Sanford Biggers is a Los Angeles-raised artist based in New York whose arresting visual expression through mixed media has intrigued critics and audiences alike for over a decade. His most recent solo exhibition, The Cartographer’s Conundrum, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, was listed as one of the top 20 shows to see in 2012 by Artinfo.com. Other recent solo shows include Sweet Funk: An Introspective Survey at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2011) and The Cosmic Voodoo Circus at the Sculpture Center in New York (2011). His work has been featured in countless significant exhibitions across the United States and the world, including at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London, UK.
Biggers is the recipient of a jaw-droppingly long list of awards and grants and he has been given residencies in Germany, Poland, Japan, and Hungary, as well as all over the United States. He was just awarded the 2012 Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin (to take place in 2014). He earned an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999 and attended the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1998. He currently teaches at Columbia University.
This interview took place on a lazy Friday at the decidedly debonair artist’s studio in Harlem.
Were you a scribbling kid?
I scribbled, but I also used to run into a lot of problems in school because I didn’t pay attention in class at all. I was always hanging out with the bad kids. Although I was smart enough not to get too caught up. But the only classes where I actually paid attention were the arts and crafts classes.
Were you doing art at home too?
Not until my teenage years and then I started scribbling a lot more. I started doing graffiti, actually. That was very popular at the time – we’re talking the 80’s now. Rap music had come out, and break dancing had come out, and all of us just jumped into that as an art form. So I was breaking, I was DJing, I wasn’t rapping, but I was doing graffiti. I used to do graffiti on jeans. I would be in the back of the class and some girl would give me her jacket and I had my pens while the class was going on, she’d give me fifteen dollars and have an original artwork on her jacket….things like that.
Entrepreneurial, early. So, tell me about high school.
I started doing all the graffiti stuff in high school and I was, literally, sneaking out of the house and practicing graffiti somewhere in the neighborhood. I got busted once. That was a big issue of course. I had to cover that wall up.
Then I started going to a place called Pan Pacific Park and some train yards that are near the west side of LA. I’d go there to practice. There would be other kids there. I’d go with a crew and everyone was up there spraying until the cops came. Finally, I got nabbed by the cops while I was hitting up some place in an arcade and, obviously, got in a lot of trouble there. So I stopped. At least doing it outdoors. And I joined the AP art classes in school. I started doing oil painting.
That seems like an important shift. You could have gone either way there, right? So, what made you stop doing the graffiti?
I got busted! [Laughs.]
But a lot of people don’t stop there.
Well, I just got interested in other things, too. I mean, I would always hit up and tag and make little pieces in my notebook – I still do that today when I’m in faculty meetings – but as far as taking it out and doing it on walls, I became a little less interested in that.
And I was learning more about art and art history. And oil painting was just really attractive to me. That held my attention for many years. I used to stay after class – me and three other kids – and we would hang out with the art teacher and do art, every day, during breaks. It was a lot of fun.
Did you have any early exhibitions?
In my senior year I was asked to do an exhibition in the lobby of the school. I showed ten oil paintings that I had been working on.
Do you remember what that felt like, having your work exhibited for the first time in that kind of public way?
I remember feeling a lot of pride, that people could come in there and that I had done that. I guess it was sort of an extension of the graffiti thing. They’re still on walls and people are still going to see them, but they’re indoors.
Your family, how did they feel about you moving toward an artistic path? I’m sure they weren’t too thrilled about the graffiti.
No, they weren’t. But I was getting in a lot of trouble. I could have gone in any direction so when I got into art – you know I was staying up in my room at night, painting, and drawing and all that – I think my dad at some point was like, “Listen, he’s really into this thing. And if he doesn’t channel all that energy into something positive, who knows what’s going to happen.” Because of the neighborhood we lived in. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood at all; it was a black middle class neighborhood. But it was in a black enclave of various demographics of people. Helicopters were flying over the house at night. I had a lot of friends who got killed. I knew a lot of gangsters. So…they had genuine concern.
When that exhibition in high school happened, they thought, “Wow, he’s really got some talent.” These doors were opening up. After that [the exhibition], I got into a contest called ACT-SO. It was this program by the NAACP where they had contests in all the major cities—young black kids would compete in science, math, debating, music, art, so on. They called it an Olympics, basically. And I won an award for painting. They sent us all to Washington D.C. to compete in this big competition.
