronx with his older brother Tyrone. His parents were both originally from the South. His father was from Farmville, Virginia and his mother from Bishopsville, South Carolina. After World War II his mother sought to gain independence from her large family and decided to move up to Harlem when she was 19 to live with her aunt.
When Glenn was two years old his parents separated and he and his brother stayed with his mother in the Forest Projects where they spent most of their childhood. His father was a cook and later a foreman at the General Motors plan in Tarrytown, New York. His mother worked at various jobs during his child; first as a nurse’s aide at the Goldwater Hospital on Governor’s Island, then in the cafeteria of the Natural History Museum, and finally as a nurse’s aide once again at the Bronx Psychiatric Center in Northeastern Bronx. His father, a known playboy, stayed in the Bronx, which allowed Glenn and Tyrone to still visit his father. During Glenn’s youth the Forest Projects and the Bronx as a whole was a much different place than it became in the late 1970’s. When his parents first moved into the Forest Projects, the buildings were clean and beautiful. Growing up in the projects Glenn was surrounded by a strong sense of community and comfort. As years went by however, and drug related crime began to seep into the area, the neighborhood became less and less of a tight knit community.
Glenn and his brother attended a low performing elementary school that was directly across the street from their building. Motivated by the low standard of education and the low expectation of her sons by their teachers, Glenn’s mother searched for a private school that would provider her children with a quality education. In 1966 their mother enrolled both Glenn and Tyrone in Walton School, a private and very liberal school deeply involved in the civil rights movement located on the upper west side of Manhattan. They both received full scholarships and attended the school from first to twelfth grade. The school was comprised of very wealthy students, many of whom were children of famous singers and actors. Many of his classmates included children of people like Toni Morrison, Barbara Streisand, and Billy D. Williams. The commute to and from school was about an hour and a half each way. Glenn and his brother would commute alone on the subway together but often separated once on the train because Glenn was always seeking independence from his Tyrone.
Encouraged by the value his mother placed on reading and education, Glenn spent most of his time reading. He was introverted and had a natural intellectual curiosity. While his brother was often downstairs playing with the neighbors, Glenn would be reading a book or drawing Christmas cards for his whole family. This love of reading and reserved personality allowed Glenn to excel in school. As a child, he always felt disconnected from his neighborhood in the Bronx. The long commutes to Manhattan and deep involvement in school allowed Glenn to separate himself from his home and the rest of his life. He was so socially involved in school that his life became centered on the city.
Glenn had always been interested in art and drawing however, once at Wesleyan College, he pushed to channel that creativity into what he thought would be more practical – architecture. He took up prerequisites for architecture like calculus and chemistry however, soon realized that he could not successfully complete such difficult and uninteresting courses. Since he was already taking Art History and studio art classes he decided to seek out a degree in studio art. While in college he worked during the summers as a social service agency in the Upper East Side called Boice Harbor and completed an internship with Studio Museum.
After Wesleyan, Glenn returned to New York City and found a job at a law firm. While working, he still pursued art on the side of his job. During this time he began to do abstract work and completed an independent study program at the Whitney Museum in Lower Manhattan. The course forced Glenn to broaden his method outside of painting and experiment with a variety of other forms of artwork. It was there that he began to use the inspiration from the books he read by authors like Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, and Mary Shelley. Glenn began to insert the material and direct text that had become so meaningful to him into his paintings.
Years after graduating from Wesleyan, three pivotal events changed Glenn’s life and solidified him as an artist. First, was in important show in 1987 at the NYU’s Grey Art Gallery called Interrogating Identity. The show featured a range of artists to exemplify the variety of ways people thought about Blackness. The second event was in 1989 when Glenn received his first Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts grant for drawing. The third event was another important show in 1991 where Glenn showed a few paintings at the Whitney Biennial. These three events are what launched Glenn into the art world and started his career.
Since, Glenn has had the opportunity to experience great success. Many throughout the art world have recognized his work and his work has been featured in some of the top museums in the world. His influences remain the authors who inspired him in his youth and also include great artists like Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, and Lorna Simpson. He currently lives in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown and has a studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Ligon,Glenn. Bronx African American History Project. By Oneka LaBennett. Fordham University Project, November, 2008.
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