Glenn Ligon’s Self-Referential Elegies

Glenn Ligon, 50, the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, 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. His technical range is severely limited, and 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.
Glenn Ligon (via
Glenn Ligon (via

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.

Click here or on an image to read my review in The Washington Post.

Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me #2, 1992, paint stick and acrylic gesso on canvas, 80 x 30 inches, HIrshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (on loan to The White House)
Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me #2, 1992, paint stick and acrylic gesso on canvas, 80 x 30 inches, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC (on loan to The White House)

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).

Glenn Ligon, from "Runaways" series, 1993, lithograph, 16 × 12 inches, Whitney Museum, NY.
Glenn Ligon, from “Runaways” series, 1993, lithograph, 16 × 12 inches, Whitney Museum, NY.

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.

Installation view of "Glenn Ligon: America" at the Whitney Museum.
Installation view of “Glenn Ligon: America” at the Whitney Museum.

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.

Jason Edward Kaufman


6 Responses

  1. For every hyphen ones takes we weaken our art, as it diverts from creative arts true purpose. To seek the essential of being human, defining us, exploring our world, and seeking God to be as One. All include the word WE, never I. Self expression is for children, and therapy, Creative art is an exploration of our place in the Universe, our meaning, our goals.

    Now, art has been for far too long as the West sees it about the white mans place, dominance. So most artists have disappeared as they kowtowed to the powers that be, some things never change, just mutate. Now each has his own tiny retinue of followers in the artscene industry, a schism of art into cults. And will be forgotten. Artists that survive as foundations for the future, and survive in stimulating our souls have come from many cultures.

    They are true to themselves, and use the language built from their own surrounding and life, but seek to use them to connect and trigger emotions of universality. Rufino Tamayo, Romare Bearden, Roy deCarava, Imogen Cunnigham, and Sonia Delaunay all sought what is universally human. They were proud of their heritages, rightflully so, but were not limited by them. They sought the best and most meaningful, wherever it lay.

    Ligon’s work has some merit, but it is of generations past, not his own. There is validity to his work, but a staleness also. It is excellent in educating, but not elevating. The racial issue is his strong point, but he did not live the issues he describes. Racism of course still exists, it always has and always will, but racists tend to be of another word also, Aholes. Its just another embodiment of their bitterness sterility and hate.

    The sexual issues are more personal and his own, they dont connect outside a small segment of society, and so illustration of emotional and politicla issues, not art. Gay art is no more great art than white art, that of privilege and decadence like a Hirst or Koons. They are Fine art, things created to appease the ruling class, not connect us together. They are ment to seperate, to give those who rose in our situation and desire to maintain the status quo, to feel superior and so steal even more.

    Like Robert Mapplethorpe, who created truly great art in his nudes, both black book and white male and female bodies. He also had a fetish side that is rather irrelevant as creative art. Just becaue one is an artist doesnt mean one shits art, or a verified one by a bought degree. Some pieces may achieve greatness, but lots of crap along the way. Picasso certainly proved this.

    But the best “gay” photographer seldom revealed any sort of gay side to him, though his male nudes are great, Minor White. Hetero men do not seem to be able to create great works of male nudes outside of sculpture, where the males torquing athelticism provide form and movement superior to the feminine. Heteros do women better in two dimension in my opinion. And Minor White always sought in naure and man, God. The concept so feared and derided in the artscene today. Yet the only concept ever truly worth evolving and striving for.

    Our hubris of contempt art knows no bounds now, and so loved by the robber barons of today. True creative art knows of mans weakness, as Clint Eastrood said, “A mans gotta know his limitations”. Todays artistes arrogantly dont. And so create weakness, as they can not rise above our base natures. We are highly evolved animals, and far from being perfect. We are NOT the measure of all things, but the creature who measures things.

