Photo by David Seidner
Glenn Ligon (pronounced “Lie-gone”) (b. 1960 in Bronx) is a conceptual artist who works in many mediums including painting, sculpture, photography, and installation. His work explores issues of race, language, image, sexuality, and identity. Besides drawing upon his own life, Ligon often utilizes other works from visual arts, literature, and history to explore these themes. For example, he originally gained notoriety for his work titled “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), which consists of a dismantled copy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Black Book”—photographs of naked black men. Ligon was interested in re-opening the complex discussion about this work, which at the time of publication was considered highly controversial (homoerotic) as well as exploitative of black men. He researched and collected various quotes from scholars, writers, men in public, and even political figures, juxtaposing these quotes with Mapplethorpe’s images, creating a new dialogue for museum goers to consider. Like Mapplethorpe, Ligon himself is gay, however he most often discusses his work in the context of being African American.
Ligon is best known for his text-based paintings, made in the 1980s, which also employ the use of language. He drew upon writings and speech from such diverse figures as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Ralph Ellison, Jesse Jackson, and Richard Pryor. He utilizes stencils to hand-paint the individual letters on to the canvas, repeating the sentence as he moves down the canvas, blurring the language more and more due to the use of the stencil. What is clearly readable and bold at the top of the painting becomes unreadable and amorphous by the bottom. Beginning as an abstract painter, Ligon realized he needed to incorporate text into his paintings to speak in a language that he felt abstract art was unable to capture.
In 2009, President Obama added one of Ligon’s text-based paintings titled “Black Like Me No. 2” (1992) to the White House collection where it is installed in the President’s private living quarters. The text comes from John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir Black Like Me, the account of a white man’s experiences traveling through the South after he had his skin artificially darkened. The words “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence” are repeated in stenciled letters from the top of the canvas to the bottom.
In 2011, “Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” was the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to the first 25 years of Ligon’s career. It contained roughly 100 works and was originally curated by the Whitney Museum in NYC and later moved around to various other museums nationwide. In addition to including the aforementioned work, it included other pieces such as his 1970s color book series. Certain coloring books were created during that era to introduce children to prominent figures in African American history such as Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. Not yet knowing who these important figures were, five-year-old children would draw lipstick and blue eye shadow on Malcolm X or color the figures in strange and provocative ways (to an adult audience). The artist noted “I [love] children’s drawings because kids’ relationship to culture, language, and identity is not yet fixed. They haven’t yet ingested all the rules and prohibitions that adults have, so there is no one way that things have to be in their drawings.” (Hyperallergic.com) Ligon reproduced these images with paint on canvas in order to question the context of images themselves and how their meaning changes over time.
The retrospective also included his work with neon signs. Several use the word “America” with various other titles. For example, although neon signs typically use light to create the words and black paint on the neon to create blank space, in one version of “America” Ligon has painted the neon entirely black (therefore unlit) calling to question, what is a black America? And, what is America? This was juxtaposed to two other versions of “America” within the same room, one in lit white neon letters and one in lit yellow.
If you ever have the chance of viewing his work in person, don’t miss it. I certainly hope I have the privilege of seeing his work live at some point. Ligon’s work inspires me in deep ways; he’s become one of my new favorite artists. He will certainly be in our greater artistic lexicon for decades to come.
Glenn Ligon is African American artist #8 of 25 in my project “Have You Heard Of…?”
“Untitled (I Am a Man)” 1988
Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 × 25 in. (101.6 × 63.5 cm)
This work derives from the defiant placards worn in 1968 by striking sanitation workers in segregated Memphis, Tenn. To the general indifference of city leaders, two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed in a malfunctioning garbage truck. Their mangled bodies gave physical heft to protesters' large signs: "I AM A MAN." The existential outcry was held aloft on sticks or attached to the marchers' chests. (LA Times)
“Notes on the Margin of the "Black Book" (1991-93)
Detail view, 91 offset prints, 78 text pages; offset prints 29.2 x 29/2 cm each (framed); text pages, 13.3 x 18.4 cm each (framed)
“Four Untitled Etchings” 1992
Suite of four etchings with aquatint, spitbite and sugarlift on BFK Rives
Edition of 45
25" x 17"
“Untitled (We are the ink...)”
“‘Untitled (We are the ink...)’ refers to a famous quote from Jean Genet's memoir ‘Prisoner of Love’ where he states, “In white America the Blacks are the characters in which history is written. They are the ink that gives the white page a meaning.” Being a white amongst blacks, Genet was fighting alongside the Black Panther Party, choosing his words carefully to speak on behalf of them. In this text painting Ligon subverts Genet’s outsider designation ‘they’ and re-personalises the text using ‘we’. Working with stencils from top to bottom the grease from the stick thickens, increasingly obscuring the black letters. The duality of the black text and the white page embodies Genet’s metaphor of racial power relations and it questions how we perceive and construct oppositional categories of identity.”
“Narratives” (detail), 1993, nine photoetchings on chine collé,
approx. 28 by 21 inches each
Text reads: “The Life and Adventures of Glenn Ligon. A Negro; who was sent to be educated amongst white people in the year 1966 when only about six years of age and has continued to fraternize with them to the present time.” Here, Ligon was exploring the slave narratives that circulated when slaves ran away to escape to the free North while using himself as the main character of the story. According to the artist, he was drawing attention to the idea that although it seems as if slavery is over and done with, it’s moral values are so woven into our systems and culture that the presence and experiences of slavery still exist today in more ambiguous ways.
“Malcolm X (Version 1) #1” (2000)
24 X 145 1/2 X 4 inches
(60.96 X 369.57 X 10.16 cm)