Sanford Biggers

by Terry Adkins

Cheshire, 2008, in situ, aluminum, Plexiglas, LEDs, timer, 67 × 33 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Klein Arts, New York.

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:

Sanford Biggers and I go way back. Through close family connections, we first met in 1992, when he was a snotty-nosed undergrad at Morehouse College. Since then, it has been a sheer pleasure to proudly witness his blossoming into a mature artist and willful smooth operator. Sanford has managed to survive the art world’s fickle and ravenous appetite for the latest wave-upon-wave glut of career-savvy interlopers by creating an impressively mounting succession of somewhat self-made yet high-profile opportunities outside of the commercial arena. Biggers’s simultaneous upcoming solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, MASS MoCA, and SculptureCenter are testaments to the consistency and versatility of his broad post-media palette. The SculptureCenter exhibition in particular looms with triumphant return, full-circle sentiment. It is the organizational site of “Temporary Hours”, our first live collaboration for my Jean Toomer Song Cycle recital in 1997. Sanford, then a grad student at Maryland Institute College of Art, brought the house down with his interactive, gesture-inflected readings of Toomer’s poetry. Soon, all will know.

Over the years, our paths have crossed by inclusion in several of the same major group exhibitions and by other staged collaborative performances. Our artistic missions have followed a nearly identical course that it is beyond weird. We both did our undergraduate study at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Morehouse College and Fisk University, and were residents at the Studio Museum in Harlem, PS1, Harvestworks, and a variety of European institutions. We are both now professors at the Ivy League universities, Columbia and UPenn, respectively. So, if leading by example counts, perhaps I shouldn’t cringe anymore when Sanford goes around touting me as his mentor. It is a title that I have always viewed as an old-fashioned dangling modifier that falls way short of the mark in the contemporary. This is especially true in Sanford Biggers’s case. Only once have I offered him any advice, which he then proceeded to ignore entirely, going about things his own way.

Terry Adkins You’ve got a lot coming up in the fall—three shows simultaneously: at the Brooklyn Museum, SculptureCenter, and MASS MoCA. Why have you jammed yourself up this way?

Sanford Biggers It is probably a bit masochistic. (laughter) But why not do all three? On a more practical level, by not having gallery representation in New York all this time, there has never been an opportunity to see a comprehensive body of my work. People have been introduced to it piecemeal.

TA So, given the fact that you are a multi-disciplinary artist and that all three of the sites have different possibilities, how did you go about choosing what would be where?

SB Because I work in a multidisciplinary format, there’s not one particular stylistic look to the work. Thematically the pieces are all very much related to each other, but understanding that necessitates a deeper, longer read. The Brooklyn Museum is essentially a ten-year survey, which I call an “introspective” because I have an issue with age-marketing in the art world, and I don’t see this as a full retrospective. It is a survey with a thematic approach, not just a smattering of everything. The Brooklyn Museum show will give a glimpse at past works while the SculptureCenter show will give a look at present works and the way these play off former works of mine.

TA So it will be ten years of work clustered into a singular experience. This will also give you an interesting opportunity to see it in a reflective context for the first time. Then there is the show at MASS MoCA; what is its theme?

SB It’s basically a chance to explore the relationship between the art of John Biggers, who happens to be my cousin, and mine. Aesthetically we are not working in the same canon at all, but I did grow up looking at his art and was very inspired, not only by the physical work, but also by his field of research, his use of history, his weaving of vernacular—US Southern vernacular, African vernacular and culture, mythology, revisionist history, pro-positive black imagery, African diaspora imagery, sacred geometry—all notions that inform my work as well. So I really want to posit this show as if seen by a third person who has unearthed a stream of research done by Biggers-Biggers over generations, over decades, over time.

TA You were part of the original Freestyle, or “post-black,” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem and yet all the concepts that you just mentioned—black culture, its dynamics, its history, its lineage—seem antithetical to the Freestyle credo, which announced an outright rejection of the so-called burdening limitations of these ideals. Where do you stand on this?

