2017 Benefit Remarks

Remarks from the 2017 Benefit by Archives of American Art Medal Recipient Glenn Ligon

I want to thank you, Kate, and the Board of the Archives of American Art for this honor. I’m proud to join the ranks of artists such as Catherine Opie, Robert Gober, Claes Oldenburg, James Turrell, Cindy Sherman, and Sheila Hicks, who’ve all been honored on this stage and who have all had a commitment to promoting broad access to the arts and to the preservation of artistic legacies. And I’m thrilled to be celebrated here tonight with the two other honorees.

Byron, I had something to say, and it’s silly now, but of course I love you and thank you for doing this. And Byron’s right.  See, I thought we met 35 years ago at this law firm.  He worked on the night shift and I worked on the early morning shift, and I didn’t know Byron was an artist. I just knew he was the proofreader that finished their work before the morning shifts start. I loved Byron for that, but I realize now that also Byron was kind of there at the beginning. He was kind of modeling for me what it means to be an artist, and to take oneself seriously as an artist.  And also, he was there at the beginning, at the moment when I was just thinking that maybe, someday, perhaps, if I stopped proofreading 60 hours a week, I could be an artist. So, thank you, for being there at that moment. That was totally crucial for me.

Two brief stories about the Archives:

In 2016, Princeton Architectural Press published a book entitled Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The book reproduced handwritten letters by artists such as Mary Cassatt, Howard Finster, Winslow Homer, Ray Johnson, Georgia O’Keefe, and Saul Steinberg, along with short commentaries by artists, art historians, poets, and the like. For Pen to Paper, I was asked to write about the text, the letters between Beauford Delaney and Lawrence Calcagano, two painters who met in Paris in the 1950s, and who maintained a lively correspondence for the rest of their lives. I first became aware of Delaney’s light-filled abstractions and portraits of friends such as James Baldwin, Marion Anderson, Jean Genet, and Henry Miller at a major retrospective organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978, the year before Delaney died. As a young artist, Delaney’s work became more important to me than ever, and remains a touchstone for my practice. Fast forward forty years from the Studio Museum Show, and a Delaney work, Composition 16, is now hanging in the permanent collection of the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art next to paintings of his peers, such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and Norman Lewis. Composition 16 was acquired by MOMA in 2012, and I was asked to write a brief text about it for a forthcoming book the museum is publishing entitled Among Others: Blackness at MOMA.

Now before we raise our hands high in celebration of this current visibility of this important artist, let’s remember that, as late as 2009, Delaney was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery near Paris. In 1998, a very positive review of David Leeming’s biography of the artist in The New York Times had the tagline, “Black painter Beauford Delany was brilliant, and maybe crazy,” and a 2016 article was titled, “Beauford Delaney Returns to the Scene.” Delaney was black, gay, poor, had no children, and left no will—circumstances that generally don’t secure one’s artistic legacy. James Baldwin, his lifelong friend and supporter, once wrote, “The darkness of Beauford’s beginnings in Tennessee many years ago was a black, blue midnight indeed, opaque and full of sorrow and I do not know, nor will any of us really ever know, what kind of strength it was that enabled him to make so dogged and splendid a journey.” It was Baldwin who helped sustain Beauford’s legacy, along with the Studio Museum, which published an important catalog on his work, and Lawrence Calcagano, who loved Beauford, saved his letters, and left them to the Archives of American Art, to be discovered by me all these many years later. A present, sent to the future, from the past.

Another story: right now, at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, is an amazing exhibition entitled Mappa Mundi. It is devoted to the work of the British Guyanese artist Frank Bowling, and was organized by the museum’s director, the incomparable Okwui Enwezor. Interspersed in that comprehensive presentation of Bowling’s paintings, many of which are on view for the first time in decades, are vitrines containing previously unpublished letters between Bowling and Clement Greenberg, the influential art critic who he met the year after his Lobby Gallery show at the Whitney Museum in 1971. The letters reveal a lively exchange between the two about arts, aesthetics, and race politics over the course of two decades. The letters are fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are so unguarded. For instance, in a handwritten aside on a typed letter, Greenberg wrote quote, “Of course the blacks are gonna inherit the earth, but which one? There are so many different kinds of blacks, as there are whites.”

As my friend Duro would say, “Now that’s a neon.”

Clement Greenberg was a great admirer of Bowling’s paintings. In one letter, he wrote, “Stop moaning about the gallery. They did try to sell you, but your stuff was too good. Pollock and Newman and Cezanne had the same griefs.” Yet for all his admiration, Greenberg never wrote a scholarly text about Bowling. So, it is through his private correspondence that we have a record of how he felt about the work. I am grateful to Okwui for including the correspondence in the exhibition, grateful to the Greenberg Estate for allowing it to be published, and for donating the bulk of Clement’s papers to the Archives of American Art, where they can be view in perpetuity.

So, here’s my point: we are constantly writing and rewriting art history. No artist’s place is secure. For instance, there is a graduate art history student that I met, whose project is to track down all of Beauford Delaney’s many portraits of James Baldwin. This scholar spent many weeks searching documents and photos related to Delaney and Baldwin in the Archives of American Art. The fact that portraits of a famous writer like Baldwin, by an amazing painter like Delaney, have to be tracked down, tells you why we need the Archives in the first place. Robert Gober, who is here tonight, told me that he used the Archives extensively when he was working on his groundbreaking curatorial projects about Charles Burchfield and Forest Bess. I used letters from the Archives for my text on Delaney and Calcagano, and countless other artists and scholars have made use of the Archives. We need the Archives of American Art for many, many reasons, but the most important one for me is to preserve the memories that we have until we are ready to receive them. Until we, as a culture, realize that we actually need them. The Archives is there because we don’t know what we will need in the future, and it is the place where we can figure out how to collect and preserve as much of the past as we can. Nam Jun Paik, whose papers have also been donated to the Archives, said, “The culture that’s going to survive in the future is that culture that you carry in your head.” So I want to tweak that statement a little bit by suggesting that the Archives of American Art is part of our collective head, and that the culture will survive because it is being contained in it. Thank you.