Five University of Pennsylvania students have proven that an education can occur outside of the classroom – and that a hands-on experience can work artistic wonders.
At the Institute of Contemporary Art on Penn’s campus, these underclassmen have adopted the role of curator and organized an exhibition, “Each One As She May: Ligon, Reich and De Keersmaeker.”
The students -- Iris-Louise Williamson, Alina Grabowski, Chloe Kaufman, Vincent Snagg and Andrew McHarg -- participated in the Spiegel Contemporary Art Freshman Seminar. Directed by Gwendolyn Shaw, associate professor of American art at Penn, and Jennifer Burris, Whitney-Lauder Fellow at ICA, the class focused on the work of conceptual artist Glenn Ligon.
In turn, Ligon’s coal dust and oil stick sketches prompted the students to explore the creations of composer Steve Reich and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Due to this wide scope of study, the exhibition takes a multi-media approach, inclusive not only of drawings but also film and sound.
“Each One As She May” will remain in ICA’s Project Space until July 28. It is the fifth exhibition produced by students in the collaboration between Penn’s History of Art Department and ICA.
For Gwendolyn Shaw, the decision to study Ligon was not a difficult one. Asked to select a previous exhibition from the records of the Institute for the Spiegel seminar, she chose to revisit “Unbecoming,” a 1998 ICA showcase of Ligon’s work.
“It was an important show for me in my development as an art historian,” she says. “But Glenn’s work is [also] hugely influential on a new generation of artists.”
Shaw hoped to have her students engage with Ligon’s career as a whole, first and foremost appreciating his creative roots.
In order to better understand Ligon’s work as well as his rise to prominence in the art world, the five students investigated the archives at ICA, which Burris described as the “starting point” for the course.
Iris-Louise Williamson, a rising sophomore in the College who is working for the Institute this summer, explains that with the archives, “We could see what goes into making an art show, what goes into curation and what goes into the relationship between artist and curator.”
She notes that she and her fellow students were able to map the communication between Ligon and former ICA curator Judith Tannenbaum, which greatly aided their own curating process.
But Alina Grabowski, who interned during the second semester of the course with Rachel Pastan, editor-at-large of the Institute, says that the archives were also helpful in pinpointing the development of Ligon’s career.
“We did not want to recreate a carbon copy of what was in the exhibition before,” she says.
The students focused instead on how Ligon had grown since “Unbecoming,” so that the new show would more aptly reflect his current accomplishments.
Williamson explains that during the first semester, the class also worked with secondary texts, including those of James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein and Ligon himself.
“It was nice to hear [Ligon’s] voice in conjunction with the other stories,” she says.
But it was Stein’s story “Melanctha,” which proved most relevant to the exhibition: Ligon’s 29 sketches feature repetitions of the phrase “negro sunshine,” pulled from Stein’s narrative of race and gender.
“Glenn, as an African-American artist, as a queer artist, has used through his career sympathetic occurrences in other artists’ works,” Shaw explains. “He sees Stein as an antecedent for him, as a model, as an icon.” By repeating her language and terms, “he’s engaging that history of modernism.”
All of the students, as well as the two instructors, agree that the turning point for the course occurred when the class went to visit Ligon in his Brooklyn studio.
“It was very generous of [Ligon] to let five kids who he didn’t know into his studio, which is obviously an incredibly intimate space,” Grabowski says.
For three hours, the class walked around Ligon’s drafting table, studied unfinished paintings tacked to walls and questioned the artist about his process.
But the moment of revelation for the students seemed to come when Ligon played Steve Reich’s 1966 “Come Out.”
Reich, a composer of minimal music, includes tape loops and rhythmic separations. These techniques would call to mind Ligon’s own sketches, which move steadily towards erosion and illegibility. But it would also lead the students to explore De Keersmaeker’s choreography, which likewise features repetitive motions and abstracted cycles.
With the Ligon sketches selected and the works of similar artists in mind, the students began the actual curation process. Each was assigned to a particular area of expertise at the Institute, from programming to public relations. As a group and as individuals, the class members would answer questions of placement, lighting and more.
Chloe Kaufman, a rising College sophomore who will join ICA’s Student Advisory Board in the fall, says “the space was picked out for us, but otherwise it was very open-ended.”
Jennifer Burris explains that each final show should reflect the actual development of its curation: Ligon’s “series of drawings are all studies, about repetition, going over something over and over and over again. And that in a way mimics the experience the students had in the class.”
For the students, the curatorial process was the most difficult of the seminar, but they are also quick to emphasize that it was the most rewarding.
“They did a tremendous amount of work. They have much to be proud of,” Shaw says.
Like Shaw, the ICA is pleased with the collaboration. Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at ICA, says “ICA learns a lot from the students’ research about exhibition and our own history.”
The show itself is primarily contained within one space. The interactions in the exhibition between sight and sound are subtle: a darkened wall to the left upon entrance plays a Thierry De Mey film of De Keersmaeker’s choreography set to original Reich composition. Across the small room on a plain white wall are 28 of Ligon’s paper works. Set in the form of a square, the grouped sketches differ in abstraction and concentration – some with warmer tonalities, others with cooler colors. And outside of this sphere is a section devoted to the archives from which the students collected sketches, images and press material of Ligon’s 1998 exhibition.
Ligon voiced his praise of “Each One As She May,” Kaufman says.
“During the opening, he told us that because of our exhibition, he’s going to go back to Steve Reich’s work for inspiration.”
And for the students, that was the highest compliment.
In the fall, Shaw will be teaching another Spiegel seminar, focusing on Latin American art at Venice Biennale.
“These are not classes that are generally offered at other peer universities,” she says. “I think it exemplifies the Quaker attitude that we have about entrepreneurial education, giving students hands on and practical experiences about what it means to pursue different academic fields.”
Photos from the opening of the exhibition can be found here.