Creating failure as an artist at the ICA
When artist Glenn Ligon welcomed five Penn students into his Brooklyn studio last October, he felt it was just as important for them to see his failures as his successes. “I showed them work that you’ll never see,” Ligon told a small crowd at the ICA, “things that were about to go into the trash. It’s interesting to realize that an artist makes whole bodies of work that just don’t work. An artist’s process is an intellectual inquiry, it’s about making connections and failing sometimes, but those failures lead to other things.”
Those five students, all enrolled in Penn’s Spiegel Contemporary Art Freshman Seminar, followed the leads suggested by Ligon during that studio visit, resulting in their curation of the ICA’s new exhibition “Each One As She May: Ligon, Reich, & De Keersmaeker.”
Penn professor Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw and ICA curatorial fellow Jennifer Burris designed the year-long seminar to engage with Ligon’s 1998 ICA exhibition “Unbecoming.” The artist wasn’t sure what to expect when the students – Alina Grabowski, Chloe Kaufman, Andrew McHarg, Vincent Snagg, and Iris-Louise Williamson – made their visit. “I didn’t know anything as a freshman,” he said. “I was painting still lifes. But when they came to the studio, I realized that the questions they were asking and the research they had done about my work was really thorough and interesting.”
The ICA show deals with influences and echoes, as one artist’s work inspires or communicates with another, in this case in the work of three artists intrigued by repetition: Ligon, composer Steve Reich, and choreographer Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Ligon’s coal dust and oil stick studies for “Negro Sunshine” feature that phrase (taken from Gertrude Stein’s story “Melanctha”) stenciled repeatedly until it blurs into a dense abstraction. The piece was the result of exactly the sort of failure he’d spoken to the students about.
“I was trying to make very perfect letters with oil paint and plastic letter stencils,” Ligon explained, “and after a frustrating six months I realized that oil paint and plastic stencils don’t make perfect letters. And that’s actually more interesting than what I was trying to do. That smearing and smudging and disappearance of text through the act of stenciling with this material that doesn’t want to stay solid and whole was what the work was about.”