SB While Freestyle was a watershed moment that I’m happy to have been a part of, I always felt ambivalent about the whole notion of “post-black” because, once again, categorizations and labels have the negative side effect of putting something in stone and also making it more palatable and consumable by the Western artistic canon. It becomes a side note and a chronology of art histories. The mere implication of “black” in the title itself still puts it right back into a black-art situation. As far as it being “post-” I looked at that as an opportunity to go absolutely any direction you want, so some can reject it and some can embrace it. I was first exposed to art in general as an educational communication tool, not just aesthetically or as a luxury. To that end, I still feel that there are so many legacies and so many histories that have not been tapped into, which I’d like to address. History itself is a material that is constantly evolving. It’s malleable, and, every couple of years, things we thought of as true 50 years prior get debunked. I like to use that as a sculptural device.

Imani Uzuri performing in The Somethin' Suite, 2007, multimedia performance commissioned by Performa 07, New York. Courtesy of the artist.

TA Many contemporary artists attempt to reclaim, recover, rewrite, and reenact history through film, photography, and, as in your case, performance. How does this real-time platform allow you to mine history in ways that are meaningful for you? Does this active experience in turn have an influence on the performative behavior of some of your static work?

SB I never really refer to myself as a performance artist although I do employ performance and performative strategies. I read a quote years ago, and you might be able to tell me who this is by.

TA . . . Ishmael Reed.

SB Ishmael Reed! Saying that all black people, especially black men, are always under the spotlight—whether it is on a stage, in the spotlight of society, a police car spotlight, or an interrogation light. By being entities in this society we are always performing. I’m sure it extends beyond African Americans or black men, but this was the specific quote and, with that in mind, I felt there was no real difference between my doing a performative act in a gallery or a museum and my standing up and speaking my opinion in an all-white academic environment. There, all of a sudden, it wasn’t just what I was saying, but whom those thoughts were coming from. I know this may seem strange to many, but you, as an academic, know the dearth of diversity in most programs. So performance works for me on that level but it also gives installation or sculpture a life beyond the static. It incorporates the notion of time and collaboration. Whether it’d be me collaborating with other performers or just the viewer, because the viewer does have to bring something to the table, and that complicates, challenges anything I posit out there in any physical form. I believe that that is the true completion of the work. Just as I try to put things in the work to educate others, I also learn from peoples’ interactions. They often bring things to the work that I could not predict.

TA Being a perpetual performer in American society also brings the flipside into view—our long-standing invisibility. As black artists we have always been relegated to the notion of race, identity, and image, which in a certain sense perpetuates conservative notions of ’30s social realism, no matter how you clothe it with the contemporary. Black artists who don’t care to deal with the subject matter that is posited in image and arrested at the surface of race are usually rendered more invisible—

SB —Possibly, but on some optimal occasions their artwork might have more visibility and be less about the author of the work.

TA Might you address what you feel are some of the viable possibilities that exist between the territorial extremities of Ishmael Reed and Ralph Ellison?

SB —Between hypervisibility and invisibility . . .

TA Right. You’ve been able to navigate that space deftly, not only within the confines of America but internationally as well.

SB In the ’90s I lived in Japan for three years, and I often get asked how it felt being black in Japan. And I am like, Honestly, I don’t think it has anything to do with being black in Japan, it’s just being non-Japanese in Japan. Now, within that, there may be striations of how you may be received, but I think that has more to do with your approach to social interaction and how you navigate society as a foreigner versus strictly what people project onto you. Living there I learned something about being hypervisible and invisible, an “incog-negro,” if you will, and I realized that there was strength in being both. You’re always visible, but, at the same time, people are only able to see you to the extent that they are psychically prepared to receive you. If they are truly open, they actually do see you beyond the shell, and thus open a much larger and progressive dialogue. What prepared me for living abroad is my educational and personal background—growing up in all-black neighborhoods and then going to all-white schools, and then flipping that and going to an all-black university, Morehouse College in Atlanta. Those experiences gave me a solid grasp on my dichotomous position as a North American. That foundation made moving to Italy for a year and to Japan for three years seem like a logical progression. From those vantage points, I began to see things in a different and more nuanced light. My hypervisibility and invisibility became very clear. I think this manifests itself across the span of my work, as some pieces visibly address our convoluted American experience while other works address concepts ranging from Buddhism to hip-hop to childhood memories.

