Summer Highlights #6: Questioning America

by Lee Ann Norman

August 3, 2018

Glenn Ligon. Ruckenfigur (2009); neon and paint, 24 x 145 inches. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Degree Critical, the online publication of the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts has been a mainstay of the department since shortly after its inception. As the Art Writing program advances into its second decade, we’re also taking the opportunity to freshen Degree Critical by re-launching it as its own standalone website, so that its relevance becomes more profound than ever. To celebrate this anticipated and exciting new phase of Degree Critical, we are looking back on some of the treasure contained in its vaults. Every Friday throughout the summer, we’ll be re-posting earlier pieces of writing that capture the spirit and essence of the publication. 

We live in an age where an outlandish market frequently disenfranchises many potential viewers from contemporary art. Identifying how an artist’s work is tethered in the material world and whether its messages succeed is an ongoing and crucial task for the critical writer. With “Questioning America,” first published on Degree Critical in Spring 2011, writer Lee Ann Norman (Class of 2012) delved deeply into the work of Glenn Ligon, who at the time was the subject of a major career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Norman plumbs Ligon’s oeuvre with alacrity and sober eye, connecting the artist’s work with larger themes of race, class, and sexuality—cultural touchstones that continue to roil the American underbelly. In politically restive 2018, her words remain as prescient as when they were first written.

– Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

“AMERICA,” Glen Ligon’s first mid-career retrospective, reveals, in just over 100 works, his strength in making art that confidently lives in the space of in between. His work is strangely accessible and familiar; perhaps it is his use of text, his wry humor, or the air of unassuming intensity he radiates. He effectively lightens weighty subjects without diminishing their significance, and his penchant for having hard conversations without saying a word gives his work a suppleness that easily slides between the mordant and temperate.

Ligon’s amicable history with the Whitney goes back to 1985, when he participated in its Independent Study program, and continued with his appearance in the 1993 biennial, where his work Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (which is reinstalled here) debuted. (In this work, Ligon juxtaposes Robert Mapplethorpe’s eroticized images of nude black men in classical poses with texts from scholars, theorists, random patrons at gay bars and even Mapplethorpe himself as a way to deal with the difficult and provocative issues prompted by the photographs.) In 1994, Ligon also participated in the Whitney exhibition “Black Male.” Its longstanding relationship with Ligon has allowed the museum to amass the largest collection of his work in the United States. In this comprehensive retrospective, Ligon’s artistic flowering is shown chronologically, from early experiments and digressions to an artistic maturity portrayed through his ongoing questioning of—and confrontation with—social and cultural norms.

Ligon’s paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and installations are refined and reserved, but never timid or passive. He seems reluctant to give sound bites about black or queer identities, although it is clear he thinks about these things in his life and art-making. Ligon grew up in the Bronx at the height of the American Civil Rights struggle and came of age in its aftermath. After college, he joined a surprisingly conservative downtown New York art scene in which gay artists struggled to gain acceptance alongside artists of color, who were similarly marginalized. The first part of the exhibition shows the artist experimenting with painterly abstraction and text. Traces of de Kooning, Klein, Pollock, and Twombly still influenced Ligon stylistically, but it was Jasper Johns’s example that seemed to help him find a way out. When speaking about his transition to text-based paintings, the work for which he is most known, Ligon says that the Independent Study Program helped him realize that he needed to move beyond painterly abstraction in order to find his voice.

At first glance, I Am a Man (1988) may appear to simply recreate the iconic 1968 sanitation workers protest placard. Ligon’s version, with white ground and upper-case sans serif lettering, mimics the original, but the cracks in the painting’s surface (caused by a mix of oil paint and enamel) unsettle the viewer, prompting questions about the slogan’s meaning in the present. Two other works from the same year find the artist continuing experiments with text, and also adding color. No. 417 (Sweetheart) is based on the dream books that one might find in a black family’s home in the 1960s. Thick, swirling brushstrokes of rosy pinks and deep, blush-colored hues hover between contextual definitions of “sweetheart” stenciled in dark pink. There is a consciousness we all have… quotes Ned Rifkin (then chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) in a 1988 New York Times article about Martin Puryear’s representation of the U.S. in the São Paulo Biennale. For this work, Ligon critiqued the sentence “There is a consciousness that we all have that he is a black American artist, but I think Martin’s work is really superior and stands on its own.” When he replaced Puryear’s name with the anonymous “his” and added strategic breaks (like the word “con sciousness”) across two muddy golden brown paper panels, Ligon was able to draw attention to the disconnection between the words and the artist’s work or merit. While the painting does not explicitly attack the statement or its implications, Ligon manages to challenge its underlying assumptions with understated force.

In the 1990s, Ligon returned to color in a series of paintings based on Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy routines. He shelved the work temporarily, finding it too difficult to resolve, before completing the series in the early 2000s. Pryor’s comedy routines provide pointed social commentary about race, sex and sexuality, and social mores without condemnation or taking a moralistic stance, something Ligon also manages to do. The optical eye bender Cocaine Pimps (1993) places bright orange text on a sizzling red background, while When Black Wasn’t Beautiful #1(2004) engenders similar visual trauma by pairing bright aqua blue and orange on top of indigo. The paintings are not simply discomforting because of their content. Their jarring shades underscore the potency of the words as images. Ligon’s coal dust paintings are similarly moving; in Untitled (Conclusion), also from 2004, he makes James Baldwin’s words, “the world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” confrontational rather than declarative by forming them in black text and sparkling black coal dust on a black ground.

Glenn Ligon. Mirror #5 (2006); (detail) silkscreen, coal dust, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 84 x 60 inches. Courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery.

The paintings at the end of the exhibition borrow from literature (“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” “I remember the very day that I became colored”), billboards and pop culture (“Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit” “I am Somebody”), and Ligon’s life (“I lost my voice, I found my voice”). The exhibition devotes an entire to room to these paintings, many of which have not been seen together previously, if at all. For these works, Ligon stenciled text on white gessoed ground without cleaning the stencil between each line. The effect is smudgy with a heavily textured build-up of pigment that often renders the text nearly unreadable at the end. Viewing them together, one will notice the color variations (some of the text is dark blue, gray black, and even a shade of brown rather than the familiar black on white or white on white). The human-sized scale of the canvases and doors, and the texts’ spelling errors, letter repetitions, and random line breaks, echo the humanity of the words each contains.

The title of the exhibition refers to the Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities, which opens with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and for Ligon, this statement succinctly summarizes the American experience as wonderfully complicated. His neon “America” signs are called Rückenfigur, a German art-historical term for a figure in a painting that is seen from behind reflecting on a broad landscape. Like America, in his view, all of Ligon’s Rückenfigurs contain quirks and flaws—letters that face the wall, black paint that hides their neon glow, or what appears to be faulty circuitry—underscoring the country’s problems as well as its possibilities. The image feels apt for an artist who has a penchant for raising questions that aren’t always meant to be answered.

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