So, it was a huge deal. Not just how my family looked at it and what it meant in terms of what I was doing, but as an experience for me as a young man to travel to the East Coast, and to be recognized for doing something.
Was that your first exposure to other like-minded artsy types?
Well, I think it really started to take more effect when I went to college in Atlanta, to Morehouse. It is an all-black male university with a female school across the street, and a co-ed school down the way….you know, six all-black universities in one area.
What made you decide to go to Morehouse? Did they have a strong art program?
They didn’t even have an art program.
The thing was, my sister went to Harvard, my brother – who is eight or nine years older than me – went to Berkley. Education was a huge thing in our house. There was a certain amount of privilege and we had access to these schools, but we had to fight our asses off to make it to the Harvards and the Berkleys. My sister was at the top of her class, she was the head of her department, that kind of thing. But everyone was saying, “Oh, you’re going to Harvard because you’re black. That’s why you’re going. Not because you’re smart…”
So, I went to a black school. Because my parents went to black schools. Because my parents could only go to black schools. I didn’t want to be stuck in the same situation that my sister had been in, and then go to Harvard and get the same shit there. The shit I had already had going to the prep schools that I went to before going to the public school that I graduated from. I was like, “No, I’m going to go to an all black school, that sounds like a really unique experience.” College is about the relationships you set up. And that, as a foundation, was important for me to have.
Both my sister and brother have said that, had they had a chance to do it again, they probably would have done the same.
When you got to Morehouse and there was no art program, what did you do?
I had to take all of my art classes across the street at Spelman, which was the all-girls school. It sort of goes to show how conservative the school was, they didn’t really think that art was for men to be taking at that level – not to be majoring in for sure. Men should be focusing more on business, pre-med, law, that kind of thing.
So, I went to Spelman to take most of my classes. And, for some reason, I wanted to go to Italy for my junior year. I forget where that idea came from. I went to Florence.
Well, that is where all the art students go! Doesn’t seem so strange.
Yes, but I mean, why in Atlanta did I get the idea to go? Because no one was really doing that kind of thing.
There wasn’t an established study-abroad program?
No! There was no established exchange. But I had the privilege of going to London and Barcelona in my mid-teens. So, my first trip abroad was when I was fifteen, and I got the travel bug right then.
What was your experience in Italy like?
Fantastic. I was going to all the small museums all throughout Tuscany. Learning the language, hanging out a lot of course, traveling on a Eurail pass – I did that whole thing.
What did you do after graduating college?
I moved to Japan.
Wow. How did that decision come about?
The same thing. I got the bug. I had lived out of the country for a year and I was thinking: What’s next?!
I found out about the JET program, which is a Japanese Exchange in Teaching where they send native English speakers to Japan to team-teach with Japanese speakers. I applied and got it and went over there.
So you were teaching English. What was that like?
I loved it. I loved Japan. I had such a good time there. I think I was well prepared to be in a place like that because I already felt a little bit like an outsider in the U.S. Marginalized in some way. In my program, there were kids from the U.S. but also from Australia and England, New Zealand, and Canada. They would get freaked out. All of a sudden they didn’t have access to certain things or they didn’t have the same kind of entitlements that they were used to. They had to be humble, because to not be humble in that society is looked down upon. I was totally different. I felt like I had been out of place in America for my whole life. I have always had to know how to be able to switch, to figure out a place. So I got there and I flourished.
I was there for two and half years. I started to study the language and practice it a lot, and had a lot of Japanese friends. I could go days without speaking English, and it allowed me to see so many more layers of that society.
Asia has a whole different visual language and tradition, so that must have been interesting for you as an artist, especially after doing the archetypal Western experience in Italy. You were teaching, but were you able to also pursue your own artwork?
I did a lot of art while I was there. And I hung out a lot. I guess it was strange, but I was young. I had time. I didn’t have to sleep that much.
Artistically, there is a sensibility that I found in the East and particularly in Japan: the use of space, an economy of references, and economy of imagery. A balance, a compositional genius. I connected with it very, very quickly.
After your time in Japan did you think it was time to go to art school?
There was a little time in-between. I moved back to LA and considered myself a painter at that point. I was doing these linear, abstracted, graphic looking paintings that were very much influenced by what I had seen in Japan.
