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Acclaimed artist, curator Glenn Ligon discusses ‘Blue Black’ and starting a dialogue in St. Louis

"A Small Band," Glenn Ligon's work inspired by the Harlem Six and Steve Reich's composition, sits in the Pulitzer Art Foundation's main hall.
Pulitzer Arts Foundation
"A Small Band," Glenn Ligon's work inspired by the Harlem Six and Steve Reich's composition, sits in the Pulitzer Art Foundation's main hall.

Fifty-four works. Forty-two artists. A meditation on the colors blue and black. 

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s current leading exhibition “Blue Black,” curated by acclaimed Brooklyn-based artist Glenn Ligon, is on display until Oct. 7 and asks the viewer to contemplate identity, power and race.

Ligon, who recently visited St. Louis again, sat down with St. Louis Public Radio’s Engagement Producer Kimberly Springer for St. Louis on the Air, and discussed the exhibition, how it came together and his experience with the St. Louis art scene.

Ironically, the show was supposed to be a solo exhibition of Ligon’s own work, but once he visited the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, he was taken by a vertical sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly in the Pulitzer’s main hall titled “Blue Black.”

"Blue Black" by Ellsworth Kelly.
Credit Pulitzer Arts Foundation
"Blue Black" by Ellsworth Kelly.

“I was walking around it and said ‘You could do a whole show around those two colors,’” Ligon said. “David Hammons, Chris Ofili, Andy Warhol, etcetera. And the director of the foundation, Cara Starke, said actually no one has done a show around those two colors. And I thought ‘here I am.’ So I decided to put on the curator hat and decided to put together a range of artists working in those two colors.”

In some way, each of the works included in the exhibition is “in conversation,” with Kelly’s sculpture.

“The nice thing curators get to do is put things together that wouldn’t often be together, to mix up the time periods,” Ligon said. “Through that juxtaposition, you think about continuities between certain historical moments. I’m not trained as an art historian. I didn’t feel the need to put artists in the ‘50s with artists in the ‘50s.”

One of the most striking pieces is one of Ligon’s own, a sculpture called “A Small Band,” which features three large-scale words rendered in neon: “Blues,” “Bruise,” and Blood.”

The inspiration behind the work was from the case of the Harlem Six, in particular Steve Reich’s masterwork composition “Come Out,” which used a line of testimony from Daniel Hamm in repetition.

“Daniel Hamm said: ‘I had to open the bruise up to let the bruise blood up to let them know I had been beaten,” Ligon said. “Reich makes a tape loop of Hamm’s voice repeating over and over again. It took me a long time to realize this, but when Daniel Hamm said those words, he makes a slip of the tongue. He says ‘blues blood,’ instead of ‘bruise blood.’ That slip-up is really interesting, if you think about the blues in the way writer Ralph Ellison thought about it, he says ‘the blues is personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.’ Blues has always had trauma and tragedy in it, but also of moving on, moving out, getting away.”

Glenn Ligon, the curator of "Blue Black."
Credit Paul Sepuya | Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Glenn Ligon, the curator of "Blue Black."

Originally, the neon words had been displayed like a sign on the side of the building, but for “Blue Black,” Ligon placed the signs on posts to allow people to walk around them, which causes a different sort of interpretation of the text.

Ligon has been visiting with local black artists as part of his work on the exhibition with the Pulitzer. They’ve given him insight into local politics and the dynamics of the art scene in the region. He said he also had the opportunity to dispense a little advice from his career.

“The thing I found useful as a young artist is that you always have to be ready,” Ligon said. “You never know who might walk in the door. … I suppose one could call it networking, but really it is about building community. That’s the nice thing about talking to artists I met here: they all seemed to like each other. They were really interested in each other’s work and could talk about the others’ work.”

If you’re interested in seeing “Blue Black,” there is not much time left in the exhibition at the Pulitzer. It closes Oct. 7. The museum is open Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. More information can be found on the website here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.