Glenn Ligon, 50, is a Bronx-born African American who has devoted his career to making word-based art that elegizes his reflections on being gay and black in America. The New York-based artist’s retrospective is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through June 5.
President and Mrs. Obama decorated the White House with an artwork by Ligon. The 1992 canvas, borrowed from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, is titled “Black Like Me #2,” and like a lot of Ligon’s work, it’s a painting with a racially charged text. This one’s a sentence pulled from the 1961 memoir “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who artificially darkened his skin to experience the segregated South as a black man. “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence” is stenciled in black letters across the top of the canvas, and repeats line after line until the words at the bottom dissolve into murky blackness.
“Glenn Ligon: America” begins with expressionistically brushed oil paintings into which he scrawls phrases alluding to his homoerotic self-awakening. Then come series of word paintings with capital letters stenciled in black oil stick, some with coal dust and black backgrounds that render them more or less illegible. We are told they quote passages from Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and other writers, mainly African American. “I remember the very day that I became colored,” for example, is from an essay by Zora Neale Hurston.
More stenciled words, now in hot colors, recite racially loaded jokes by Richard Pryor. On another wall are Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs of black men accompanied by excerpts from critical and theoretical texts about the once-controversial series. Billie Holiday laments emanate faintly from packing crates that, according to the wall text, represent the way a slave once famously shipped himself to freedom (image below).
Ligon’s most famous series, from 1993, adapts 19th-century runaway slave ads that substitute descriptions of himself supplied by friends: “Ran away, Glenn, a young black man twenty-eight years old, about five feet six inches high. Dressed in blue jeans. . . . ” In the Whitney’s Madison Avenue window is a neon sign Ligon recently made that reads, “Negro Sunshine,” an ambiguous phrase coined by Gertrude Stein.
In the past few decades, legions of visual artists have made paintings of words — canvases covered with dictionary definitions, synonyms, rebuses, jokes and admonitions. In general, they don’t do much for me. But Ligon’s lettered homages to writers amplify the borrowed words with a quivering sensitivity, and their repetition transforms the phrases into meditations on the plight of being black and gay in the United States.
Imagining himself as a runaway slave suggests a touching vault of imagination that — like Toni Morrison’s first-person slave novels — underlines the horror of the toxic erstwhile normalcy of slavery. The murmuring crates are a similarly doleful reminder of the lengths to which slaves sought freedom. And his reflections on the social perception of the black male, and on his own sexuality, add complexity to the artist’s examination of his identity.
These are grand themes hinging on the black and gay experience in America. Yet I have reservations about Ligon’s work. His technical range is severely limited and the imagery highly derivative of artists such as Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Jenny Holzer. For all the inarguable righteousness of his project, I cannot help but feel his work is overly self-referential, lacking the universality of great art.
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