This, That, and The Other: Glenn Ligon at the Whitney
AMERICA: Glenn Ligon at the Whitney Museum of American Art
March 10th to June 5th, 2011
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York City, 212 570 3600
Glenn Ligon’s mid-career retrospective is prolific in both scale and perspicacity, spanning nearly 30 years of work with over 100 individual pieces. Curator Scott Rothkopf stresses Ligon’s formation as a Whitney scholar and his relationship with the museum beginning shortly after his graduation from the Independent Study Program and an invitation to participate in the 1991 Biennale. The following years marked a creative partnership with Whitney Department Curator Thelma Golden, who featured Ligon in the seminal 1993 Biennale as well as the ambitious exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art. Always situated at the intersection of black and queer visual representation, Ligon is perhaps most well-known for his text-based works exploring construction and dissolution. AMERICA, while directly addressing these issues, spotlights the painterly concerns of the artist, emphasizing Ligon’s facility with form and his strength in editing.
Opening the exhibition with paintings realized in 1985, Rothkopf cites Ligon’s graduation from the Whitney ISP as a catalyzing artistic and political influence. Drawing from the expressionism of Cy Twombly, Ligon’s earliest works with text feature a mixture of enamel and oil paints overlaid with gestural scrawls, quoting gay porn magazines. The transition to his previously unconstituted “Door” paintings marks a move towards stenciled lettering as Ligon found handwritten text too personal. Working in black oil stick over readymade white doors, the artist reproduces quotes written by figures as diverse as Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, and Ice Cube. Ligon’s lettering becomes increasingly more smudged, then illegible, as the eye moves down the panel. Through repetition the letters blend together, losing their literal meaning and pointing to a discursive construction of language and a susceptibility to slips in identification. The elegant sophistication of these paintings points to Ligon’s expressionist roots while the evocative texts (“I feel most colored when,” “wrong nigga to fuck with”) affirm a deep interest in collective black identity.
While these notions of identification and typology remains central to Ligon’s work, his quiet meditations on the human body resist the tendency towards the densely theoretical, instead grounding his practice in the intimately relational. First evidenced by the door paintings, which respond to the scale of a human body, these works reference the self as implicit subject matter. This notion of artist as subject is made literal in Ligon’s ambitious 1993 installation, To Disembark. The work cites the compelling story of Henry “Box” Brown, who, in 1849, shipped himself in a wooden crate from slavery in Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia. First displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC, four of the original nine human-sized crates are on view in the center of the gallery. From these packing crates reverberates disparate musical recordings dealing with blackness, including Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and KRS-One’s Sound of Da Police. The accompanying portfolio, Runaways, is on view as part of the installation. The series of lithographs imitates 19th-century advertisements for the return of escaped slaves. For the project, Ligon casts himself as the runaway, employing friends to draft posters from the voice of slave-owners describing their missing property. Designed as a reminder of the way in which the past lives in the present, the work points to the singularity of individual experience as it relates to a shared cultural history.
Ligon’s first work situated explicitly at the intersection of black and queer visual representation, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book was first displayed at the Whitney as part of the 1993 Biennial. Realized in the twilight of the 1990s Culture Wars, the ingenious work still resonates as it addresses the complicated aesthetic ambivalence associated with black masculinity and its representation. For Notes, Ligon dissects Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial 1988 publication, Black Book, which features highly elegant, sexualized photographs of black male bodies. At its origins, Black Book exists within a visual tradition of fantasy and desire stemming from the western trope of the passive female nude. Ligon’s Notes places captions from drag queens, conservative senators, and museum curators alongside these images, addressing them within a multifarious cultural framework. Removed from their indeterminate socio-historic contexts and grounded within larger frameworks of identification, these images allow the viewer’s fears and projections of black masculinity to be played out in their totality, multiplied, registered and refracted through a mirror of social construction.
Ligon’s “Joke” series marks his return to text paintings after an examination of the photo-document. The devastatingly hilarious 1993 work Cocaine (Pimps) consists of a sumptuously red painted canvas stenciled with text of a Richard Pryor joke, performed during a stand-up routine in the mid 1970s. When taken out of its spoken context, the reader is forced to repeat Pryor’s lewd words, however silently, gaining a sense of authorship over the message. Within the context of the gallery space, the viewer becomes the silent performer, and is forced to confront and identify with the text before her. This quality of performance speaks to the construction of race and sexuality that the artist questions throughout his career. By taking Pryor’s jokes off the stage and into the gallery, Ligon points to the ways in which language is reclaimed through history, and the effectiveness of words in producing group identity.
Before closing the exhibition with Ligon’s most recent series of neon sculptures, Rothkopf devotes a small gallery to the artist’s lesser known works, many of which have never been exhibited. Ligon’s Self-Portrait at Seven Years Old from 2005 features a young Michael Jackson, pointing to the complexity of black collective identity as it relates to individual history. 2003’s End of the Year Reports consists of a suite of eight screen-prints on handmade paper which reproduce Ligon’s own grammar school report cards. Mixed in are the grades of Glenn Ligon’s brother, again questioning the notion of authority and individuality within a group. Though Ligon’s text-based works are far from antiseptic, with their painterly surfaces and evocative quotations, these small nods to the artist’s childhood and personal history were an interesting shift away from the artist’s works dealing with essentialism and collective politics. Ligon finds his voice in the appropriation of images and text, subverting dominant racist and homophobic ideology by situating himself at the complex intersection of race, masculinity, and sexuality.