After five years as a senior editor at Artforum, Scott Rothkopf joined the Whitney's curatorial team in December 2009. Pretty much the minute he arrived, he started working on "Glenn Ligon: America," the 25-year retrospective that opened last week. Whitney director Adam Weinberg and chief curator Donna De Salvo had been wanting to organize a midcareer Ligon survey for a while, and figured that Rothkopf and Ligon would be a great match: both had early formative experiences at the Whitney (Ligon at the Independent Study Program, Rothkopf as an intern during college) and they'd already forged an intense editor/writer relationship at Artforum.

Rothkopf spoke to Art in America about the many tough curatorial decisions he's made over the past 15 months, art sleuthing in collectors' bedrooms and his favorite piece in the show.


LEIGH ANNE MILLER: What was your curatorial experience before coming to the Whitney?

SCOTT ROTHKOPF: My first curatorial experiences were when I was a student at Harvard. In my senior year, I proposed an exhibition of Mel Bochner's photographs and related drawings from the '60s, and during grad school there I spent several years working on the show. It opened at the Fogg in 2002.

Also while at Harvard, I suggested a project with the French artist Pierre Huyghe. We invited Pierre to come and make a site-specific installation in response to the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which is the only building in North America designed by Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier is someone that Huyghe has a great interest in, so we spent a couple of years working with him on a film that became a puppet musical, This Is Not a Time for Dreaming. By the time it opened at the Carpenter Center in the fall of '04, I'd already started at Artforum.

MILLER: What was your relationship with Glenn like before you started working on his retrospective?

ROTHKOPF: In 2004 he wrote his first published essay for Artforum, on the work of David Hammons and younger black artists. We got to know each other very well. The editing process was always very intensive; we'd discuss the articles before they were written and mull over every word choice. Over five or so years he wrote essays on many topics: a Felix Gonzalez-Torres monograph, the first Prospect.1 biennial in New Orleans, David McKenzie.

MILLER: How did you decide where to start the exhibition?

The first room contains three Twombly-esque drawings that Glenn made as a student at the Whitney's Independent Study Program in the mid-‘80s. They are handwritten inscriptions of text from gay porn magazines, the first time he used text in his work. Including these works in the show was one of the disagreements that we had at the beginning of this process. There's always the question of: where does an artist's body of work begin? I had a strong instinct to include his work from the ISP because I felt like that was where you could really see the kernels of Glenn becoming the artist he is today.

I didn't want to begin the show with the artist fully formed, springing like Athena from Zeus's head. In these three works you can see the struggle Glenn had between abstract expressionism and a more text-based style. I wanted to make sure you could see that tension in his work from the very start.

MILLER: During a recent gallery talk, you mentioned traveling around the country with the artist. Why did you decide to research and select work in this way?

ROTHKOPF: I was very set on not curating the exhibition from jpegs or transparencies. Glenn and I ended up looking at about 200 works in person. A fair number were in his studio or in his storage spaces, but we also visited the storage facilities of the Studio Museum in Harlem, MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Landau Center, plus various local collectors. We traveled to Chicago to visit the MCA and the Art Institute as well as a collector there. Then we went to L.A. where we visited Eli Broad's storage space. I also visited a collector in London (without Glenn).

It was fascinating because sometimes we ended up face to face with a work that Glenn hadn't seen in maybe 15 or 20 years, practically since he'd made it. That is exciting for an artist, but also a little intimidating because they have to come to terms with a part of their past.

MILLER: Were the collectors excited to meet you and meet the artist whose work they owned?

ROTHKOPF: Yes. One really great story is from when I went to see two of Glenn's Richard Pryor joke paintings in L.A., at the home of Alan Hergott and Curt Shepard. I knew that these jokes began with the line "Never fuck a faggot," but what I didn't know was that they were hanging over the couple's bedside tables. I was kind of blown away to see the paintings in that context; it could have been a Louise Lawler photograph!

MILLER: What was your biggest coup?

ROTHKOPF: One discovery we made almost at the last minute and rushed into the show. There's a diptych, installed in the drawings and works on paper room, where Glenn wrote out the numerals of every year from 1776 to 1865 on one sheet of paper, and from 1865 to 1991 on another. It's a very moving early work because you see him tracing the arc of American history, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, and then from the Civil War to the date he was making these drawings. He inscribes himself within that history in a very subtle but poignant way.

Anyway, I don't believe these two works have ever been published, and they've certainly not been exhibited since they were made. I knew that one of them was in the Adam Sender Collection, but we had no idea where the other one was. We asked everyone we could think of who had ever worked with Glenn. Finally, at the last possible moment, Jack Tilton, who had exhibited Glenn's art very early on, remembered who he had sold the piece to—Barbara and Howard Morse. The irony was that Barbara is a docent at the Whitney! We were able to reunite this pair, which hadn't been seen together in quite some time.

MILLER: Are there any works that you wish you could have included?

ROTHKOPF: There's a great piece where Glenn responds to Adrian's Piper's famous work from 1981, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features. He made a life-size diptych, where one portrait is captioned "self-portrait exaggerating my black features" and the other is "self-portrait exaggerating my white features," and they're both the same image. That's a work I would have loved to have included in this show, but I didn't see where it would fit.

MILLER: You mentioned one of the coal-dust paintings as being a favorite of yours. Why?

ROTHKOPF: That painting I pointed out is unique in his series "Stranger in the Village" because it's the only one that Glenn refers to as a self-portrait. I came to question why this particular painting would be a self-portrait. It started as a painting similar to the others in the series: black text on a black ground with coal dust on top. But the picture wasn't really working, so he ended up attacking it with a scraper and turpentine, removing most of the text. The thought that this would be a self-portrait opened up a complicated terrain of emotions.

Glenn has a tremendous identification with James Baldwin, so, if one were to think about this work in Freudian terms, it's about killing the father. But it's also about the effacement of the self, and the sense of failure that is always a risk in any artistic endeavor. Self portraiture is an undercurrent throughout the exhibition, so it was crucial for me that this painting be included, to open up the range of expressions within the series.


Above: Photo by David Velaco. Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988. Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 × 25 in. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Ronald Amstutz. ©Glenn Ligon.

SEE ART IN AMERICA'S COVERAGE OF LIGON AT THE WHITNEY IN THE MAY ISSUE. SEE OUR PREVIEW TO THAT PIECE.