I was in LA and didn’t have any clue what to do in terms of the art world. I had a little studio that I made in my parents’ garage. And I was doing these painting. The only art outlet that I had was showing at the African Arts Fair at the local mall. You know, friends of the family would come by and say, “That’s great!” And then keep on walking. [Laughs.] I didn’t sell a thing at any of those.
Did you get a job?
Yeah. Oh shit! [Laughs.] If we are going to talk about jobs, I haven’t told you about my high school job yet!
So, tell me!
Oh man, my high school job…I worked at this place, it was a driving school. You know how people get tickets or DUIs? They have to go to school. So I was a receptionist at this school, fielded calls and that whole thing. But there were five, maybe seven schools operating from the exact same place. With totally different names. Each phone had a different name for which one it was. And these are phones. This isn’t some digital shit. And I would be answering them all at once, “Hello, this is Cooking driving school!” “This is Magic driving school.” “Hello, this is Comic driving school.” It was crazy.
And they were themed driving schools, no kidding. At the cooking driving school there was a guy cooking and you would have a gourmet meal while you were doing the lessons. Then they had a singles one where singles would come and people were trying to meet people.
Great pick-up stop. Plenty of eligible DUIers.
This is LA! At least they didn’t serve drinks. There was the magician’s one.
The teachers were doing magic tricks while they were teaching the driving lessons.
This isn’t true. This is crazy.
[Laughs.] It is true! I was in high school.
Yeah, you’re in high school thinking: this is what the real world is like?
It was ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous then, too.
Let’s go back to LA, to the job you got after you returned from Japan.
I was a job replacement specialist for the UAW. I was trying to place people who were victims of downsizing, businesses going under. Oh, it was so depressing. We had men coming in – largely men, middle-aged – and these cats are getting put back out there. There is a whole new generation out there, who have computer skills, who will work for less, all that.
At that job replacement agency I was working with this guy who I would never hang out with otherwise. And the shit we would do just to get through the day…
Oh my God…! Sometimes we would have to go on-site at places to try to recruit people. Where are people who are out of work right now hanging out so that we can give them some options? So we might be at the DMV or whatever. But sometimes we would get really creative and we would go to the racetrack [chokes up laughing]. We would take a lunch break and go and have drinks…Oh my God, I used to play hooky from work. Wow, this is horrible. Oh my God, driving around south central LA, stopping off at his baby’s mama’s house to watch TV and have her cook us lunch…And then go back to the job. It was just bizarre.
It was totally surreal at the time, too. I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” But it was better than being at the office. Three things I hated were: sitting at the office, the Sizzlers downstairs – where everyone had lunch everyday – and traffic on the freeways trying to get home. While wearing a suit!
Did you take the job as your money-making gig with the plan to work on your art in your spare time?
That was what I was thinking. But it was just so soul-draining. In fact, the first time I had dreads was in college and then I got rid of them. But by the first week in this job, I was like, “Oh God, this is what it is like being out there doing these kinds of jobs?” And I started to grow my hair out again right there on the spot! [Laughs.]
After that I went to a post bac program in Baltimore.
Why a post bac program?
Because I didn’t know anything about the contemporary art world. I didn’t know how to talk about my work on that level. I didn’t know any of the processes to showing.
At that point, you must have known that the goal was to go to art school.
Oh yeah. What happened was that when I was in LA, I was showing in these local malls. But there was also a network of black artists who were inviting me to be in shows. Like Varnette Honeywood, who I met because she went to Spelman and was very involved in the school. Her art was on the walls on the set of The Cosby Show. She is a very, very well known black artist.
One of the reasons I went to a black school was that I wanted to build a network. And that is what I did. Then Varnette introduced to me Leslie King Hammond, who is at Maryland Institute of Art, and we started talking. She said I should apply there and do a post-bac program. Then I went out there and did it.
After the post bac you went to graduate school in Chicago. What was that like?
Well, Chicago is a real city and they have a real art scene. There is no faking around there. Also, because it is in the Midwest, it doesn’t have the pretenses that New York or Los Angeles do. It was very straightforward.
Did you start to show your work?
I started showing pretty quickly. Nothing big. But I remember it being exciting. There was not really a gap between graduating and getting into that, so I was lucky that way.
You went to Skowhegan during the summer between your first and second year of grad school. What was Skowhegan like?
