Review: "Glenn Ligon: America"

The artist's views are more than just black and white.

  • Photograph: Collection of Mellody Hobson; Glenn Ligon. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects; Los Angeles

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    Mirror

  • Photograph: Fredrik Nilsen; Glenn Ligon; Collection of Eileen Harris Norton

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    Hands

  • Photograph: Collection of Michael and Lise E; Los Angeles

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    Malcolm X (Version 1) #1

  • Photograph: Collection of the artist

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    Untitled (I Am a Man)

  • Photograph: Collection of Eileen Harris Nort; Glenn Ligon. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects; Los Angeles

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    Sun (Version 2) #1

  • Photograph: Ronald Amstutz; Glenn Ligon; Collection of the artist

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    Self-Portrait

Photograph: Collection of Mellody Hobson; Glenn Ligon. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects; Los Angeles

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Mirror

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Over the years, Glenn Ligon has taken several star turns at the Whitney in group shows, including 1994's epochal "Black Male," so this solo retrospective at the museum seems long overdue. It comes as something of a relief, then, that rookie curator Scott Rothkopf hasn't flubbed it: He gives the artist's work the magisterial treatment it deserves.

The exhibition opens with a gallery of the works that secured Ligon's reputation: ten narrow vertical panels from 1990--92, bearing phrases stenciled in black oil stick on white grounds. The texts, quoted from Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Genet, Ice Cube and Jesse Jackson, or written by the artist himself, repeat over and over again, from top to bottom. The oil stick clogs the stencil so that they become progressively more smudged and harder to read as one scans downward. As the words move from clarity to near incomprehensibility—Hurston's i am not tragically colored, for instance, morphs into i am not tragic and colored i am not, depending on the way a line breaks—they descend into literal blackness, providing a perfect visual metaphor for the breakdown of language, meaning, and our certainties about race and subjectivity.

Ligon went on to use texts in a host of other ways. One series of prints, for instance, wryly uses friends' descriptions of the artist in a wanted poster depicting him as a runaway slave. In another, Ligon archly recounts incidents from his life as mock slave narratives. These works are funny, but they also hint at the darker side of being African-American, not only in the country as a whole, but in the art world in particular. The last point is made especially clear in Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991--93). Here, the artist comments on Robert Mapplethorpe's notorious volume of photographs of mostly naked black men published in 1988, when Mapplethorpe himself was at the center of culture-war controversy. Ligon has taken all the images from the books and flanked them with framed commentaries from the photographer, his models, artists, critics, historians, right-wing polemicists and random denizens of a gay bar. These contradictory, overlapping voices continue to be engrossing, as they make us reconsider desire, beauty, race, homosexuality and, ultimately, our own relationship to Mapplethorpe's unsettling, compelling images.

After several rooms filled with such black-and-white works, the one with brightly colored canvases seems almost like an explosion. A group of square paintings stenciled in electric hues—some dating from 1993--96, others from 2004—bear jokes from Richard Pryor's stand-up routines of the 1970s. Scabrous and scatological, Pryor's outrageous comedy touched raw nerves of racism and homophobia. In Ligon's renditions, optical buzz and smeary lettering make the words challenging to decipher. They slow us down, so that we don't laugh so much as wince as we contemplate the persistent prejudice and concomitant self-loathing that provoked Pryor's rants.

A final room of text paintings is based on James Baldwin's essay "Stranger in the Village," about his experience as the only black man in a small Swiss town whose inhabitants have never before seen a person of color. On the largest, a 12-foot-wide diptych from 2004 called Untitled (Conclusion), Baldwin's recollections are stenciled in thick black oil stick on a heavy black ground. Overlaid with glittering coal dust, the words nearly disappear within a dense, darkling surface. They seem to collapse under the weight of their own materiality, as if the burden of blackness had grown too heavy for language to bear.

These plays on blackness have proved to be richly productive for Ligon's art, but they've also typecast him as an artist concerned solely with race. This view overlooks the universal connotations of his work, its applicability to outsiders all of all stripes. Because Ligon's target isn't racism per se; it's the cherished convention that whiteness is the norm while everything else is a special case.

Both the contradictions and consequences of this view are spelled out—quite literally—in three recent neon sculptures featuring the word america, in the exhibition's last gallery. One has the letters turned toward the wall, recalling the distress signal of a flag flown upside down. Another blinks crazily as if it were on the fritz. The third is painted completely black, with light escaping only at the interstices of its joints. This final, paradoxical piece—black yet illuminating—suggests a country gone wrong, struggling mightily to shine like a beacon to ourselves and others.

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