Don't Ask Him about Race

By Gopnik, Blake | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

Don't Ask Him about Race


Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek


Byline: Blake Gopnik

Glenn Ligon's art has wowed Obama and hangs in the White House. So why won't he talk about its primary subject?

Things are going well for painter Glenn Ligon. Barely 18 months ago, the Obamas hung one of his works in the White House. Right now the art world is toasting him too, with a retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum.

But success doesn't seem to have mellowed this artist. Sitting for an interview in the middle of his excellent Whitney show, Ligon is balking at so many questions that you imagine asking, "Is the sky blue?" and him answering, "No, it's orange. And what does color mean anyway?" Of course, you're not asking about blue and orange, but about black and white, and those two tones as the color of skin. Ligon makes art that is praised for its treatment of blackness. But getting him to discuss race is like getting J. Edgar Hoover to talk crinolines.

How does Ligon feel about having his work selected for our first "black" White House? He answers with a neutral "Because [Barack Obama] is in an administration that I actually believe in, it sort of means more to me." Fair enough. There's no obligation to feel racial pride. "Obama is the first African-American president," Ligon goes on, "and for some people that means a great deal, and for some people it means very little."

Yet it seems bizarre to refuse to talk race when a lot of your art is so clearly about it. …

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