    Acknowledging our weakness in humility allows us to rise above, not to godhood, but to elevate man and see him at his highest common denominator. Our role as artists, one we must get back to, it has been ignore for far too long. Our arrogance is our downfall in seeing our particularities as strengths, when they are insignificant in creating works that reflect Truth and selfless passion. And deflect from common purpose, evolving into better children of God. We are but humans, and can only grow together, or fall.

    Save the color rich and spiritual Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo), tear down the self absorbed and souless Ivories.

  2. Donald, I agree with your emphasis on transcendence and humanity, but we don’t want to smack every square peg into a round hole of approved goodness. We can approve the more universally profound without utterly condemning all the rest, some of which is quite good, after all. What’s bothersome is when its marketers and cronies would have us confuse it with the very best, lowering the standards for achievement.

  3. I dont mind there being all kinds of art, but as the inbred and decadent artworld has denied the word Art to have any definition, it becomes meaningless and so easily used for commercial purposes. There are many types of art, applied, fine, creative, graphic design, each with their own purpose and role, and therefore form, in our culture. Art is NOT culture, but one aspect of it, creativity lies everywhere, lately abandoning art altogether.

    we now only get pop, lady gaga and talking heads equivalent, where is Miles and Coltrane? where is the spiritual? Tossed aside as meaningless, and the availabilty in galleries shut out. With all the thousadands and thousnds of galleries out there, how many follow up the best of Modernism with great art that is relevant to all of humanity? Zero.

    If you can find any, please show me, i have been looking and looking knowing great art is out there, but the established monopoly will ot have it, for if they do, they will fal as the see no evil, ehar no evil, speak no evil PC gang of effette children they are. All the galleries look the same, the people dress the same, talk teh same, and think the same PC nonsense. They are spiritual lemmings, easily led by their pied pipers of business into callowed neediness, the Gagosians and Saatchi’s of the museo/academic/gallery complex. There is NO responisible individuality, you know, adults. Just tons of adolescent, self exhibitionist Meism.

    The new Academy has been reformed, it is not fixable. We are at the same situation of Cezanne and the Post Impressionists, rebellion is the only answer. And all the so called rebelling of these insiders is a joke, there can be no revolt from inside the belly of the beast. Just illusion.

    art collegia delenda est

  4. For instance, I write regularly on Culture Monster of the LA Times. I have positive things to say and get good info to go to local galleries perhaps 3 or four times a year. And then local travel exhibits at museums about the same, contemporary or modern stuff, thats it. More with other and past culture of course, but i find the few talented artists are those who graduated from artschools naive and emptyheaded, then grew as you need that MFA to get anywhere now. Most are coddled into a blankheaded complacency of wannabe career, But a few, Anselm Kiefer at the extreme, grew up. None besides Kiefer I find great, but have seen talent worth noting and buying a few pieces if i was interested and can recommend, its pretty sparse. And no one gallery interested in that level of honesty adnd technical ability. They are scattered “shows”(its all about presentation and being “Smart” now) and seldom repeated.

    Right now they are talking again about Govan’s dream of the hanging choo choo and levitating giant pet rock. WTF!!! Unfortunately the Koons loco is not dead, Nuestro Pueblo could be saved indefinitely and gotten buses to tour it for less than that $25 mil, but LACMA is only using the Watts Towers to promote itself in its money drive. They want to fill their coffers commenting on the Towers, but not listing it as the object of its raised monies, instead going into “deserving and interested projects”. Like pet rock and toy trains. God help us.

  5. Saw his “show” a couple of weeks ago, terrible as i thought, and Mapplethorpes photos are only god when of body builders, teh black and white males and lisa Lyon. the rest ar ejsut a buncha gay dudes sitting around voguing. The quotes similarly get weaker and weaker, Baldwin was a great writer, but lots of trash too. And more and more self pitying and myopic, therapy.

    And almost all hiss vanishing quote boards start with “I”. That proves the point contempt art is all about selfish expression.
    Its not about you bub, its about US.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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