Some people hate it, some people love it. I loved it. But a lot depends on the collective vibe of the people there. And that is why it is so powerful. You are there for two months. And there are a lot of strong personalities, a lot of egos, a lot of networks, a lot of careerists. But, at the end of the day, all the artists there are very, very talented. That is a great equalizer. Like, here is this kid who hasn’t even gone to graduate school and he is making the baddest shit out there. That can happen there.
You do a great deal of collaborative work. Did that process of collaboration begin at Skowhegan?
Yes, at Skowhegan. Exactly. The piece I did for the Whitney Biennial in 2002 was from an idea and a collaborator from Skowhegan: Jennifer Zackin. In fact, we also went to the Art Institute of Chicago together.
What did you do when you finished graduate school?
I did residencies, mostly. I got to New York doing the Studio Museum residency and the P.S. 1 residency. I slept on the floor of my studio most of the time. And sometimes at my sister’s place, because she lived here [in New York]. I slept on her floor until I could get some financial thing going.
Or until she had enough of you…
[Laughs.] Yeah. To make money, I started bartending. I was doing a lot of music at that time too, so there would be music gigs here and there. I was doing a bunch of art jobs and piecing together checks. And then finally I got a job as the Co-Director of the outreach program at Cooper Union. That was a good gig. Better hours, better pay, no benefits yet though.
Looking back, who did you spend time with?
Some of my grad school friends, but ironically, a lot of my high school friends who had come out from LA. They all moved here. They are all in finance! The majority of the guys that I roll with are in finance.
When you are struggling on an artistic path and your old friends are in much more lucrative careers, it can get weird when you socialize because you can’t necessarily do the things they do. Did you ever experience that?
Yeah. That was the moment when that was the weirdest. But we were close and we ran hard – through high school, college, one of them was my college roommate that I had known since I was eight. You know. We have years. So it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been. Also, I had something I could bring to the table too. I was the arty dude so I knew about all the cool underground stuff that they didn’t know about.
But that was the time when the bottles thing had just started in New York. I would go places with these guys and they would just order in bottles of stuff. And I was like, “Are you kidding me?!” [Laughs.] That was weird. In fact, there was a point when I stopped going because I thought it got weird.
Oh, I know what you’re talking about. But there is also this element of: These people that you grow up with are making it according to the common idea of success that society has. What am I doing? Should I be doing something more like what they’re doing?
Yeah. I mean, I thought about it, but it was always very brief, it was always over in a minute or so. Because I’ve been doing what I’m doing for so long. And the way that it came into my life – I just have to believe that that is what I’m supposed to do.
So you always had faith that you had made the right choice?
What else am I going to do? Anything else would bore me to death.
That kind of conviction demands a certain bit of daring, and maybe a little bit of insanity too.
You have to work very, very hard for what you want to do. That in itself is maybe the job: working to make sure that you can do only what you want to do.
What is your idea of success?
I think I’m sort of doing it right now. I mean, there are certainly things I want to do and want to achieve, places I want to take the work, for sure. But I sort of see that on the horizon.
For me it always, always, always comes back to the work. That is the only thing that is real in all of this. Because anything that comes from it comes from the work itself. So that is what your main relationship is with. No matter how many outside influences try to make you think differently. This is the only shit that counts.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self that you think would have benefitted you to know at the time?
Don’t ever forget any of these moments, because it all adds up to something. Everything that happens is worth it, if you know what to do with it.
You teach now. What do you look for in your students?
Students who aren’t too easily self-satisfied, too self-congratulatory. I think some people compensate for all the doubt going around with extroverted displays of confidence. Also, I think they should be fearless. Really fearless. I don’t think they should be openly careerist. They are stunting their growth if they’re thinking about all that market shit.
Any advice you’d give your students?
Stop doing all those drugs. Get some sleep. At least sometimes. It is good for you. Figure out your voice. I know that is what everyone is trying to do, but don’t let other voices convolute your own voice.
But I wouldn’t want to give a student too much advice. Part of it is that they have to figure it out themselves.
What is the best advice you ever received?
I had just finished doing a lecture for class as a visiting artist at a school. My friend who had brought me there to speak, Terry Adkins, said, “Man, you know your stuff too well. You need to forget that shit.” Basically, he meant that I know too well what I’m doing, I need to not know what I’m doing.
I’m still working on that.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist