Oct. 14, 2021
The playwright has long been celebrated for her ability to write scripts with complicated characters and that address deep social truths. Now — with a new opera, musical, play, and film and an ongoing mission to reform her industry — she’s fully embodying the complexity of her work.
Once an artist becomes known for an individual work or series, she has a choice: Does she keep perfecting what has become her signature creation, or does she, with each subsequent project, reinvent herself anew, leaving her audience on edge with each new project?
There is no right way. The first path demands continual honing, shaping, burrowing: a never-ending pursuit of the elemental. The second requires the artist to become an explorer, forever hacking her way through various terrae incognitae. Neither is easy.
The four people we honor in this month’s issue represent both paths. On one hand, there is the fashion designer Anna Sui, who, from the start of her namesake line 40 years ago, has rendered in clothes the spirit — the silliness, the seriousness, the optimism, the energy, the defiance, the imagination — of the archetypal teenage girl. Her peasant blouses and flouncy skirts and inimitable palette have defined American fashion for decades: “The clothes she makes aren’t totems of some inaccessibly glamorous life but an invitation,” Ligaya Mishan observes. “To join the party, to be one of those girls, careless of time and most alive in a crowd, in the crush and heave of friends and strangers who by the end of the night will also be friends.” Then there’s the actress Juliette Binoche, who, as Sasha Weiss tells us, has spent her decades-long career examining vulnerability — how to convey it, how to feel it, how to let us, her viewers, feel it, too. Her ability to project tenderness is a bestowal, an act of generosity in, Weiss writes, “a moment when tenderness is in retreat.”
On the other hand, there is the visual artist and writer Glenn Ligon, whose oeuvre, Megan O’Grady writes, is “both an indictment and a kind of reframing of American history.” Ligon is catholic in his mediums — he uses paint, screen prints, sculpture, neon and text — but his work is united by its inquiry into what it means to be American: a Black American, a gay American, a Black gay American. The pursuit remains the same, but the work itself finds different forms of expression each time. And there is the playwright Lynn Nottage, whose very practice, Susan Dominus notes, involves “break[ing] open her role as an artist.” To that end, Nottage, who stepped away from theater early in her career to take care of her daughter and mother, has spent the past two years trying to explode things: Not just her own art but the very industry she calls home. Her work, then, is writing plays — but it is also writing operas and musicals and TV shows; and it is trying to ensure that the American theater scene makes room for Black artists and for women artists.
What all these people have in common, though, is the belief, explicit or otherwise, that a fundamental part of making art is an engagement with the greater world. Their conversation with the culture is what changes it — and changes all of us who encounter it, as well. No matter how they ask the question, they are always asking it; and in doing so, they invite us to ask it, as well.— HANYA YANAGIHARA
The playwright has long been celebrated for her ability to write scripts with complicated characters and that address deep social truths. Now — with a new opera, musical, play, and film and an ongoing mission to reform her industry — she’s fully embodying the complexity of her work.
The playwright Lynn Nottage has few regrets in life, but passing up the opportunity to learn upright bass is chief among them. She was, at the time of that fateful decision, a freshman piano student at the High School of Music & Art in New York, en route to becoming a different kind of artist from the one she is now. Required to study an orchestral instrument in addition to piano, she chose bass — but gave up on the first day of class. “It was all these guys who just snickered at me, and I thought, OK, just give me the flute,” says Nottage. “It’s, like, the biggest regret of my life.”
It’s safe to say that the creative path she ultimately followed instead of bass, instead of piano, has yielded an unusually rich life, one of powerful art and great professional recognition: Nottage is the only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, first for “Ruined” in 2009, a play about women survivors of the then-recent Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and again eight years later, in 2017, for “Sweat,” a play about factory workers in Reading, Penn., facing unemployment. It seemed clear she wasn’t so much taking her own life for granted as she was mourning a path denied her for the wrong reasons.
“It’s not a bad life,” says Nottage of her current one. She was, at the time, talking quickly, as she often does, but cooking slowly, caramelizing onions in the kitchen of her Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, brownstone. “But I’d have a different life … I’d definitely be in a band.”
That day in July, Nottage moved around her home barefoot, with the intentional tread of someone who has spent many hours doing yoga; that practice, and a new focus on meditation, has kept her grounded through the worst hours of Covid-19, as well as those following the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Like so many people, Nottage was still emerging from the shock of the previous months and taking stock of what was to come. The past year and a half limited some people to their most familiar habits and rituals, their circles shrinking to the people they knew best; Nottage, however, found herself in another camp, among those who found the stark change in circumstances challenging but liberating, an opportunity to consider new possibilities, to confront old choices and systems and question their merits.
Nottage has always been a playwright of exceptional range, both in subject matter and tone, casting her eye on the endangered lives of elephants (in “Mlima’s Tale,” produced in 2018), the thwarted ambitions of Black actresses in film (in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” first staged in 2011) and the struggles of the working class in early 20th-century New York (in “Intimate Apparel,” which debuted in 2003). She is known for creating exquisitely crafted and humane works of theater that lure the audience into reconsiderations of compelling, timely concerns. But she is also — unbeknown to even some close collaborators — deeply musical; she is by training an activist, someone who started her working life at Amnesty International; and she is a kind of journalist, not just because she produces documentaries along with her husband, the filmmaker Tony Gerber, but because of her playwriting process. She frequently conducts interviews, sometimes for years, before starting to write, as was the case for both “Ruined” and “Sweat.” Curious and calm, Nottage is well suited to the role of reporter. She credits meditation with helping manage her anxiety, but just enough worry plays around the corners of her mouth for her to remain relatable.
She is committed, she says, to continuing to break open her role as an artist. “Artists, you know, we get compartmentalized not by our own desires but by the powers that be, who decide ‘this is the kind of artist that you are’ and ‘this is the kind of art you are going to make,’” says Nottage. “And it becomes, over time, really difficult to push back. As I get older” — she is 56 — “I have this desire to be more free-range, kind of like the world is becoming. Everything’s up for grabs. I’ve been writing plays for the last 20 years. Should I only be seen as a playwright? That’s not the full extent of who I am.”
As the New York theater scene fumbles forward in its new, uncertain phase (Broadway only reopened for performances in mid-September), Nottage has wasted no time in capitalizing on the space that uncertainty has opened for reinvention. She was one of the most high-profile figures among the original 300 theater workers — playwrights, actors, directors, administrators — who signed a much-discussed June 9, 2020, open letter, “We See You, White American Theater.” Although Nottage hadn’t initiated the project, she strongly agreed with its demands calling for greater diversity, including the hiring of at least 50 percent people of color in every aspect of theater — from marketing to leadership to casting — and the rethinking of structures that perpetuate racism (such as unpaid internships and leadership roles lacking term limits). Just as the first theaters were starting to open this June, she co-conceived, at Manhattan’s Signature Theater, a project called “The Watering Hole,” promoted as an “immersive experience.” Nottage, who was then an artist-in-residence there, opened up her own production slot to 17 young creators, a diverse group who took over nearly every inch of the space — including the dressing rooms and some hallways — to produce socially distanced art installations.
This fall, Nottage has several new creative endeavors, including the reopening of “Intimate Apparel” at Lincoln Center Theater, now an opera based on the play that first earned her widespread recognition. For the project, Nottage ventured into unknown territory, writing the libretto and collaborating with the composer Ricky Ian Gordon. She’s also finishing the book for the musical “MJ,” based on Michael Jackson’s life, which is scheduled to debut at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater in December. And in November, a new play, “Clyde’s,” set near Reading at a sandwich shop staffed by five formerly incarcerated workers, will open at Second Stage Theater. The play is unflinching about the difficulty of moving forward after prison but also contains a series of semi-whimsical aphorisms about art that seem to reflect Nottage’s current mind-set. “What I find is that you gotta surprise yourself with an ingredient that shouldn’t work,” says Montrellous, a cook whom the others at the shop admire for his culinary gifts. “Think about that challenging flavor that’s gonna defy expectation and elevate your sandwich.”
‘To interpret Lynn’s work, you have to drop all your vanity and use all of your muscles to go to all your uglies, all of your pain, to all of your monster and to all of your beauty,’ says the actress Jenny Jules. ‘And then maybe you are skimming the surface of the depths of the power of this woman’s creations.’
In her kitchen that afternoon, Nottage focused her attention on the vegetables she was prepping for a kuku sabzi, a Persian frittata she seasoned with turmeric and no small amount of berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend. The kitchen hasn’t been renovated, she warned me ahead of time, and there was no air conditioning. But it, like everything else in the 150-year-old house, seemed to have a rich, worthy history: there was the 90-year-old cast-iron pan, once her grandmother’s, into which Nottage was heaping cauliflower and onion; the paintings by Black artists (Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden) that her parents started collecting in the ’60s and ’70s; the warm yellow lighting that her husband made a point of perfecting.
Nottage grew up in this home, at a time when Boerum Hill was still solidly working class, on a block that was racially mixed but more Black and Latino than white, the reverse of its current composition. Her own parents were, she says, “strangely interesting people,” civil servants, but also well-traveled intellectuals, lovers of art and music who encouraged their young daughter to see plays at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn or by the Negro Ensemble Company at Manhattan’s St. Marks Playhouse. Her mother was a public-school teacher; her father, who graduated from Columbia University, worked as a psychologist for the state but saw his career cut short by a fluke accident that left him bedridden for many years (he lived with Nottage until he died in 2017). Nottage, one of two children — her younger brother is an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn — was a bookish girl, a worker who babysat five days a week, who sat on the stoop with her friend and neighbor Jonathan Lethem, the now-esteemed novelist, and tried to make sense of the stories of all the people whose lives were half-exposed, half-hidden in the life of their shared city block.
In 1997, Nottage moved back into the brownstone. “It was a very difficult time,” she told me. At this point, she was a playwright with momentum following “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” a play set in the 1950s that’s told from the vantage point of a Black teenage girl from the American South who has just moved up north with her family following the death of her mother. Nottage was traveling around the world, pregnant, trying to raise money for “Side Streets,” a film on which she and Gerber, now 58, were collaborating. And then she was forced to slow down. “I had just — I had lost the baby at six months,” she says. “All that was really traumatic. The day I learned I was losing the baby, my mother — I still remember this call — I called to tell her I was losing the baby, and she said, ‘I was about to call you to tell you I’ve been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.’ I remember the two of us crying — we couldn’t speak.” Nottage made a rueful attempt at the sound, an exaggerated, sorrowful boohooing, and summoned a small, sad laugh.
Before she returned to the house to take care of her mother, who died later that year, she had to oversee a production of “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” — which had originally debuted in New York in 1995 — in California. “I was still grieving, and my body was recovering … no one talked about it,” she says. When she got pregnant again soon after, others told her she was so brave: “I thought, ‘What do you mean, I’m so brave? People have children all the time.’” The American theater industry, she felt, was ill-equipped to deal with mothers, one more challenge that she, as a woman, as a Black woman, would either have to meet — or address by forcing the industry to change. Instead, she took nearly seven years off from mounting and writing plays, devoting herself largely to the care of her mother and her daughter, Ruby, now 24 and a recent graduate of Brown University (which Nottage and her husband both attended, as well; they also have a 12-year-old son, Melkamu). The time away did not derail Nottage, as it does so many artists: In 2003, she premiered “Intimate Apparel,” inspired by photos of her great-grandmother, a seamstress in early 20th-century New York. It brought her a new level of acclaim and has become one of the most produced works in American theater.
Since then, Nottage has modeled new paths, as a mother and playwright in theater, as well as in her role as a professor at Columbia, where she has taught since 2014. And yet her greatest legacy may be the iconic roles for Black actresses she has created. Miranda Haymon, a director who co-created “The Watering Hole” with Nottage, says that “Intimate Apparel” was a crucial part of her education and experience in theater — that there weren’t many contemporary roles that she could fully embrace as a young Black woman studying drama in college. Indeed, few characters of any race can compete with Esther, the heroine of that play, for complexity and pathos: She starts out lonely but dignified, ultimately risking self-abnegation in the hope of romantic love, without ever losing the empathy of the audience. “From a theatrical history standpoint, we don’t get to see Esthers all the time,” says Haymon. “And I mean that in terms of race and gender and protagonist.” The play represented a paradigm shift for regional theaters, many of which recognized, following the popularity of dozens of productions of “Intimate Apparel” nationwide, that the work of Black playwrights, including Black women, could, in fact, succeed.
Nottage’s work has always focused primarily on working-class people, and often working-class people who are Black; there is nothing elitist about her plays, which are unfailingly accessible. She is in many ways a traditionalist — her productions are generally staged in proscenium theaters, with narratives that are intricately woven but never abstract. At the same time, a postmodern sensibility inflects her work, so that it feels novel and fresh, even when her plays are set in earlier eras; one can detect the sweep of Tennessee Williams in “Intimate Apparel,” but there is also, in many of her scripts, a comic wit and pacing natural to someone who grew up watching sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” and “Cheers,” as Nottage did. In 2004’s “Fabulation,” even the stage directions are funny (“I’m listening,” a fast-paced P.R. executive tells a dissatisfied client. She isn’t, clarifies the script in parentheses). In “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” which features 1930s-era movie scenes within the play, Nottage mixes fake documentary footage with segments from a television talk show and sends up the language of art criticism, as academics in the second act give commentary on events that the audience has watched unfold in the first.
But while her plays’ structures aren’t challenging, the material often is, both for the performers and the audience: Nottage’s story lines have included hate crimes (in “Sweat”) and violent rape (in “Ruined”). Jenny Jules, who played Mama Nadi in the latter when it opened at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2010, considers Nottage’s work among the most difficult she has taken on. Mama Nadi is a survivor, a savvy businesswoman willing to make cruel bargains to do the best she can for those she loves in the inhuman circumstances of war. “To interpret Lynn’s work, you have to drop all your vanity and use all of your muscles to go to all your uglies, all of your pain, to all of your monster and to all of your beauty,” she says. “And then maybe you are skimming the surface of the depths of the power of this woman’s creations.”
Nottage’s sense of story may be innate, but her characters’ complexity stems from her deep commitment to research. She began working on “Sweat” following the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in September 2011, which made her question how economic stagnation was shifting the American experience. She chose Reading, a postindustrial town 60 miles from Philadelphia with a population of around 88,000, because it was the poorest city of its size (and within driving distance of New York). Nottage ultimately spent two and a half years interviewing people there, returning time and again, with her assistant, Travis LeMont Ballenger (now one of the producers of “MJ”), to understand better the resentments and longings of people whom globalization was leaving behind.
The characters in Nottage’s plays are human, sympathetic and usually deeply flawed — misguided in ways that have devastating consequences for themselves and those around them.
She recalls walking into a bar on one of her early trips and feeling profoundly uncomfortable, as an outsider and a woman of color. “It was like the Wild West,” she says. “We walked through the swinging doors, and everyone went silent. That was the toughest place I’ve ever been.” A bar fight was underway; someone was snorting cocaine off a table. She and Ballenger left moments after arriving — until Nottage told Ballenger they had to go back. When they did, Nottage struck up a long, in-depth conversation with the bartender. The result of those years of research, which started long before Trump even ran for office, portrayed the racial tensions that explode when the privileges of white working-class America are no longer assured. But the play also highlighted, with empathy, the ways that the failures of the American dream have devastated people across color lines.
The characters in Nottage’s plays are human, sympathetic and usually deeply flawed — misguided in ways that have devastating consequences for themselves and those around them. But at least one person onstage tends to be superb at what she does, whether that is running a bar, creating beautiful lingerie or designing the world’s most deliberate sandwiches. “For so long, Black women, even when they were at the top of their game, had their skills overlooked,” says Nottage, explaining why she is so drawn to representing talent. “You could be exceptional and still not be seen at all — be totally invisible.”
After leaving the onions to caramelize, Nottage next turned her attention to chopping parsley, the kind of lowly task that a guest in her kitchen would ordinarily feel safe taking on — except that Nottage did so herself with so much care that any other method of chopping parsley would seem not just rushed but wrong. She carefully separated every sprig from the bunch, then separated the leaves from the stem with a knife, as if the respect for the greens would enhance their flavor. (“I can taste your impatience,” Montrellous, the head cook at Clyde’s, tells a young colleague who tries to impress him by adding what she calls a special sauce to her latest sandwich.)
“Clyde’s” picks up where “Sweat,” the first of Nottage’s plays to go to Broadway, left off — it’s not explicitly a sequel, but it includes a character from her previous play who landed in prison and is now trying to move forward. In the new show, the characters’ lives unfold as if set in a maze with nothing but one blind alley after another, leaving them to wrestle with lingering burdens (drug addiction, a dead-weight ex, a criminal record) and without an obvious way out. Kate Whoriskey, the play’s director — who first started collaborating with Nottage in 2003 on a production of “Intimate Apparel” at Center Stage in Baltimore — says that while the new play is grounded in class and racial inequities, she can’t help but see parallels to the lives of so many people who walked away from punishing jobs during the upheavals of Covid-19. “One of the major thoughts behind it,” says Whoriskey, “is that people can escape toxicity in favor of the complete unknown.” Even if their lives are upended, even if they don’t know where they are headed, “they have faith in another possibility.” For her, “Clyde’s” is yet another play in which Nottage has captured a cultural moment before it becomes obvious to the wider public.
Later, as Nottage waited for the kuku sabzi to cook, she spoke about the previous 18 months — and the various traumas she knows will continue to shape her work. “I mean, the first level for those of us who are people of color was the murder of George Floyd,” she says. “It ripped off the Band-Aid and exposed the wounds that had been there for so long.” For her, the cultural moment that followed provoked a deep evaluation of her field that felt essential and also exhausting. “It was not only seeing it but sort of reliving every trauma through that experience that you had — and just what it means to push back finally with all of your energy and all of your body, which is what happened, when I was like, ‘Enough is enough,’” she continues. “And then once that happened, examining and interrogating institutions that you’re part of and looking at the ways in which those have diminished you and harmed you.” For years, she says, she has tried to collaborate with other creative people of color — the American director Seret Scott, for example — only to be told by the white men in power that those figures were not experienced enough, not capable enough. “I can go on and on about the things that I encountered when we tried to push back against these institutions that are so rigid and inflexible, in terms of whom they deem worthy of access,” she says.
She recognizes her own exceptional success, but even that comes with responsibilities that have weighed on her. Part of what she was re-examining, she says, was “your complicity in allowing yourself and others to be harmed.” She had tweeted out the “We See You, White American Theater” manifesto with a strong endorsement: “The American narrative is shaped by storytellers, but for too long the white theater community has negated, censored or prevented our stories from being fully told,” she wrote. “Our goal,” she says now, “is to change the theater ecosystem.” Often, she adds, “when people do things they love, they don’t consider the fact that they are being exploited. It’s difficult even for working actors to make a living, people who are actually onstage performing every week. It’s unconscionable. I’m a successful playwright, but to pay my mortgage and send my kids to college, I have to take a full-time teaching job.” Writing for television is another option — but even that, she notes, is only newly available to most Black writers. “As a woman of color, I just had no access,” she says. “People were not interested in my stories. I remember pitching things, which now would be a slam dunk, where people’s eyes glazed over.”
That afternoon, as she cooked, Nottage seemed especially preoccupied with a screenplay for a movie she had been working on for 20th Century Studios about the story of Barbara Jordan, the first Black congresswoman from her Texas district (famous for, among other contributions, a stirring speech in defense of the Constitution that she delivered to the House Judiciary Committee during Nixon’s impeachment trial). A civil rights leader who some critics felt was too ready to compromise, Jordan also never fully disclosed the nature of her decades-long relationship with a woman. Her life, which was cut short, does not build, as Nottage puts it, “toward a triumphant finale in any way” — a vindication, a rousing speech, a vanquishing of her less enlightened opponents.
As Nottage spoke, she seemed to be thinking out loud, working on one project (her screenplay) as she was focusing on something else (the meal, an interview). Her daughter later told me that, in the middle of watching some reality television show, Nottage will suddenly start jotting down notes for a project of her own, as if inspired by the drama unfolding in front of her. In one day, she might be working on the Barbara Jordan screenplay in the morning, making notes on a new play that afternoon and revising her libretto for “Intimate Apparel” that evening. “Working on one project becomes a way of procrastinating about the other,” she says, “depending on how they are all going.”
Of all her current projects, the most challenging — in the sense of its professional risks, and how to craft a play in light of that — has been writing the book for “MJ.” Jukebox musicals are rarely known for their memorable books; the subject, too, is inherently controversial, given the accusations of child abuse against Michael Jackson that have been detailed in the 2019 documentary “Leaving Neverland,” by the British filmmaker Dan Reed.
“It’s written,” she says. “But musicals are really written in rehearsal. You don’t know what you have until it’s up there.” The musical is set in 1992, during the two days before Jackson embarked on his “Dangerous” tour, which was ultimately canceled following his confession of addiction to painkillers, which he attributed to the allegations of child abuse. “Part of the reason we make art,” Nottage says, “is to lean into the complexity of the stories and characters we’re exploring, and I think that Michael Jackson is no different.” The play does not pretend to know exactly what transpired between Jackson and his accusers; its project is the question of art, not of guilt. “It’s not my place to be judge and jury,” says Nottage. “My job in this process is to decipher who he is as an artist.”
By then, the kuku sabzi had been taken out of the oven and placed on the dining room table, alongside a salad. The dish was satisfying, more complex than a frittata, of a loftier height, and one light wedge of it after another disappeared. Yet Nottage still worried: Did it have enough salt? She could keep making it better, if she paid close enough attention.
The director Bartlett Sher, who is directing the “Intimate Apparel” opera, compared Nottage and her quest to change theater to the playwright George Bernard Shaw, one of the most paradigmatic exemplars of the institution as it was. “She has a great ability to not just sculpt character but build ideas,” says Sher. “Shaw really articulated the big forces beyond those characters, and that’s always true of Lynn — her characters are of the world and of life, but there is always a larger political, human, social question being asked, that’s demanded of everybody onstage and in the audience.”
The true artist, one of Shaw’s characters proclaims in 1903’s “Man and Superman,” is a person who “will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at 70, sooner than work at anything but his art.” But Nottage — who stepped away from theater for many years, in part to raise a family — has not only produced remarkable pieces but helped change the institution itself by demonstrating a new way, one woman’s way, of being an artist. Another of her upcoming projects connects her work in opera with her work as a mother: She and her daughter are collaborating with Gordon on an opera called “This House,” a ghost story based on an impressionistic play that Ruby wrote as an undergraduate. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world,” Shaw also wrote, in “Maxims for Revolutionists,” published in 1903. “The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Nottage has been forging her own path in theater for so long that that way has come to look reasonable.
After we ate, Nottage gave me a tour of the lush backyard garden, with beds or pots growing four kinds of tomatoes, string beans, eggplants, sprawling strawberries and bushy rosemary, all of it flourishing under the sun in a yard where, Ruby said, she had recently stumbled on two hidden wells that Nottage then remembered from her own childhood.
We had started making lunch late in the morning, and by now it was late in the afternoon. Nottage, seeing me to the door, seemed to feel it was necessary to apologize for a meal that came together more slowly than she had anticipated — and also to defend it. “I’m someone who doesn’t mind taking the slow road,” she tells me. Later, by text, she elaborates: “It doesn’t really matter if you get there first, if you know you’re going to get there eventually. And the art will be better, for having observed and enjoyed the process along the way.”
Hair: Susan Oludele. Makeup: Ernest Robinson. Set design: Jill Nicholls. Digital tech: Tre Henry. Photo assistants: Chris Rigueur, Rashida Zagon. Manicurist: Akane Awaji Mikhaylov at Susan Price NYC. Set assistants: Todd Knopke, Jay Jansen. Tailor: Iris Taborsky Tasa. Production assistant: Ryan Riley. Stylist’s assistant: Charles Ndiomu. Maharam’s Cotton Velvet in Fuchsia. Maharam’s Alloy in Baltic. Textiles courtesy of Maharam
Quite possibly the most captivating — and elusive — performer of our time, the actress has built a career around a seemingly endless exploration of what it means to be human.
As I approached the corner where I was to meet Juliette Binoche, I felt weirdly tearful — as if she and I shared some difficult history. I’d never met her, of course, but I’d binged on her movies in preparation for writing about her, and they were terribly moving, even a little wounding. This is not because of anything cruel or meanspirited in the roles she chooses but because of the clarity with which she gives expression to hidden feelings: neediness; the intense desire to push past the boundaries other people put up; the anguish, experienced maybe most acutely by middle-aged women, of being relegated to the category of the unseen. Binoche risks so much nakedness onscreen that, watching her, it’s hard not to feel somehow exposed yourself.
A scene from one of her recent films, 2017’s “Let the Sunshine In,” directed by Claire Denis, kept replaying in my head as I thought about the affecting mixture of vulnerability and strength that Binoche so often embodies. Binoche plays an artist in her 40s, Isabelle, who moves from one unsatisfying love affair to another. The men she gets involved with are more prone to toy with her emotional readiness than to reciprocate it. And yet she enters into each relationship with an almost religious commitment to the possibility of lasting passion. After finally dismissing one of her particularly callous lovers, she finds herself at a nightclub with some artist friends, being lectured by one of them (a man, naturally) about how she should open herself to sex during periods when she isn’t in love. Her face is tight and distracted, her eyes scanning the room, looking for a way out of the conversation.
When Etta James’s “At Last” comes on, she floats onto the dance floor, taken by the music. She closes her eyes, tilts her head, begins to sway. Her beautifully articulated lips part. She seems, somehow, both self-contained and inviting. Suddenly, as if summoned, a stranger takes her into his arms. The comfort of his touch floods her being and, for the duration of the song, reality has changed: They are a couple, trusting, united, turned on. Their dancing is so intimate, it’s almost shocking. How can someone so wounded be so open to experience? Isabelle is desperate, but she is not only that. She’s also deeply connected to herself. She knows what makes her feel good, and feeds her own hunger without hesitation. Her life experiences, though painful, seem only to reinforce her commitment to entering into contact when it’s offered.
That this moment could provide both discomfort and relief, that it could hold so much contradiction, is a testament to Binoche’s amplitude as a performer. Isabelle is one in a long line of Binoche’s complicated women. In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988), the film that brought her to international fame, she plays Tereza, the often-betrayed lover of Daniel Day-Lewis’s libertine doctor, Tomas, with a grave innocence that, as a friend texted me recently after watching it, makes you feel verklempt with tenderness and concern.
But as with most of Binoche’s vulnerable characters, Tereza is never pitiable. This is partly because of the quality of Binoche’s beauty, which, even when she is crying, or pouring a drink, or begging a lover not to go, is stately and radiant. Yet it’s also because of her quick changeability, the sense that the women she plays, like the people we know in life, are irreducible. Throughout her career, she’s chosen roles that hold emotional extremes in equipoise: grace and wildness, glee and misery, self-consciousness and freedom.
“She’s been in the best films that were ever made since we’ve been alive,” the actress Kristen Stewart, who co-starred with Binoche in the 2014 film “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” told me over the phone. “Every time I watch her, I’m laughing out loud about how I don’t really think there’s anyone better than her.” Stewart explained that this is because “there’s something about her that has intimidating integrity. There’s no way to generalize about the types of characters she plays because they’re so nuanced and run the gamut of variation. But there’s something about her … she looks you in the eye and tells you something. She’s so honest.”
Binoche, who is 57, has, in the last decade or so, taken even steeper risks. When she was young, she was more easily recognizable as a type — a deeply charming gamine who invited protectiveness, a descendant of Audrey Hepburn and Jean Seberg. In her 40s and 50s, though, she has seemed uninterested in charm and its rewards, engaging instead with a more profound self-inquiry. Her characters, as they must, are aging with her, and Binoche today seems intent on investigating all the new layers that accrue to a person as they grow older. Her women — a spoiled adult daughter in 2008’s “Summer Hours,” a mysteriously dissatisfied single woman in 2010’s “Certified Copy,” a mentally ill sculptor in 2013’s “Camille Claudel 1915,” an actual mad scientist in 2018’s “High Life,” a catfishing divorcée in 2019’s “Who You Think I Am” — are dealing with varieties of loss: loss of love, loss of stature, loss of a parent, loss of identity, loss of fertility, loss of attractiveness. The last decade of her career makes an ongoing argument that older women are abundant, maybe the most abundant, subjects, even as it insists on the universality of weakness and disappointment. Binoche invests these performances with the paradoxical sense that mastery and self-exposure go hand in hand.
Binoche had just arrived in Atlanta to film HBO’s true-crime series “The Staircase,” and had suggested meeting outside a bike shop near a wide walking trail that cuts through the city’s Inman Park neighborhood. It was a hot day in mid-August, and I waited for her in a scrap of shade cast by a skinny tree, wondering whether her generosity onscreen might be made possible only by holding herself at a distance in real life. But as soon as I saw her striding up the street, smiling in instant recognition, it was obvious this wasn’t the case. Even from half a block away, she gave the impression of quick reactivity and presence. Seeing my mask, she called out that she had forgotten hers, and turned back around to get it. When she returned, we fell into step on the paved trail.
She’d just finished shooting a film, “Paradise Highway,” in Mississippi, in which she plays a truck driver who gets caught up in human trafficking (Binoche wouldn’t say more), and would be filming in Atlanta for five and a half weeks. I asked her if she always liked to be this busy.
“I wouldn’t call myself busy,” she objected. “More creative than busy.”
“What’s the difference for you?” I asked.
Busyness, she explained, is like “trying to fill up empty space,” whereas being creative “pushes you up into a space where you feel alive and present and discovering and revealing yourself.”
She spoke about her pleasure in work and the pursuit, in each project, of some new emotional climate, both for the character and for herself. She’s always trying to catch “the wave of desire.” Sometimes, when she’s studying for a role, she makes a map of the character’s emotional arc — “The map is about hope,” she said. “Where are the highest hopes and where are the lowest hopes?” — and, in “Paradise Highway,” she needed to keep referring to it. The shoot was hard — very hot, nearly three months, with multiple locations, many of them gas stations and truck stops. She’d been exhausted, a frame of mind she often tries to push through but then regrets having done so: Exhaustion can be a block, and she needs to walk on set in a receptive state, to be so thoroughly prepared that she can invite serendipity. “There’s a magic that belongs to the shooting itself,” she explained. “It’s a combination of the relationship with the director. The combination of the day, the temperature, your mood, your ability to be open, if you’re tired or not, if you’re in love or not in love, it changes a lot of things.”
I pressed her about whether it ever felt compulsive, the drive to work. I was thinking of the sheer number of films she’s made, almost 70 since the early ’80s, and the fact that she had four come out in the last two years, with three more in production this year.
“Compulsion?” she asked, seeming baffled by the premise of the question, that enjoying work was somehow fraught or neurotic. “The joy of creating is that it’s not painful,” she said. “There’s a lightness in it. It doesn’t mean that certain films are not difficult — because sometimes it is very difficult — but at least you try something new. I think the key for me is going to places you’ve never been, not only for yourself but for the audience, as well.” Later, she said: “I don’t think there’s a big difference between being present in life or being present on film.”
We were both sweating, and Binoche seemed relieved when I suggested that we take off our masks. As she removed hers, she smiled, and seemed to quickly assess my face, as if it would reveal something. She then said a warm “Hi.”
When I asked her how this desire for newness had expressed itself lately, she talked about “Who You Think I Am,” her film that was released in the United States in September, whose fundamental theme, for Binoche, is abandonment, a condition she’d always wanted to explore: “Because it’s so unbearable to feel abandoned.”
‘The joy of creating is that it’s not painful,’ Binoche says. ‘There’s a lightness in it. It doesn’t mean that certain films are not difficult — because sometimes it is very difficult — but at least you try something new.’
Binoche plays Claire, a literature professor in her 50s, who, a few years after being left by her husband for a younger woman, poses online as a 24-year-old and gets entangled with a younger man, texting constantly, talking on the phone, planning meetings that never materialize. There’s a startling scene of Claire, ventriloquizing her alter ego’s breathy voice, having phone sex and bringing herself to an ecstatic orgasm. It’s filmed inside a car, very close up, and Binoche’s delirium is devastating. Later, after the affair has imploded and she is exposed, Claire narrates the events to a therapist, circling her motivation, alternately trying to evade and to understand why she would indulge this fantasy.
“The desire for eternity, the illusion of eternal youth. We all want to distance ourselves from the prospect of our death,” the therapist suggests.
“I’m OK with dying,” Claire says, with a flicker of comedy, but then her face contorts as she allows herself to say the words “but not with being abandoned.” The camera watches her patiently as tears pour down her face and she inclines her head a bit toward the therapist, asking to be understood. She then adds, with unmistakable pathos and truth, “We are never too old to be little. I needed to be soothed, to be taken care of, even with delusions.”
Binoche explained that she had been the one to propose the line about being fine with dying but not with being left. “Because it meant so much to me, and I think when you relate that much, then you don’t have to act. It’s just you.”
She remembers these feelings of abandonment from childhood. Binoche was born in Paris, and when she was 4, her parents — her mother was a teacher, director and actress; her father, a director, actor and sculptor — sent her and her older sister to a boarding school where her grandmother was working as a cook. For one period, she didn’t see them for an entire year. It was a foundational time for her, something she’d spent her life trying to heal from and to understand — but also, she emphasized, to make use of.
She didn’t feel resentment, she insisted, “because, first of all, I did some work, and told what I had to say” — I gathered she meant in therapy, which she did intensively for a time in her 30s — “and also because love takes over.” Her mother and father were young, she explained, they were political, they didn’t have money and they had just separated. She could now sympathize with her parents’ predicament, having raised two children of her own (she has a son and a daughter, both in their 20s, with different fathers; Binoche has never married). “They wanted to have a life somehow, because it’s true, when you have kids, you have to juggle so much.” Binoche remained close to her father and admired her mother, who later raised her and her sister. “She gave me a lot of roots with books, music and films and theater because she was just interested in that.” They would travel for hours just to see a play when they lived in the countryside.
Still, this early abandonment was her particular pain, and therefore a wellspring of possibility. When someone is so readily forgiving of their parents, it’s easy to think they’re still protecting them, too afraid to confront their flaws. But Binoche gave the opposite impression — it was the feeling that she’d visited this early suffering so often and so deeply that it had become material for her, something she’d held in her hand and bent and stretched and successfully transformed.
It was by now stiflingly hot, and we agreed we should get out of the sun. We ducked into a teahouse at the side of the trail, a cozy place with a large selection from all over the world, that Binoche said she’d scouted out for us the day before. She ambled around the shop, peeking into glass containers and studying what was on offer, before ordering a Pu’er tea from China, which prompted a nod of approval from the barista, who didn’t seem to recognize Binoche. No one did that day, not even the young woman with long braids and a shirt tied at her torso who had set up a camera stand for her phone in the outdoor seating area and was beginning a selfie-taking operation that was to last for over an hour. The lack of attention didn’t surprise Binoche; she’s an internationally famous actress with an Academy Award (for her role as a nurse in 1996’s “The English Patient”), but people often can’t place her, or mistake her for someone else they know.
Today she was dressed in a kind of athleisure incognito: black exercise pants and a peach-colored T-shirt, sunglasses, her hair pulled half-back, no makeup. But something in her physicality would be recognizable to anyone looking closely. There was an alertness to her expression, a definitiveness that, when in motion, recalled her most iconic characters: Tereza in “Unbearable Lightness” gliding through a swimming pool; Camille in “Camille Claudel 1915” striding determinedly around the asylum that she hoped would someday release her.
I kept asking her, in different ways, how she allows herself to be so vulnerable onscreen. She was relaxed in her chair, her eyes darting quickly, almost imperceptibly, back and forth, as I’d often seen them do in close-up, searching for the answer. She described a process of submission: She prepares and prepares and prepares — mastering the script, sometimes doing intensive research, summoning memories, locating them in her body, making diagrams of emotion — until she doesn’t have to do anything. It is an almost mystical emptying out that allows her to become filled, suddenly and frictionlessly, with whatever feeling was required. But more than anything, she explained, what gave her courage was the joyful feeling of trust she often has with the directors.
She compared it to the relationship between a parent and a child. If the parent is not telling the child what to do, is not monitoring them, is not frightened, “the child grows in his own way.” The very best directors, she said, the ones who can “see everything,” know how to cede control. “They leave you, they know how to leave space” for you to flourish in your own talent and capacities. But later, in an email, she described the relationship as one of equals. “The eye of the director becomes my inner eye,” she wrote. “It is an eye that reveals (not judges). I can go far, when I’m trusted. But that same eye can also be turned back on the director, for him or her to see differently, as making a film is like walking together, searching together, becoming one (in the best case). Not knowing who’s directing and who’s being directed.”
Binoche has long been sought out by — and has actively partnered with — auteurs, and though there is a consistency in all her performances, a certain density of feeling, each one of them has uncovered a different aspect of her abilities. In “Code Unknown” (2000) and “Caché” (2005), Michael Haneke capitalizes on her prickly sensitivity. In “Camille Claudel 1915,” Bruno Dumont uses her girlishness as a kind of weapon in a story about a middle-aged woman entrapped and driven mad by her past. In “Summer Hours” and “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” Olivier Assayas invites her to play accomplished women with large egos whose brittle shells are pierced. In “Certified Copy,” Abbas Kiarostami takes her capacity for emoting and puts it into overdrive, so that what is real and what is acting become confused. And in “Let the Sunshine In” and “High Life,” Claire Denis zeros in on Binoche’s sensuality, discovering both freedom and chaos.
Denis told me over the phone that Binoche is “solid as a stone.” She said she trusted her immediately, that it was “the trust of camaraderie and solidity. And the strength. There is a way sometimes, if I wake up with anxiety, of course I will think, ‘OK, I can lean on Juliette.’ She’s always there. The entire movie can lean on her.” Which is why, Denis explained, she can ask Binoche to play characters who put themselves on the line: “Because if you’re not strong, you don’t dare. She’s vulnerable because she’s a daring woman.”
Many of Binoche’s women seem unable to accept the unbridgeable distance between two consciousnesses, and throw themselves, continually, against a wall. Binoche described a similar hunger to dissolve boundaries between herself and others, and told a story about working on “Blue” (1993) with the revered Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, in which she plays a woman grieving the sudden death of her husband and child in a car crash, and trying to discover a way to go on. She was anxious about getting into character because the costumes were too conceptual. “The costume director, you know, was going through different blues, and it was so intellectual. And I was feeling, ‘This is not working for me because it’s too on the nose.’ And [Kieslowski] agreed, so we had to change it at the last minute and it was like a week before, and I was worried, and Kieslowski said to me, ‘What are you worrying about? Don’t be worried. You know, I’m only interested in your intimacy.’”
She didn’t understand what he meant at first, but then, on the first day of shooting, during a scene in which her character, who is herself injured, lies in bed watching a televised broadcast of her husband and daughter’s burial, “the camera was inside my bed, me crying like crazy. And then I realized, OK, now I know what he means by that, by the intimacy. Because he couldn’t be closer. He was like that, in my eye.” Since then, she has had a special affinity for close-ups: “I’m more aware that if the camera comes closer, somehow, the director wants to be closer. And so it touches me. They want to see what’s inside.”
Binoche in close-up is a marvelous thing. The essence of her beauty, in recent years, is its inwardness. There is a churning behind her face. I thought of Alice Munro’s short stories when I watched Binoche, the way she often writes about how wayward and rich and deviant thoughts are beneath a placid surface. (“People’s lives,” as Munro puts it in the 1971 story “Lives of Girls and Women,” “were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”) Binoche, in 10 seconds of looking straight into the camera, offers the tantalizing suggestion of thought made visible, of a woman carefully observing her own inner shifts.
A marked lack of vanity is part of what makes this transparency possible — as well as a disinvestment in the idea of preserving her youthful beauty. Binoche seems to be in near-absolute control over her charisma. Her beauty is classical — dark, responsive eyes; dark hair, usually worn bobbed and tousled; heart-shaped lips that widen into a smile that seems to radiate from deep within her. She is poised and unperturbable, and no matter what role she is playing (and she is still, in her 50s, cast as women who could be in their 40s), you don’t want to look away from her. But she’s never gaudy and rarely hypersexualized (which is different from sexual, which she often is), and is also capable of looking so desolate and stricken that you can clearly see the marks of time and experience on her face. It’s rare to watch an actress embrace, as Binoche has, her own changing body; she finds it deeply funny, as well as sad. “It’s such an absurd situation,” she said, reflecting on aging. “Why do we need to change? Why on earth do we need to change, why are we turning gray and having wrinkles and getting easily fat? It doesn’t feel fair, and it feels absurd. But there’s part of me that is laughing about it inside, and also who likes to defeat that joke.” It’s as if, in collaboration with the camera, she is operating a lighting system that can be brightened or dimmed at will.
Binoche’s career has coincided with, and to some degree presaged, cultural shifts that have expanded the possibilities for women and the characters they play in film and on TV. In 2021, the messy woman reigns. She defies feminine ideals of pliancy and consideration for others; she’s often self-absorbed and given to outbursts. She pursues sex avidly if it appeals to her, but may be just as likely to masturbate, or to treat her partners with as much fickleness and even contempt as men have traditionally treated women in the movies. Her appetites (for food, sex, drugs, attention) often rule her, and we’re asked to admire her for indulging her whims, for opposing stereotype, for being funny and vain and unpredictable and often unlikable, in addition to being occasionally generous and possibly brilliant. Think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s title character on “Fleabag” (2019), Sandra Oh’s detective Eve Polastri on “Killing Eve” (2018-present), the women of “Broad City” (2014-19), Issa Rae’s Issa Dee on “Insecure” (2016-present) and Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2018. We now reward this quality of realness.
But it has also given rise to new stereotypes. These performances get painted with the sheen of politics, so that misbehavior, or id, or vengefulness are jumbled together under the label of empowerment. The critic Beatrice Loayza, writing in The Baffler about the 2020 film “Promising Young Woman,” a rape-revenge fantasy with a slick and twisted variation on the ungovernable woman, posits a new female archetype: She is “messy but empowered; unstable yet brilliant; ruthless with men and in solidarity with women; finally winning, because she’s suffered so much.” Loayza suggests that, as a result of attempts to push back against the idea that women are victims, an antivictimhood has taken hold, calcifying into a kind of armor.
Binoche’s work cuts against this sense of defensiveness, the idea that vulnerability is really a form of power. What would it mean, she seems to be asking, for women to show themselves in moments of complete defenselessness? Not physical danger, but emotional danger that may or may not be resolved, nakedness that isn’t rewarded? There’s something radical in her capacity for tenderness, at a moment when tenderness is in retreat, something remarkable about her transparency, when many of us carry on an elaborate performance of self on the internet, advertising our accomplishments and projecting wit and moral certainty. Vulnerability — though it is supposedly prized as an antidote to toxic male behavior — is actually still a rarity, onscreen as in life.
Maybe the next phase of liberation for women and their fictional alter egos is total unguardedness. Binoche’s work, in its now-decades-long investigation of complex women, has offered a model for this possibility. She shows what it’s like to take women seriously, uninterested in coating weakness or sadness or aging or loneliness with a compensatory sheen of something else. What would it be like to just be? Binoche, in front of a camera, has come as close as possible to attaining that level of freedom.
“That’s the contradiction,” Binoche said. “That you have to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. Because you need to have holes in order to make the light come through.”
Hair by Tamas Tuzes using Dyson at L’Atelier. Makeup by Holly Silius for Sisley-Paris. Set design by Stacy Suvino. Produced by Hen’s Tooth. Digital tech: Travis Drennen. Lighting tech: Ariel Sadok. Photo assistants: Tre Cassetta, Ken Schneiderman. Manicurist: Elaine Davis at the Spin Style Agency. Tailor: Amanda Edgerton at the Spin Style Agency. Stylist’s assistant: Megan Mattson
For over 30 years, the artist has been making work that speaks to American history — ambiguous, open-ended, existentially observant. At a time in which the fundamentals of fact and fiction are being questioned, his art captures the truth of a culture in decline.
On a wall in Glenn Ligon’s studio in Brooklyn, there is an astonishing 10-by-45-foot diptych bearing the entire text of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village.” It is rendered in Ligon’s trademark style: painstakingly stenciled black-on-white letters partially covered with a layer of coal dust, which adds both weight and shimmer to Baldwin’s sentences. (“From all available evidence no Black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came,” the essay begins.) During a visit to the studio in May, the words “American soul” leap out. One strains to describe the impact of Ligon’s work in metaphoric language: His art provides its own language; it is its own metaphor. But the feeling he imparts is a kind of force field, asking us, as Baldwin did, where we stand, and where our bodies stand, in space and time, in relation to a history we share but, as a nation, upon which we do not agree.
This new painting is a culmination of a brilliant three-decade-long career — a bookend of sorts, as Ligon puts it. In 1996, he made his first “Stranger in the Village” painting, stenciling fragments of the essay on a gessoed canvas with oil stick, black on black: a visual play on Baldwin’s words, the blackness literally hard to read. (On the other side of Ligon’s studio is a black-on-black triptych of the complete text.) The essay, one of the writer’s most famous, recounts his experiences at age 27 in the hamlet of Leukerbad, where he had been staying with his Swiss boyfriend while finishing his first novel. “It did not occur to me — possibly because I am an American — that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro,” he writes. The alienation Baldwin evokes is total, the simple racism of the village becoming a lens through which he sees with fresh clarity the more elaborated and systematized version of it back home.
“In the beginning, it was not only wanting to be with Baldwin but wanting to be Baldwin,” Ligon tells me when I ask how his relationship with the writer has changed over the years. “This intense identification with his queerness, with his Blackness, but also his engagement with what it means to live in America. In some ways it’s less about the specifics of the words, because I’d always taken his words and made them abstract.” Now that Ligon is 61 and one of the most celebrated artists of our time, he says it took him this long to be able to confront the text of “Stranger in the Village” in its entirety. “I’ve only used it in fragments for the last 20 years,” he says. “And maybe I feel like — calling Dr. Freud — this is a moment where I could tackle that in my work. The literal enormity of the text, in terms of its physical size but also its panoramic-ness, its breadth, its depth, you know?”
Ligon has in many ways inherited Baldwin’s mantle to become the foremost philosopher on race and identity in America. Like Baldwin, Ligon was making intersectional work long before it was commonplace outside of academia to think in such terms. (The Black law professor and theorist Kimberlé W. Crenshaw created the term “intersectionality” in 1989, the year before Ligon’s first solo show, to describe the ways in which our overlapping social identities, including our gender, caste, sexuality, race and other factors, influence our experience of the world and our position within it.) When Ligon made his first “Stranger in the Village” painting — on the other side of the civil rights movement from Baldwin’s original writing — he’d been creating paintings with stenciled fragments of text for several years; in 1989-90, when he had a PS 1 residency at the Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan, he began covering the white-painted doors he found there with the words of Zora Neale Hurston (“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”), the repeated statements gradually dissolving into illegibility and opacity. The mantralike repetition evoked an entire psychology, an inner dialogue that blurred into a kind of fog of being. He confronted viewers unambiguously with what it meant to be a Black figure in white space, but more than that he seemed to unearth the unspoken consequences of the failure of human beings to read and know one other.
Looking at the work in Ligon’s studio, I wonder what Baldwin would have made of our current moment. There’s no question that we’ve become savvier about inequality, more aware of how our bodies are positioned in a hierarchy of value: our opportunities, cultural authority, health and finances contingent upon attributes over which we have no control. And yet, at the same time, the inequities defined by race and class have only intensified, and willful obfuscations have proliferated. As I write this, it’s the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents burned and looted what was then one of the country’s most prosperous Black communities, killing hundreds and displacing thousands — an incident still missing from most American history textbooks. The newspapers report daily the latest voter suppression law being enacted, or the newest effort to undermine teachers. It’s not that we haven’t learned anything from this past, exactly; it’s that, rather than setting a course for redress, the response is denial and outright delusion.
‘It sort of drives me crazy when people say, “Oh, the work is so timely,” ’ Ligon says. ‘Antiracism is always timely.’
Ligon’s art is often both an indictment and a kind of reframing of American history. He has worked across a wide range of media, in addition to writing the kind of criticism and curating the kinds of shows that revolutionize canons. He isn’t a painter of the human form, and yet bodies — desired, objectified, pathologized, policed and pitied — are central to all of his work. His 1988 “Untitled (I Am a Man),” often considered his first mature painting, was inspired by signs carried during the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, when more than a thousand Black workers demanded higher wages and increased rights. Even this early piece suggests the elements that would become his signature: the visible painterly touch, the iconographic black on white, the reverberations of the past in our present. But at its core, the work’s central phrase — “I am a man” — is an anguished existential assertion. In this way, Ligon is obliquely present in many of his paintings, his identity filtered through mediated perceptions and narratives. For his 1993 show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., titled “To Disembark,” Ligon was inspired by the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 shipped himself from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia in a bid for freedom, submitting his body to the terms of his objectification in order to escape. Ligon placed a set of wooden crates in a gallery and paired them with audio tracks, among them Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” her classic, haunting 1939 song about lynchings of Black people. The exhibition also included two print series, “Narratives” and “Runaways,” in which Ligon recreated period documents, more or less putting himself in Brown’s place. For “Runaways,” the artist enlisted friends to write descriptions of him as if he were a missing person and they were talking to the police: “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8″. … Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you.” The more descriptions one reads, the more the personhood in question slips away, leaving a set of projections and abstractions.
Even when the human form is explicitly shown in his work, it serves as a mirror, a refraction of social takeaways rather than a single-pointed critique. This was the case in Ligon’s contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, “Notes on the Margin of the ‘Black Book,’” an installation in which he framed pages from Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1986 book of eroticized photographs of Black men, sandwiching between them commentary from a host of sources, conservative and literary, foregrounding the various fears and fantasies projected onto these men’s bodies. (Among this commentary was a portion of Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”: “… it is one of the ironies of Black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the Black man to be, the Black man is enabled to know who the white man is.”) A watershed exhibition, the 1993 Whitney show was at the time reviled by much of the predominantly white and male critical establishment (the critic Robert Hughes called it “one big fiesta of whining”) — centered, as it was, on race, gender, sexuality and power. Ligon’s work, which spoke to all of these things at once, suggested the extent to which concerns over marginalized identities would shape art for years to come. When, in 1998, he made a clever double self-portrait, a pair of silk-screens on canvas, a homage to Adrian Piper’s iconic “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” (1981), he titled it “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features and Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features” — the joke, of course, being that the two photographic portraits were nearly identical.
In revisiting Ligon’s landmark works, I’m struck by his boldness — a quality he generally isn’t given credit for, perhaps due to his wariness of didacticism, skepticism of simple takeaways and preference for open questions, complexity and ambiguity. In Ligon’s appropriation of texts, I’ve thought I recognized a fellow introvert’s form of intimacy, a deep engagement with the words of forebears in the absence of actual mentors. But it also seems true that reframing the thoughts of others allows Ligon to express himself in a different register through the ventriloquism of art, as with Ligon’s work on Richard Pryor, whose voice he first heard as a teenager listening to the comedian’s albums on his cousins’ stereo. Brash and profane where Ligon is thoughtful and cool, Pryor inspired Ligon’s 2007 exhibition “No Room (Gold)” at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, which featured 36 gold canvases with Pryor quotes stenciled on them in black. (“No room for advancement,” Pryor jokes about the racism he has been subjected to. )
Ligon doesn’t shy from the fact that desire and objectification, power and sex are all a tangle. (In the 1993 version of “Notes on the Margin of the ‘Black Book,’” Ligon includes a personal exchange with his white boyfriend at the time, who confessed to having been asked if he was “into dark meat.”) Over the years, a question Ligon has been confronted with is whether he considers himself to be “a political artist” — a question that now seems preposterously naïve in its presumption of neutral ground. When I mention it, he chuckles. “When I first started showing in the ’90s,” he says, people would say, “‘Oh, your work is about your Black identity.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not a well that you just dip in and drink from.’”
Baldwin was always reminding us of the ways in which our moral lexicons are inseparable from our aesthetic ones. In one agonized passage in “Stranger in the Village,” he writes that even the most illiterate Swiss villagers have a claim on Western culture that he doesn’t. The inherited weight of an entire history of problematic representation is subtext to Ligon’s practice. Back in the late 1980s, he intuited the way semiotics — the academic study of symbols and what they signify, rooted in the human impulse to make meaning out of abstraction — might relate to racial prejudice, the way we essentialize people based on their skin color, as well as other characteristics. The inadequacy — and, often, outright manipulation and politicization — of public language and official narratives has a profound human cost. We all know what happens when phrases, events, even people become abstractions, reduced to signifiers, such as Ronald Reagan using the term “welfare queen” to rally his right-wing base, or the way in which critical race theory has become a straw man for a conversation many white politicians are afraid to have. As a young painter thinking about how to make the work he wanted without leaving too much of himself outside of the studio, Ligon found a mode of expression that exposed the tired binaries of abstraction versus figuration, of conceptual art versus painting, but also of the personal versus the political, as though these things haven’t always been complexly intertwined.
The centerpiece of Ligon’s 2011 retrospective at the Whitney, “Glenn Ligon: America,” was a 2009 neon work, “Rückenfigur,” in which the letters in the word “America” are reversed. The title, which refers to a pictorial device in which an artist includes a figure seen from behind, contemplating a landscape — a figure with which the spectator might identify — asks us to consider America itself as a makeshift construct, an unfinished argument. During the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, Ligon saw a TV report of a teenage boy whose home had just been bombed by U.S. forces telling a reporter that America needed to live up to its promise. Ligon was struck by this. “America just bombed the [expletive] out of your city, but America’s still held up as this ideal,” he said.
Ligon has also discovered the downside of being a skilled semiotician in our virtue-signaling age, finding his work posted on Instagram by historically white institutions in facile displays of racial awareness. After the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was criticized for posting an image of one of Ligon’s works, “We’re Black and Strong (I)” (1996), a silk-screen painting depicting the crowd at the Washington Mall during the Million Man March in 1995. The museum later posted an apology after comments pointed out the moral laziness of an institution leaning on a Black artist for commentary rather than issuing a statement of its own. A few days later, after Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, used an image of one of Ligon’s 1992 etchings featuring text from Hurston in a letter to the museum’s members, Ligon himself spoke up on his Instagram feed: “I know it’s #nationalreachouttoblackfolksweek but could y’all just stop. … Or ask me first?” (The Met later apologized.)
Such digital-age exploitations point to a longer history of American art institutions’ superficial engagement with Black art. The idea of these institutions only paying attention to Black artists in moments of trauma or anger is all too familiar to Ligon, who knows what it means to be the token artist of color at the fund-raising dinner, or to be grouped in shows in which only artists of color appear, as though art made by African American artists were somehow on a different shelf, or relevant only during Black History Month or after the latest atrocity. “It sort of drives me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, the work is so timely,’” says Ligon. “Antiracism is always timely. Or, ‘Well, you have to excuse that because he was a man of his time.’ I’m like, ‘So was Frederick Douglass.’ I mean, Trump, he’s a man of his time, too.’”
Ligon’s curatorial work has pointedly underlined the call and response across art history’s exclusionary and arbitrary barriers. For his 2015 show at Nottingham Contemporary in England, “Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions,” he contextualized his own work within that of a range of other artists with whom he has found affinities, both elders (David Hammons, Jasper Johns) and contemporaries (Cady Noland, Kelley Walker). In 2017, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, he used a 2001 Ellsworth Kelly wall sculpture originally commissioned for the foundation, “Blue Black,” consisting of two painted aluminum panels, as a jumping-off point for a show full of intriguing juxtapositions: A cluster of portraits, including a 1963 silk-screen painting of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol and Lyle Ashton Harris’s 2002 blue-tinted photograph of himself dressed up as Billie Holiday, became a conversation across time about who appears where and how. Ligon positioned his own 2015 neon work “A Small Band,” which reads “blues/blood/bruise,” the words taken from the testimony of a Black New York teenager savagely beaten by police in the 1960s, so that one could see the Kelly sculpture’s blue and black through it. When I ask Ligon how he decides, in history’s vast panorama, where to turn his attention, he’s silent for a moment, considering. “That’s an interesting question,” he says, explaining that he sometimes feels as though he has a kind of “chronological dyslexia” because of the way in which history can feel so present tense. “I guess I remember things that are attached to an emotion,” he concludes.
It’s tempting, for the critic seeking autobiographical through lines, to create a portrait of the artist as a stranger in the village, making his way among highly insular schools and institutions to became a leading artist of his generation. And in fact, that’s all true, if obviously reductive. Ligon’s story began, fittingly, with letters on a page: an alphabet exercise he made short work of as a bright kindergartner in the South Bronx. “The next day, my mother got a call from the principal at the school asking her to come in for a conference to talk about the fate of her children,” Ligon says. (His older brother, Tyrone, was also gifted.) Ligon’s mother was a nurse’s aide at the Bronx Psychiatric Center and was separated from his father, who worked for General Motors. “She couldn’t afford private school,” Ligon explained. “But she said that during the conference, one of my homeroom teachers said to her, ‘Well, your kids might be smart here but in a real school they would probably just be average.’” “Here” was a public school in what was then the poorest congressional district in the nation. But it’s also where, as Ligon points out, the Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the urban planner Majora Carter grew up. He was once asked in an interview what it was like to have grown up “in a cultural desert,” and Ligon laughed. “I said, ‘Ever heard of hip-hop?’”
In calling around, Ligon’s mother found the ultraliberal Walden School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was eager to diversify its student body. On field trips, Ligon went to SoHo, where he saw Andy Warhol’s paintings and ate brown rice and tahini for the first time at Food, the restaurant founded by artists including Gordon Matta-Clark. His mother didn’t want him to become an artist — “We didn’t know any artists” — but his talent was apparent, and she sent him to after-school programs in ceramics and drawing. Everything in these years was an influence on him, from Grandmaster Flash playing D.J. sets in the parking lot downstairs from the family apartment to the elaborate lettering of the graffitied subway cars he rode to school. While his older brother was athletic and gregarious, Ligon was bookish and shy (he identified with Spock on “Star Trek”); most of his friends lived over an hour away by train or bus. When his mother made them go outside to play, he would take the elevator to the first floor — they lived on the 11th — and wait in front of the maintenance workers’ office, where there was a clock. “I would sit in front of that clock for an hour and then go back upstairs,” he says.
At around 14, he found himself entranced by his uncle Donald’s white vinyl boots. “White vinyl was the frontier of masculinity,” he writes in an essay included in his 2011 collection of selected writings, “Yourself in the World.” “It signaled that the wearer was unconcerned with trivialities such as gender and sexuality, that he had reached higher ground.” After persuading his mother to buy him a pair, he found the effect not quite as he’d wished. (He’s since found his style: On the day we spend together, he wears a crisp navy Comme des Garçons shirt, picked out by Luca, the 7-year-old son of the gallerist he used to show with in Japan, and large glasses that strike me as the perfect framing device for his face, imparting both gravity and irony in equal amounts.)
Books opened another realm of possibility. When we meet, Ligon is reading Frank B. Wilderson III’s “Afropessimism” (2020) and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World” (2015), but he started out with the books and set of Encyclopaedia Britannica his mother kept on the shelf. (While giving me a tour of his studio, Ligon points out that small wooden bookshelf, which now sits in a studylike area and is filled with an assortment of items: a sage bundle, books on Pier Paolo Pasolini and Cy Twombly, a drawing by Luca and an etching by Goya.) In high school, one of his English teachers held an after-school poetry workshop at his home in the West Village, on Christopher and Bleecker Streets. Downtown, Ligon discovered writers like Audre Lorde and Octavia Butler at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first gay and lesbian bookstore in New York; he remembers hearing Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka performing spoken-word poetry. He liked the punk band X (Cervenka was one of the vocalists), but also the Pointer Sisters; Joni Mitchell, but also the Sex Pistols and John Coltrane, and this stylistic range would help inform his later appropriations.
It was while studying at Wesleyan University that he first read Hurston and Baldwin seriously, in Robert O’Meally’s African American literature course. O’Meally, a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance, invited Ligon, whom he knew was an art major, to a lecture by the painter Romare Bearden at Yale. “We’re waiting for the lecture to start and this guy comes out wearing coveralls and stuff and starts adjusting the microphone, and I’m still looking for Bearden,” Ligon says. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, that is Bearden.’ But later on, I thought, ‘I have so little imagination about what a Black artist looks like that even when they walk to the podium, I can’t imagine it because they just didn’t exist for me.’ … So, yeah, it was interesting, that lack of imagination about the thing that I was starting to want to be, but I had no role models for it.”
In time, Ligon himself would become an essential generational link connecting the Black abstractionists of the 1960s and ’70s to the art being made now, but when he was still an artist in formation, people like Norman Lewis and Beauford Delaney — Modernist painters who challenged us to think less rigidly about modes of visual representation — weren’t even part of the conversation. When I tell Ligon I share his fascination with Delaney, a gay bohemian who, like his friend Baldwin, found a certain sense of liberation in Paris, Ligon shows me a haunting watercolor by the artist hanging in his studio; painted on a trip to the South of France that Delaney took with Baldwin, it shows an abstracted figure on a beach, the sea a band of blue sandwiched between the glowing yellow sand and sky. The catalog for a 2020 exhibition devoted to Delaney and Baldwin’s relationship at the Knoxville Museum of Art included two personal letters of tribute from Ligon to Delaney, who died in 1979: “In your paintings, the line between figuration and abstraction is always porous. That has inspired a similar fluidity in my paintings, which often turn text (a kind of figuration, I suppose) toward abstraction.” I sense that the influence might also be spiritual, rather than strictly aesthetic: a queer Black predecessor who was unflinching in the way he saw the world, an intensity matched by few painters of his time. Ligon agrees, explaining that he’s also moved by the painter’s friendship with Baldwin, who was only 15 when he found a kind of role model in the older artist. As Delaney’s mental health began to deteriorate in the 1960s, Baldwin became the steadying hand that allowed Delaney to keep turning out remarkable light-filled paintings. I can’t help but wonder how Ligon’s work might have evolved differently had he had someone like Delaney in his life.
In an interview with the artist Byron Kim for the catalog of the 1998 show “Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Ligon said, “I had a crisis of sorts when I realized there was too much of a gap between what I wanted to say and the means I had to say it with.” At the time — the mid-1980s — Ligon was a student at the Whitney Independent Study Program, the museum’s prestigious curriculum in arts education, where he lasted one semester before, he says, he was asked not to come back. Conceptual work was at the forefront, much of it using appropriated imagery or text: Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler and Yvonne Rainer all taught at the Whitney ISP. Meanwhile, downtown, the famous painters of the time, including David Salle and Julian Schnabel, were operating in a very different mode from the Abstract Expressionism Ligon loved. He had to reach back a bit further to find what he needed: Jasper Johns’s stenciled letter and number paintings, Philip Guston’s swivel from abstraction to figuration and Cy Twombly’s lyrical graphomania. (It seems not coincidental that Ligon was also working as a legal proofreader at the time.)
While at the ISP, he began overlaying text appropriated from porn magazines over beautifully painted canvases. One 1985 work reads, “I don’t really know what happened. I mean, I’m not gay or anything. It was a fluke. Yes, that’s it. It just happened. I’m sure it’ll never happen again.” It was, he thinks, the last time he used his own handwriting in his work. “Even though I was really into Twombly, I didn’t have that kind of beautiful graphic line that he has. And also, I was quoting,” he says, adding that his own handwriting “seemed too personal.” At the time, he was sharing a tiny studio with another student, a woman who was working on a project about the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and hysteria: “I was saying, ‘Ugh, the reading’s so difficult for me because I just didn’t take theory courses in college. I’ve been reading James Baldwin essays as a palette cleanser,’ and she’s like, ‘James Baldwin, who’s that?’ And I thought, ‘The problem is not that you’ve never read James Baldwin, the problem is you’ve never heard the name.’ Which was indicative, I think, of a certain kind of way of being in that milieu at that time. You had to toe the party line. And maybe that was the beginning of me thinking, ‘OK, I’m putting Baldwin in my work. I’m putting Hurston in my work. If you don’t know, now you know, because it’s in the work.’”
Ligon’s mother wasn’t alive to see his first solo show, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me: A Project by Glenn Ligon” in 1990 at BACA Downtown in Brooklyn, though he remembers taking her to an open house at the Whitney ISP of mostly conceptual art that included his porn texts. During the opening, held in a walk-up loft on lower Broadway, the power went out. “So no wonder she was like, ‘Why do you want to be an artist? Some crazy walk-up loft that goes dark in the middle of the opening, is this what being an artist is?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it kind of is,’” Ligon says with a laugh. He clearly has empathy for the woman who gave him the very opportunities that made it harder for her to understand him. When I ask about his father, who lived nearby, Ligon shows me the “Dream Book” series he did in the late 1980s. Ligon’s father, who died in 2002, worked at General Motors’ Tarrytown, N.Y., plant; on the weekends, he ran numbers at the local pizza parlor. “Everybody played the numbers; it was illegal, but it wasn’t considered strange,” Ligon says. Like many people, his mother kept a dream book (hers was next to the encyclopedias); when you had a dream, you could look up what appeared in it and use the corresponding number to play the Lotto.
One day, Ligon’s father — agitated, suffering from hypertension, lying in a hospital bed after a heart attack — told him he owed someone named Dizzy money. “I was like, ‘OK, Dizzy — how much you owe him?’ ‘Three hundred bucks.’ ‘OK, well, I’ll go pay Dizzy.’ ‘He’s at the club’” — a Bronx pizza parlor that was a front for illegal gambling — Ligon recalls. “I lived in Brooklyn, so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go on a weekend to pay Dizzy.’ ‘No, you got to go sooner. Interest compounds daily.’” Ligon found Dizzy outside the pizza parlor behind the wheel of a Cadillac. He had three missing fingers: “Not a very good loan shark,” Ligon thought. “And he’s like, ‘How’s your dad? I got to go visit him while he’s in the hospital.’ I’m like, ‘Please don’t go see my dad in the hospital.’ It turned out they were old buddies from the G.M. plant; he was at my parents’ wedding. Loan sharking was just the side life. He lost his fingers in an accident at the plant. They were friends.”
In other words, no one’s story is simple. The personal histories we tell, in all their ambiguity, have a way of becoming emblematic, worry beads that allow us to hold on to people we never fully understood and who maybe never really understood us. His father was a hardworking man who never missed a day at the plant before the heart attack, Ligon says; he had a second family after Ligon and his brother, and presumably, he needed the money. It’s also a story about friendship, something Ligon takes seriously; he keeps a tight circle of friends, including Kim and the artist Gregg Bordowitz. It was Kim who introduced him to his current partner, James Hoff, a multimedia artist and an art-book publisher. They met at “the last supper,” as Ligon puts it, before the pandemic’s onset. Hoff visited him shortly thereafter in upstate New York, where Ligon, who also has an apartment in Lower Manhattan, has had a home for a decade or so. “We talked for like seven hours in my backyard and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good sign, since I don’t know you at all.’” When it got late, Ligon offered Hoff the guest room — a courtly gesture that has subsequently become the amusing centerpiece of their origin story. “And he’s like, ‘F this, I’m going home.’ But we worked it out. It worked.”
Some things, the best things, can’t be planned, but they require a certain kind of person to recognize the moment. Many of Ligon’s breakthroughs have come by accident. In his ongoing series “Debris Field,” which he worked on both before and during the pandemic (the newest will appear in a show at Hauser & Wirth in New York in November), allowing for error has taken him in a new direction: This time, stenciled letters don’t form words but are sent floating on their own, bodies in space, the paint allowed to bleed beyond the margins of the stencils. When he was making his first text paintings in the late 1980s, he was trying to make the text very clear and clean and flawlessly justified; it took him about six months, he says, to see the potential in the mistakes. These moments, Ligon says, are crucial: “You can’t plan those things. The mistake was the fact that the text was getting all smeary until I realized, ‘Oh, smeary text is the thing.’” His use of black neon came about in a similar fashion: One day in 2007, Ligon met Matt Dilling, a neon fabricator whose shop was in the same building as Ligon’s studio. Dilling showed him the project he was working on — white neon tubing with black paint on the front for a Burberry window — “and I was like, ‘Negro Sunshine,’” he says, snapping his fingers, instantly envisioning the phrase from Gertrude Stein’s 1909 novel “Three Lives” rendered in the same way. He commissioned it on the spot, and it became one of his most recognizable pieces. “I decided to include it in a show before I’d even see it, which was weird,” he says. “But I just knew it was going to be good.”
Late in the afternoon, we leave Ligon’s studio and visit “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” the New Museum show that he, along with Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni and Mark Nash, took over curating when its originator, Okwui Enwezor, died of cancer in 2019. Enwezor had conceived of the show as a showcase of Black art in the context of the white grievance unleashed and normalized following the 2016 U.S. election. Describing the last time he saw the eminent curator, who was undergoing chemotherapy in a Munich hospital as they discussed the exhibition, Ligon chokes up. Pulling the show off in Enwezor’s absence, with all kinds of public health restrictions in place, was a challenge. “I mean, I have said that I make work to think about things — well, I curate shows to think about things, too,” he says. “And so when I’m curating a project, I feel some responsibility toward the art, the artists I’m working with, you know, not to do them wrong. … Toni Morrison says you’ve got to write the novels you want to read. So you kind of have to curate the shows you want to see.”
“Grief and Grievance” displays the many ways Ligon’s contemporaries, predecessors and inheritors have embodied white spaces, from “Peace Keeper,” Nari Ward’s surreally menacing 1995 installation, recreated in 2020, of a tarred-and-peacock-feathered hearse, to Melvin Edwards’s “Lynch Fragments,” a series of brutalist clusters of welded steel scraps the sculptor began in the 1960s. (Bumping into Edwards and his family at the museum, Ligon pauses to thank the sculptor for his contribution.) Ligon’s neon work “A Small Band,” with its “blues/blood/bruise” affixed to the museum’s facade, sets the show’s tone. Ligon points out Jack Whitten’s 1964 work “Birmingham,” which I’ve never seen in person: a 16-by-16-inch square of plywood covered with blackened aluminum foil torn and peeled back to reveal an image that takes a moment to coalesce: It’s a newspaper photograph of a police dog attacking a civil rights marcher.
As we stand together in one of the gallery’s dark screening rooms watching Garrett Bradley’s 2017 short black-and-white film, “Alone,” about the toll of incarceration on a young woman, Aloné Watts, whose partner is in jail, I think of the way in which the histories we write, document and live are all with us: Ligon’s “chronological dyslexia.” As the camera lingers on Watts — she’s alone in bed, lost in reflection and longing — I’m reminded that damage continues apace. There’s no doubt we’re trapped in history, as Baldwin wrote, and that history is trapped in us; but the strength of any village is relational, and those who know its periphery tend to be those who see it most clearly.
Grooming: Tav Davis
Inspired by the subcultures of New York City’s punk and club scenes, the fashion designer has long mixed femme with grunge — from her signature baby-doll dresses to her riotous layers of fabric and trippy saturated colors — and created an inimitable aesthetic all her own.
If fashion is a language — the way we tell others who we are, or who we want to be; the armor and the illusions with which we make our way through the world — how do we speak when we’re alone? If clothes are worn only at home, with no audience beyond the occasional disembodied visitor on a computer screen, do they lose their power to transform; do they become merely clothes?
In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, with lockdowns in major cities and large in-person gatherings suspended, the fashion industry found itself deprived of perhaps its greatest selling point: spectacle. Gone were the strutting models of the runway shows, the preening of the front row, the nervy snap in the air. Gone, too, was the pageantry of a night on the town, when half the pleasure is wondering who might walk in. Look, look. What are they wearing?
For the New York-based designer Anna Sui, who started her ready-to-wear label in 1981, the isolation was all the more eerie because she has spent her career in pursuit of total immersion. Her work brooks no distance. From the beginning, she repudiated the dominance of ’80s-era “Dynasty”-inspired top-to-bottom glitz and power suits with hulking shoulders, offering instead lithe, unabashedly feminine clothes with a vintage feel and rocker soul, whose carefree but meticulously and densely layered textures and magpie rummages through time and space captured that heady liminal state of the archetypal American teen, the one who, in her bedroom, is trying on different selves — hippie, preppy, punk, wild child and free spirit — rebirthing herself again and again. Sui herself is a creature of rebirth: When she came of age in the 1970s, it was in the crucible of New York’s downtown underground scene, in nightly pilgrimages to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. The clothes she makes aren’t totems of some inaccessibly glamorous life but an invitation: to join the party, to be one of those girls, careless of time and most alive in a crowd, in the crush and heave of friends and strangers who by the end of the night will also be friends. How could a virtual version of this fantasy ever compete with the real thing? But last winter this is what Sui was consigned to — presenting her collections at a remove, via digital upload, in lieu of the assault on the senses that is a runway show.
And so she made of her frustration a metaphor. The video for her fall 2021 collection, posted online last February, is a homage to Joe Massot’s cult 1968 British film “Wonderwall.” Part comedy, part hallucination, the movie opens on a lonely scientist returning home to a dim, cramped apartment, accustomed if not wholly reconciled to the dinginess of his days. That night, a little hole appears in the wall of his study, marked like a radiant X from the light leaking in. Through it he spies his neighbor, a model played in sultry pantomime by the British actress Jane Birkin. Suddenly the dead butterflies he’s kept as specimens in a box take flight, and he in turn awakens to this private cinema, entranced not just by Birkin’s beauty but by her world: her louche parties, her polychrome armoire painted with flames and rainbow rays. In a frenzy, the scientist makes more and more holes in the wall until he has a constellation of tiny vistas aglow, each a promise of a more vivid — a more lived — life.
In Sui’s video, the models walk out of a similarly psychedelic armoire (created by the backdrop artist Sarah Oliphant, a frequent Sui collaborator), wearing fuzzy cow-print bucket hats and windowpane tweed; ombré plaids and wide-eyed peacocks printed on crushed velvet; faux suede pants with frayed hems like fringed lampshades and boy-cut jeans hand-painted with clouds and stars; a high-necked blouse of geometric eyelets with slouchy sleeves and ruffled wrists, tucked into a sequin dress; a Lurex stripe knit vest that drops nearly to the floor, over matching thigh-hugging shorts and a ruched mesh top of flowers large and small; an almost bridal ivory caftan in prairie-proper lace. But unlike Birkin, these women know that they’re being watched. They’re a parade; they demand to be seen. And they stare at us, the voyeurs locked out on the other side of the screen, daring us to break through. Even in isolation, in the cloister of a closed set, Sui’s clothes are commanding. They still have power.
In early May, I meet Sui, who is in her 60s, in her showroom above West 38th Street, in the garment district of Manhattan. The showroom is a world unto itself, of scarlet floors, lavender walls, replica Tiffany stained glass and flea market furniture lacquered black. Here and there are papier-mâché dolly heads with flapper haircuts, heavy eyelashes and heart-shaped lips. Inspired by the work of the Italian American artist Gemma Taccogna, they were handmade by Sui and a few friends to decorate her first boutique, which opened in 1992 on Greene Street in SoHo when it still had a touch of grime and offered haven to artists and creatures of the night. (In 2015, startled to find Greene Street subsumed in luxury, with Louis Vuitton as a neighbor, Sui moved the store two blocks south to the less forbidding Broome Street.)
Sui belongs in and to this room, a small, arresting figure in playfully elegant dark floral separates and chunky acrylic rings that invoke both toys and candy. It is hushed; we speak from behind masks. She is gracious but pensive, as if feeling the weight of this moment in time. “We have this beautiful showroom, and nobody has been here for more than a year,” she says.
At the start of the pandemic, she found herself spending whole days alone in her home in Greenwich Village. (She is unmarried; her father died in 2013 and her mother and two brothers live in Michigan, where she grew up.) Her apartment, which her close friend the fashion photographer Steven Meisel has described as her Narnia, was a lovely place to be marooned, a fantastical time warp of some of her favorite eras, with chinoiserie and elements of French Rococo, Victoriana, Art Deco and midcentury modern. Nevertheless, she was concerned by her inertia and began setting tasks for herself, like cooking, “which I never did,” she says. Her mom gave her lessons over the phone, and eventually Sui got comfortable enough in the kitchen to invite friends over for a soup whose recipe required simmering a whole chicken — only to belatedly realize she’d forgotten to remove the paper bag of giblets tucked inside the bird. “That was the end of my chicken soup,” she says ruefully.
The clothes Sui makes are an invitation: to join the party, to be one of those girls, careless of time and most alive in a crowd, in the crush and heave of friends and strangers who by the end of the night will also be friends.
There is a quietude to Sui, a gentle modesty and meditative intelligence at odds with the flamboyant, imperious stereotype of the fashion designer. Known for her warmth and kindness — she asks after my family and seems genuinely delighted when I tell her about my 13-year-old daughter’s obsessive passion for interior design — she is famously beloved in an industry where such qualities can be rare. At the same time, and perhaps for the same reason, she is often underestimated despite the breadth of her influence, which is manifest on both the runway and the street, from recent work by male couturiers who are heralded for playing with schoolgirl tropes and shape-shifting flirtation (as if Sui hadn’t been doing that all along) to the guileless, happy heyday of Coachella, the California music festival replete with latter-day bohemians, beading and macramé, and to the young collectors on the thrifting app Depop, buying and selling vintage Anna Sui tees.
As has historically been the case for women, Sui’s oeuvre is often viewed as an extension of herself, autobiography rather than art. That it is, in fact, rooted in autobiography is precisely what gives it much of its exuberance and verve. Sui imagined herself into being and out of a girlhood on the periphery in Dearborn, Mich., a predominantly working-class suburb of Detroit, in the ’50s and ’60s. At first, Sui’s parents were the only people of Asian descent in their neighborhood (their rarity then can be attributed in part to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively banned almost all Chinese from entering the United States until its repeal in 1943). Her father, Paul Wai Kong Sui, a merchant’s son born in Tahiti and educated in China, with roots in Shenzhen in the southeast, and her mother, Grace Kwang Chi Fang, a politician’s daughter whose lineage goes back to the 17th- and 18th-century writer-philosopher Fang Bao — a champion of the so-called ancient prose style, stripped of flourish and ornamentation — met in Paris as students (Paul in engineering, Grace in painting) and made their way to America after the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution. There they raised three children, with Anna the lone daughter between two boys: Bobby, the eldest, who as a teen chaperoned his little sister to rock shows in Detroit, and Eddy, the youngest.
In later decades, the rising number of Asians in Michigan would bring a measure of unease to the state, but Sui says she never felt like she was stigmatized for being Chinese, although, she adds, “I also didn’t accept that stigma.” She was, after all, an American girl and, like millions of American girls, she was unable to resist the siren call of Barbie, introduced to the market in 1959 with a penchant for pink, specifically Pantone 219 C, whose formula is 88 percent red. Then, Sui says, “I discovered purple” — and with it, ambiguity. To this day, she’s drawn to the bruise of blue that belies the kittenish blush, the tension between the girl next door and the demimondaine, who are not so far apart, who may even be one. There is a shadow even in Sui’s most euphoric work, a hint of haze, of a plotline gone awry, but also its converse, the gleam at the end of the tunnel, the neon scrawl in the dark. “It’s a refusal to be beaten and bowed by the way things are,” the fashion editor Tim Blanks writes in “The World of Anna Sui,” published in conjunction with the first major retrospective of her work, in 2017, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. “I can always find that silver lining,” Sui says. “I’m kind of the ultimate optimist.”
For Sui, optimism and artistry lie in excess — what Andrew Bolton, the chief curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in his 2010 book, “Anna Sui,” as her “riotous cacophony,” a piling on of fabrics, patterns, prints and every possible accessory. “I’m more camp American than intellectual Chinese,” Sui says. Which is not to say frivolous: Camp may be over the top — “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things being what they are not,” as the cultural critic Susan Sontag writes in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” — but at heart, it’s in earnest. Artifice can be a kind of truth.
Part of the potency of Sui’s vision is that she never forgets how much fantasy is anchored in yearning and anticipation. In the slink of silk and the slap of biker leather over lace, the fishnets disappearing into loafers and the beanies with swinging yarn braids, the promenade of humble gingham and workman’s corduroy alongside glimmer and plush, she channels a nostalgia for the maximalism of adolescent desire — to escape the most fearsome of fates (being ordinary); to discover the real life happening elsewhere. Of her suburban childhood, Sui says, “That was my dreaming period.” Her portal was Life magazine, which she scoured for pictures of models and proxy extraterrestrials like Twiggy and Baby Jane Holzer, who wasn’t just a pretty face but a protégée of the artist Andy Warhol, another of Sui’s idols.
Sui knew she wanted to make clothes, to outfit a life like those of the girl-women she idolized, but how? She’d read about two graduates of the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan who had moved to Paris and persuaded Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to help them open their own boutique. This wasn’t a story of striking out on your own — one of the designers was the stepdaughter of the prominent fashion photographer Irving Penn — but Sui, whose parents wanted her to be a doctor, took it as such. She found the address for Parsons on a back page of another girl’s copy of Seventeen and wrote to the college to request a catalog. When she saw the list of requirements for applying, she signed up for art classes and studied harder, to boost her G.P.A. After she got in, she swanned around high school with a Vogue tucked under her arm.
But once at Parsons, she was put off by its elitism. She and her classmates in fashion design were advised not to mingle with students in other departments (illustration, graphic design, environmental design). “Going to the lunchroom was forbidden,” she recalls. “So of course, what did I do?” The transgression paid off: In the cafeteria, Meisel, a fellow student who would go on to become one of fashion’s most virtuosic and revered photographers, waved her over. “Do you ever go out?” she remembers him asking; she replied, “I’d like to.” They made a plan to meet at a club, and when she showed up with a boyfriend, Meisel gave him a once-over, deemed him not up to Sui’s standard and whispered, “Get rid of the guy.”
After that, they met almost every night, Meisel’s friends — now hers — gathering first at her railroad apartment on East 53rd Street and Third Avenue, a block then known for the young hustlers who cooled their heels on the stoops, eyeing potential tricks, and immortalized in a 1976 song by the Ramones (who were also in Sui’s circle: In 1981, Joey Ramone posed for a rooftop photo shoot in a rakish buccaneer ensemble she’d designed). Sui had pasted leopard wallpaper in the kitchen and painted the living room red and the bedroom black, with floors and windows to match. “At that point, none of us had any money, but we figured out if you go to a club at 9 p.m., you don’t have to pay the cover yet,” she says. “So we’d go and hang out in the bathroom and wait until people started arriving at 11.”
Sui speaks wonderingly of the role of serendipity in her life, and the chance encounters that drew her into the orbit of artists and rockers, although I can see that this framing comes from modesty, since the narrative could easily be flipped — they were drawn to her. Stories like hers testify to the peculiar Zelig-like symbiosis of that era in downtown New York. Meisel’s best friend joined a band fronted by Patti Smith. The designer Norma Kamali, famed for her parachute silk jumpsuits, lived next door on East 53rd and sublet her apartment to the proto-punk rockers the New York Dolls, who invited Sui to their rehearsals and introduced her to David Bowie, first on vinyl, then in the flesh when she spotted him at one of their shows.
This was the milieu in which Sui began her life as an adult, dazzling and askew, all the brighter for its dark undertow. She staked a claim to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, nightly besieged by the famous, the soon-to-be famous and people who just looked famous, which was enough — and soon became one of them herself, wearing the highest heels, mixing motorcycle zippers and boho-style petticoats, thrift-shop finds and Saint Laurent, the handle of her handbag tucked “in the crook of her arm, and with her arm held up high,” Meisel recalls in the introduction to Bolton’s book. This was the template for the designs to come: As Meisel writes, “You see Anna’s life when you see her clothing.”
Yet she wasn’t wholly lost in the moment. She was insider and outsider at once, of the crowd even as she observed it, stowing away images in her mind — an archivist of the ephemeral. She took what she needed from the scene, all the while keeping an eye on her purse.
At Parsons, Sui rejected the primacy of couture. She was never drawn to $50-a-yard cashmere. “I’d rather pick out a gingham and think, ‘How do I make this look like a million bucks?’” she says. She wanted to make clothes destined for the clubs — that her friends could wear. So in the early ’70s she dropped out of school after taking a job at Charlie’s Girls, a line of hippie-ish crochet vests and shepherdess shorts. (The prodigal student was later forgiven: Parsons awarded Sui an honorary doctorate in 2017.) After that label closed, she did stints at a series of sportswear companies, including the all-American Bobbie Brooks.
In 1981, Sui sold her first pieces to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s at a trade show. When her boss found out about her side hustle, he fired her. For close to a decade, she worked out of her apartment — she was now living downtown — and soon her supermodel friends were walking into fittings for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel wearing her flirty, defiantly girlish frocks. (“Who is this Anna?” Lagerfeld reportedly asked.) In the front row at a 1990 Jean Paul Gaultier runway show in Paris, Madonna — whom Sui had met through Meisel, after he shot the cover of the 1984 album “Like a Virgin” — shucked off her coat to reveal one of Sui’s baby-doll dresses, black with a mesh overlay. The exposure gave Sui the courage to mount her own runway show the following year.
Sui took girlishness seriously because she saw the hope in it, a kind of faith in all that could be. Still, being a girl has always been a complicated proposition, and her shows recognized that ambiguity. It wasn’t clear if her models were women playing at being girls or vice versa, these cheerleaders in pompom hats and padlock-and-key belts, drifty-eyed hippie chicks caught between Woodstock and the Manson murders (events that took place only a week apart in the summer of 1969) and, most iconic of all, the giggling trinity of supermodels — Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington — who posed together for the finale of Sui’s spring 1994 runway show in angel-whisper organza baby dolls and tiaras fountaining feathers from their heads. (The three looks were featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2019 “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition, and one, with a pink fluffy stole, appears in the museum’s current show, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.”)
“You never know if it’s a good girl or a bad girl,” Sui says, speaking of the looks she presented; it could also be her mantra. Nowhere is this juxtaposition of innocence and corruption more manifest than that signature baby doll. The silhouette dates to early 20th-century gestures toward female emancipation, freed of corset or confining waist. As a term, however, “baby doll” didn’t gain traction until World War II, when the U.S. War Production Board issued restrictions on fabric usage — soldiers needed cloth for uniforms — and the New York lingerie designer Sylvia Pedlar is said to have adapted by improvising a brief nightgown that barely touched the thighs. Cristóbal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy took up the idea in the late ’50s, making elegant, loosefitting trapeze dresses out of crepe de Chine, satin and shantung, but the baby doll as we know it today is street fashion, belonging to the women grunge rockers and riot grrrls of the early ’90s, who co-opted the shape as part of the kinderwhore aesthetic, at once mocking conventional emblems of objectified femininity and making of them a strength.
Sui’s versions of the same decade were more ethereal but no less subversive in intent. And she set a precedent. The form in its good-girl, bad-girl incarnation continues to haunt the runway: In 2013, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent produced a baby-doll dress priced at $68,000, and last year, before lockdown, Alessandro Michele of Gucci sent male models down the runway in Peter Pan-collared baby dolls of their own.
Conventional wisdom tells us that a true artist is not beholden to the demands of commerce. In fashion, this means that only the couturier, endowed with seemingly unlimited freedom and funds by a corporate overlord, can be considered an auteur, producing garments so expensive that few people ever actually wear them; whose very wearability may be beside the point. Sui, who focuses on ready-to-wear and has always maintained her independence, lacks the security of a major financial backer, relying on the market to support her vision. Yet in many ways she’s been able to work like a couturier, following her whims. For each season, she does obsessive research (“the most exciting thing,” she says) and revels in details, like the melancholy lines from the Victorian-era poet Christina Rossetti written on the walls of the scientist’s apartment in “Wonderwall.”
The latitude Sui has is in part because of canny business decisions: In the ’90s, she jury-rigged a global empire out of fragrance, fashion and cosmetics license agreements in Japan and Germany, brokering unorthodox cross-distribution partnerships. But on a more fundamental level, she’s simply attuned to the mind of a teenage girl and that exultant, never-forgotten tumult of feeling you get when you emerge on the sunny side of broody, recklessly, shamelessly sure of yourself and ready for the world. Most years, she says, she’s sold 85 percent of what she shows on the runway.
At times her own popularity has unnerved her. “If everybody gave me a good review, I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I’m too commercial. I sold out. I’ve got to shake it up,’” she says. In 1992, she dispatched Campbell down the catwalk in studded suede backless chaps, with a temporary butterfly tattoo on one cheek. Five years later, she asked the swaggering guitarist Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with his devil’s goatee and black halos of eyeliner, to make a cameo on the runway. “He said, ‘Sure, if it involves lingerie,’” she recalls. And so she outfitted him in a royal purple camisole and leather pants that, mid-strut, he pushed down just enough to show off the lace panties beneath.
Sui tends to return to familiar themes, but her world of references is so capacious, she might never exhaust it. She’s also constantly adding new, shining strands, be it the spirit of the Wiener Werkstätte, the early 20th-century Austrian artisans’ cooperative that sought to exalt the everyday through the power of design — which served as an inspiration for her resort 2022 collection, unveiled in June — or the collage of images delivered by Instagram, leading her to collaborations with young artists like the Seattle illustrator and muralist Stevie Shao and the Brooklyn jewelry designer Bonnie Robbins of Daisy Chains, both of whom she met simply by DMing them. Blanks has described Sui as a “cultural archaeologist,” sifting through the sediment of other eras, taking scraps from history and turning them into clothes relevant to how we live now. I’d go further and call her an anthropologist, a scholar of pop culture’s many tribes. She thrives on the cross-pollination of ideas, whether across time and borders or among her peers, and her oeuvre is perhaps best understood as an ongoing collaboration with the larger world — the eddying of human life, on the streets and around her.
New Yorkers are a possessive lot, adamant that no one knows the city like we do. We live in a perpetual state of mourning, each generation in thrall to the map of private memories. The city as Sui knew it in the ’70s and ’80s was New York at its most romantic, or most romanticized — all stumble-down streets, desperate and ecstatic, sucker punch and glory, dirty, dangerous and blessedly cheap. “It was a dismal time,” she says, and in the next breath recalls friends with giant lofts in the then-ghost town of TriBeCa, “walk-ups with no hot water and the toilet was in the middle of the room, but you paid $200.” She witnessed the theatricality and hedonism of glam rock and disco give way to the iconoclasm of punk, and then punk taking its rejection of authority to its logical conclusion to reinvent itself as the avant-garde, until the specter of AIDS in the ’80s cruelly brought the curtains down, the great beauties and wits, artists and impresarios who had lent the night their luster disappearing one by one from their booths in the clubs, and with them the splendor that had defined her New York. Sui has never been overtly political in her work, but the joyfulness of her clothes may in part be a refusal to accept so much loss. Sometimes we need fantasy to survive.
By the mid-90s the city had lost its pulse and become tamed, a safe playground for neoliberalism’s victors. “We’ll never have that underground scene again,” Sui says. For her, the city’s starkest change followed the market crash of 2008, when the economy rebounded and went into overdrive. “Everything became so much more corporate,” she says. “Suddenly stores weren’t owned by a family anymore.” (Her own team remains tightly knit: The head of the sample room, Akiko Mamitsuka, and the director of production, Heidi Poon, have been with Sui for 32 years; the acclaimed makeup artist Pat McGrath and hairstylist Garren have created looks for her runway shows for more than two decades, Garren since her first show in 1991; her brother Bobby is C.F.O.; and her three nieces, the sisters Chase and Jeannie Sui Wonders and their cousin Isabelle Sui, all in their 20s, work in various roles, offering their skills in filmmaking, photography, modeling, illustration and accessory design.)
The subcultures that once inspired Sui still exist. But they can no longer thrive in the heart of the city, and the very idea of cool — that you’ve stumbled on something singular, that you have knowledge and access, by virtue of whatever dark alleys or obscure paths you wander, that others don’t and never will — has become a full-throttle capitalist pursuit, with the distance ever shrinking between cult object and mainstream commodity. This presents a particular problem in fashion, since being fashionable often means spurning the mainstream — keeping one step ahead, glancing back with a wink, defying others to follow. “In the beginning you’re a bit like, ‘Never, that’s so ugly,’” Sui says. “Then it’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’” Once there was time, in the months it took for a collection to reach stores, to mull things over and accommodate change; to incubate desire; to submit. Now, with the immediacy of the internet, the waiting period is gone, and the quicker we are gratified, the more impatient we become. Demand is always for the next thing, to the point, Sui says, that “newness is a kind of conformity.”
The day after our interview, Sui invites me to take a trip to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie, one of her favorite retreats, but it is still closed because of the pandemic. So instead, we head downtown to the Whitney Museum of American Art to check out the exhibition “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019.” Sui has long championed independent artisans, especially those of New York’s century-old garment district, whose livelihoods have been threatened by ever-accelerating mechanization and rising rents, and whose work in close quarters made them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. In the ’50s, almost all apparel sold in America was made in America, much of it in that blunt, unhandsome neighborhood halfway between Midtown and Chelsea, a patch of blocks less than a square mile, crammed daily with hundreds of thousands of workers. Today, only around 5,000 people still ply their trades there, and almost all of the country’s clothing is imported.
Sui has come to see the Los Angeles-based artist Liza Lou’s “Kitchen” (1991-96): a simulacrum of an archetypal American kitchen, built to scale out of plywood and papier-mâché and resplendently unutilitarian. Every surface — from the dirty dishes half drowned in the sink, in what looks like a roiling sea, to a pie half-popped out of the oven, studded with cherries — is covered in millions of tiny sparkling beads, tweezed and set one at a time, by hand, over a span of five years. It is garish yet reverent, a compulsive beautification that evokes the intricacy of church mosaics, at once a paean to domesticity and a demolishment of it, reminding us of the labor behind the shimmer.
Sui lingers here for a while, wanting to see the installation from every angle. Afterward, we head downstairs and sit outside, Sui’s face alert, alive to the runway of the street, the city slowly flickering back to life. In the middle of a sentence, she breaks off and her voice drops to a whisper: “Look at those shoes.” An androgynous figure, all in black, is gliding past on platform boots with clinging calves and a high, ouroboroslike heel. We both peer after the boots, longingly, as they vanish up the stairs to the High Line.
During New York’s pandemic lockdown, one of the things that kept Sui going was a series of nostalgic sketches, titled “Places I’d Rather Be,” posted to Instagram by her friend the celebrated stylist Bill Mullen. His idylls include Studio 54, with Bianca Jagger in a crimson beret; the late, lamented East Village bodega and egg-cream landmark Gem Spa, with the New York Dolls posing out front; and the uptown cafe Serendipity 3, with Sui, under a Tiffany lamp, of course, wearing an aquamarine fur coat accessorized with a bird in matching aquamarine (Mullen’s pet parrot, Morticia). “They’re gorgeous,” Sui says of the pictures. “But — ”
For a moment, she is silent. Then she says, “I’d rather be there.”
Hair: Garren and Thom Priano for R+Co Bleu. Makeup: Jonathan Wu and Jen Evans. Production: Hens Tooth Productions. Digital tech: Nick Ventura. Lighting tech: Sebastiano Arpaia
Video: Anna Sui directed by Tina Barney, shot by Tyler Murgo. Glenn Ligon directed by Mickalene Thomas, shot by Pierce Robinson. Lynn Nottage directed by Joshua Kissi, shot by Kevin GK Frederick. Edited (3) by Jordan Fuller. Juliette Binoche directed by Collier Schorr, shot and edited by Angel Zinovieff.
Digital production and design by Nancy Coleman, Jacky Myint and Caroline Newton.