Cheshire, 2007, single-channel, color, outdoor video projection with sound, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Grand Arts, Kansas City.

TA Titus Burckhardt claims that true symbolism depends on the fact that things that may differ from one another in time, space, material nature, or many other limitative characteristics, can possess and exhibit the same essential quality. Do you think that your firsthand experience of other cultures allows you to speak with the authority of a universal symbolism?

SB My experience tells me that symbols are, in fact, not universal, but our primordial impulses, needs, and desires are. In fact, I’ve been experimenting with whether or not symbols can be redefined, particularly with my Lotus and Cheshire pieces. How steadfast are symbols? Some are. The cross is, but the swastika was not, considering the Indian versus the Nazi use of it. You can also go to Haiti and see a veve on the ground. Is that the same thing as seeing a cross on the wall? It references the same crossroads, and you can mix the metaphors, but, at the same time, I think they both hold something different. The really interesting thing is when you have people with different interpretations of those symbols mix it up and realize that we can heap all this meaning onto them, but does that make any of those individual meanings any lesser? I believe it shows how strong the collective need for symbols is.

I really got into that on a physical level when I started to look at Yoruba and Vodun altars, because they contain cumulatively symbolic objects and images. If you have a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, which means something very specific in America and abroad because it’s a representation of America, like McDonalds and Coke, and you put that next to a doll and a bottle of perfume, and a dollar bill or a franc, and whatever colonial baggage those specific currencies entail, what amalgam of meaning do you get from them? That’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s where I’m going with the work.

TA You were in Japan for an extended period and you’ve often been included in exhibitions that have Buddhist premises. How about that?

SB It is sort of amazing to me how consistently that’s happened. I definitely still look toward Buddhism and Shinto and Taoism as philosophical foundations. So, to be included in that context is very gratifying, contrary to being in every Black History Month onslaught of shows. (laughter) There was a moment when I was in all the hip-hop shows. Then the black politics shows. You start getting dumped into all these categories. Luckily, Buddhism provides a different layer and another set of meanings to my work. It takes it beyond an American-centric read.

TA Let’s discuss a symbol that you’ve developed—the flashlight smile. It contains unfolding layers of meaning: the smile as the other side of the frown, the smile as a mask of deception, the smile as comedic portrayal in the history of brand black entertainment in America. It’s dicey turf to speak from. How would you feel if someone were to say you were a latter-day minstrel? What you did in the 2007 Performa with The Somethin’ Suite borrowed heavily from, and amplified devices of, minstrel tradition. Do you think that the audience is sophisticated enough to recontextualize these gestures in a positive light?

SB Teeth that smile, teeth that bite, teeth that rile, teeth that incite. That sums up that piece to me. It is very bogged down in that minstrel, black entertainment polemic when viewed here. When the piece—it’s a big smile—is hanging in a tree in Germany it’s called Cheshire. In the tree the read is totally different; it’s so different that it’s almost shocking. Once I mention that, although it’s Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, it could also be the Darktown Follies, it becomes a lot more interesting. At Performa, where the piece was called The Somethin’ Suite, I went as far as to create a playbill for it in the graphic tradition of the sheet music that used to accompany the minstrel shows, which, by and large, became their most profitable aspect. The sheet music was purchased by hobby pianists, white women who would play these songs at parlor parties, and would later birth Tin Pan Alley and, later still, our present music industry. When you fast-forward to now, performers like Eminem and 50 Cent still profit from a similar type of stereotyping and exaggeration that made the minstrel shows so widely successful. Now, I’m not calling them minstrels, but their largest paying fan base is still that demographic, or the children of that demographic. The irony is in that transaction; the complicity between black songwriters and white performers in blackface, and later black performers in blackface, is the thing that is fascinating for me. When I set out to do The Somethin’ Suite I researched the minstrel shows and used specific tropes from the actual format, but I didn’t include blackface. I included whiteface in the form of a geisha. Actually, it’s a geisha-cum-pickaninny slave girl singing a lament in the form of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” while a video of black men climbing trees, getting comfortable, sitting and hanging out on trees—as opposed to being hung—was projected behind her. That video, a physical performance shot, was the first iteration of the Cheshire series. It’s most recent iteration is the Cheshire-smile sculpture, one of the symbols I mentioned I’m experimenting with.

TA Geisha and Noh theater were influences too then, right?

SB Absolutely. And beyond the blackface grin, it really is the circus. The circus of emotions, the inside, the psychological circus that people in America in today’s hypermediated culture experience. I think we are a bit schizophrenic in terms of all the references and information we’re being fed, and that we’re asked to process and put back out there. There’s a lot happening. Between our generation and today’s generation—who would’ve thought even six years ago that that type of tumult would even exist? Once again, it’s not about wanting the audience to take away a specific read. I’d rather give them the faith and ability to see past the primary layer of references, which would be the minstrel show and all it embodies. I trusted them to go a step further. So, for the last piece of the performance, I am wearing the mask of a rapper and I am reading from Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask in Japanese. This act is the mash-up of everything. When we went out for the curtain call, we came out holding mirrors so that the audience would be applauding themselves. They were the ones that really had to do the work of trying to put together everything that we did onstage. They were the ones who had to take home and rest with the indeterminate outcome of all we presented on stage.

Poster for The Somethin' Suite, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.

TA Collaboration is a major feature in your work: transfer of information, interchange of ideas, the openness and trust to invite others in. You might want to call your exhibition an invitational rather than an introspective because, to me, some of your best work acts as a bridge between extremes—high and low, East and West, static and dynamic. Within an immersive solo experience, do you ever consider the subject itself to be your collaborative partner?

SB Sometimes more than the subject being the collaborative partner, it’s the actual work that becomes the collaborative partner. I consider myself a formalist, so I set out making a sculpture or an installation with certain ideas, but as the form and physicality start to assert themselves, then I truly get informed as to where it’s supposed to go. I get informed by seeing the object or objects in front of me, or hearing the soundtrack, or watching the video unfold. The emerging work can then speak for itself since I’ve already front-loaded it with all this conceptual, historical content. The back end sort of defines itself. During the creation process the work starts to assert itself. I trust that the intent is already loaded in there. I don’t have to go back to the inception point but can instead just follow the formal.

TA That’s intuition—surrendering to forces other than yourself so that the works of art that you create become vehicles of the very same subtle forces. Would you attribute that to an Eastern influence of surrender, devotion, empty mind?

SB I would attribute it equally to the notion of playing the dozens, learning how to shoot hoops, or improvising on piano with other musicians. In fact, it’s ironic that you bring this up! I was given a piece of advice once by a trusted colleague, after doing a lecture. (laughter) When I got off the stage, the first thing you said was, “Man, you know your shit. You know your stuff so well! You need to forget all that!” And I knew exactly what you meant. Coming out of academia, where you’re taught to know everything about what you’re putting into the work—which does have some importance—there’s a point where you have to let the art do its thing. That’s where the magic happens. It sort of reminds me of when I first went to show my cousin John Biggers my work, and he put my portfolio down on the table unopened and just asked me, “Where is your work coming from? Not what was it about, but where was it coming from.” That made a huge impact on me.

On another John Biggers note, he’s one of those artist’s artists who was very influential to me and many others, but was largely overlooked by academia and history. I’ve taught at three schools and nobody has mentioned him, except one or two people after class.

TA This brings us back to the idea of invisibility that we were talking about earlier. The summer 2011 issue of Artforum rewrites the history of Abstract Expressionism in one fell swoop by not using the Life magazine photo that included Norman Lewis among the crew. Then, by choosing not to interview any of the major black abstract painters—Mark Bradford or Julie Mehretu or Stanley Whitney—about their thoughts on the subject. There’s no mention of the seminal influence of Charlie Parker on this movement. This also ties into the idea that the post-black moment is one of double denial—one is exponentially invisible by adhering to it.

SB The minstrel show started with white male performers donning blackface, and then later it was black male performers donning blackface, which is that sort of double negation, double invisibility right there. I mean, that’s nothing new.

TA America has never had a problem with brand black entertainment. It lusts after it as a defining yet forbidden mirror of itself.

SB We dine in the den of iniquities. But, at the same time, young black artists have so much more visibility than ever. You cannot even compare when you first moved to New York City to now.

TA But a large percentage of this visibility has to do with work that is image based, which perpetually issues from, and reinforces, this behavioral ceiling of possibility which is a defining feature of brand black entertainment—an easily consumed, assimilated, and even imitated product, no matter what the degree of complexity it intends at the outset.

SB This is one of the things I find most disappointing in the contemporary art world’s approach to viewing the work of black, Latino, Asian, and other hyphenated Americans, regardless of their subject matter—that it misses the quintessential Americanness of these artists! This opportunity to understand the depth and complexity of being an American is often missed due to the comfort and laziness of “othering” and convenient categorization. It’s a conundrum. When I was in the advanced-placement art classes in high school, learning how to oil paint in a room with six or seven other students who were all white, we were doing portraits. Mine happened to be black because my subjects were the people from my neighborhood. My teacher stopped me around the third assignment and asked me, “Why do you only paint black people? Why don’t you paint others?” I’m like, Why aren’t you asking anyone else in this room to do that? And what difference does it make? It’s still paint. There was something about her unease or “dis-ease” (laughter) in not being able to see eight portraits of black people without wondering why there were only black people! I was a kid! I use that as an example to say that there is something that is expected of us and there is something that is accepted by us. Work that conveniently fits into that “black” box and represents that quota has a different visibility and permeation within the art-industrial complex right now.

Terry Adkins performing in Ghettobird Tunic during Biggers's Conundrum at The Kitchen, New York, April 17, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

TA Well, let’s not enact the same injustice by belaboring the point. Back to your fall shows: what will you be doing at SculptureCenter?

SB There will be between six and eight new works: drawings on repurposed quilts, sculptural installations, and the premiere of a new video that I just shot in Brazil last year under the auspices of Creative Time. None of the pieces are completed at this point. The ideas are at the intent stage. The production stage will inform how the show ends up looking. I still do a lot of the fabrication, and outsource some things. I can only speak in a nebulous way about the show because the works haven’t grounded themselves in the physical yet.

TA In your overarching vision of the entire experience, do you see any real-time activities included?

SB To be determined. I have been invited to do something performative for both, and I’ve had to delay exactly what that would be because I really have to take care of the physical first. In terms of the overall effect of the SculptureCenter show, I’m interested in the historical, physical, technological, metaphorical mash-up, and the non sequitur. I don’t want the pieces to be burdened by a specific grounded polemic; I want them to be a platform for several ideas to swirl around. So that the pieces don’t get thrown into that postmodernist-slash-post-black bag but can be expansive and generative, experimental. They are new works to unleash more new work.

TA Japanese culture, by virtue of your immersion via language, must be a large influence on your thinking. That is Shinto’s animism and the embedded philosophical premise that produces a rock garden rather than a movement such as minimalism. Given all of these influences that you have had in your life experience, could you summarize your subject and the primary impulse of your work?

SB A more appropriate comparison might be the Japanese rock garden versus European classicism. I bring that up because my second language was actually Italian, when I lived there to study art. So my third language was Japanese, and the transition from learning Italian to learning Japanese was very important because when I approached Italian it was a word-for-word translation, flipping in my head the English into Italian or the Italian into English. Learning Japanese, I was confronted with words that existed in one language and didn’t necessarily exist in the other. Translating them literally made no difference, because they didn’t directly translate—

TA It made no difference or it made no sense?

SB It didn’t exactly drive the point home. It was an approximation. I had to not translate, but instead learn what the expression was and the responses to that expression in Japanese with no mediation into English. Some 20 years later, I’m applying that shift of linguistic approach to my own creative impulses. The idea starts the process, then takes its form, and no longer do I want to make a translation between the process and the final form. I am bypassing the initial impetus; it’s already in there somehow, so the direct translation is not important. It’s more about building on that idea. Then you asked what my work is about?

TA What is the general subject, the crystallization of everything that you do?

SB I think it is the mining and navigating of historical fact and symbols. Trying to make sense of the impact they’ve had on me as an American, and as a citizen of the world. That would be the first step. Once I have grappled over that for myself, how do I make work that doesn’t get stuck in that backward-looking process but creates a third entity that becomes a gateway into a deeper or new understanding or envisioning? Imagining and utilizing the past’s information.

TA How closely does this dichotomy—being black and being an American—relate to W.E.B. DuBois’s theory of double consciousness?

SB It’s the mentality and the psychology that I was born into, and I have utilized it, wittingly or unwittingly, throughout my life. But we’re no longer in this sort of binary code of black and American, white/black. There are other things in that mix now—whether it’s gender, or preference, or linguistic ability, or social status, or economic class, or education. The classical binary, although it still permeates, I’m ready to let go.

TA There are those who would say that these very things you mentioned have displaced the ongoing frontline struggle for civil rights that our parents were part of. Some would say that other concerted efforts toward a free society are modeled on that original template and have, in a certain sense, usurped it. In light of that, can you really say that you’re ready to let it go?

SB Yes. I’m ready to let it go because I’m being optimistic. The reality of the situation is that, regardless of how people think it may have been usurped, it’s a convenience that progressives can tout, and, yes, I want to be on that boat too. But the plain fact that I can walk out anywhere in Manhattan and potentially not get a cab, or get pulled over by the cops, or sweated by the legal system, like, He was six foot one, dark skinned, between 20 and 50, wearing a black hoodie . . . That not only describes me, it describes you, and everybody else we might know.

TA I don’t wear hoodies, for that reason. (laughter)

SB And when that hard reality hits, it’s a reminder that it’s not always that cut-and-dried; it’s not a foregone notion. But I am being optimistic and not letting the gravity of history stagnate me.

TA You’re also a teacher, and you mentioned earlier your having entered art as an educational experience. Your introduction to it was within that context. With your MASS MoCA show, is there an educational mission?

SB Absolutely. To promote American history.

TA And to balance the historical ledger.

SB That’s why I refer to it strictly as American history. This is beyond the binary to me. This is shared, or it should be shared.

TA You’ve managed throughout your career to maintain impressive and ongoing avenues for exposure at a lot of different venues all over the world, and yet hardly any of them have been in the commercial arena. Is this a deliberate choice on your part?

SB It was not a totally conscious decision but it might be due to either my stubbornness or shortsightedness. When I came out of graduate school I was showing at alternative, noncommercial spaces and, thankfully, I got recognized, and seen, and made great relationships with artists, collectors, and curators who have been able to consistently promote my work. The first few galleries that did approach me, I didn’t feel then that I was ready yet, because I was still determining who I was as an artist and still experimenting. I didn’t want to be channeled into a certain lane where I had to produce certain types of work to maintain the machinations of a gallery. I am totally open to working with a gallery, it just has to be the right one. I’ve always been disturbed by the willingness of artists to relinquish creative, independent, artistic power, which is the backbone of the art-industrial complex. I don’t know. Luckily, people were looking at the work and wanting to show it, so I’ve been able to survive and work that way. Also being an academic, I’ve found ways to sustain myself when the work wasn’t necessarily moving. And the work does move, and then sometimes it doesn’t; as an artist you sign up for that potentiality.

TA Your three exhibitions seem to me an ideal situation for anyone to approach you. So you think you’re ready for it now?

SB Very ready.


—Terry Adkins is an artist, musician, and activist. With his performance unit, Lone Wolf Recital Corps, he has performed widely in Europe and in the US. The Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, will host a 30-year retrospective of his work in 2012.

Video art
Installations (visual works)
Performance Art
BOMB 117
Fall 2011
The cover of BOMB 117