The mid-career Retrospective of New York artist Glenn Ligon currently on view at the Whitney Museum of Art (March 10 – June 5, 2011) showcases approximately one hundred works by the artist spanning nearly three decades of innovation. The wide array of media, including paintings, photographs, prints, drawing, video and sculptural installation, and depth of source material focus broadly but unflinchingly on the cultural understandings of race in the United States. Taking inspiration from nearly every corner of popular culture, Ligon imparts his vision in a dramatic, multi-directional approach that activates and educates the viewer, encouraging him to take an individual point of view. Though dedicated to the state of the contemporary Black American, Ligon’s emphasis on history and transformational events places the work within a context of American experience that relates itself to an audience of all ages, races and sexualities.
Many of Ligon’s large canvases, including six paintings containing passages from African American author James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” powerfully portray the emotional turmoil behind the literary discussion of race by obscuring, smearing, and loading their text with heavy traces of oil and coal dust. The words on the canvas appear legible in sections, but attempts to follow Baldwin’s accounts of life in an all-white tribal village are ultimately met with Ligon’s impenetrable veiling. The choice of a black and white color palette mirrors not only the racial issues being discussed but the austere, scientific nature of Baldwin’s documentation. Ligon’s approach to the comedy of Richard Pryor, handled in a later series of paintings, shows a similarly heavy-handed display of text but shockingly activates the technique through the use of bright, contrasting colors. Though less difficult to decipher than the previously discussed Baldwin canvases, the Pryor quotations require a strain from the viewer that relates directly to the tension of its content, which oscillates between funny, offensive, poignant and disturbing. Ligon’s intrusive use of color and texture upon these transcriptions add significant weight to their already potent literary sources and their play between document and abstraction exposes conflicting mental states at work in the understanding of racial prerogative.
Another powerful piece, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, continues Ligon’s process of commentary through appropriation. Here, images from Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic Black Book series are displayed alongside contemporary public reactions and reviews, as well as reminiscence from Mapplethorpe and his subjects. The wide variety of opinions juxtaposed with Mapplethorpe’s beautiful yet provocative photographs, including the iconographic “Man in a Polyester Suit” adds a pointed historical rootedness to the work that emphasizes the threatening cultural response to the black man at the time of its production. This implication, though absent from the timeless, classicizing aesthetic of the original Black Book, is crucial to the understanding of sexual and racial roles within the scope of artistic creation in America. Ligon’s kinship with the subjects of the photographs as African American individuals and his sympathy with Mapplethorpe as a fearless creator place him in a mediary position, which allows him to empower both groups through the addition of his meticulously chosen text.
Finally, the neon sculptural installations, one of which, “Negro Sunshine” was especially commissioned for the show, provide a seemingly simple yet deconstructed view of Ligon’s America. In a darkened room, three neon sculptures reading “America” encircle the viewer as if to offer some sort of advertisement. The first installation appears conventional in its depiction, though the guise of its commercialism is somehow disturbed by the haphazard hanging of cords. However, as one looks across the room, he is met with the oddly disturbing sight of the word “America,” spelled entirely with backwards letters. Here the objectivity of Ligon’s text has dissolved into commentary on the empty promise of a forward-thinking society. Ligon’s manipulation of the language is striking here in its stark compression of legibility and incomprehension.
Though the exhibition’s more pictorial representations such as the iconic 1970s style coloring book series and runaway slave posters are successful in their juxtaposition of stereotypical black imagery with banal, sometimes humorous language, it is Ligon’s textual representations that pack the most punch at his Whitney mid-career Retrospective. By offering qualitative information in a manner that is illegible, confusing or absurd, Ligon presses the viewer beyond the simple reception of words and into a deeper understanding of their underlying cultural, historical and artistic intentions. In this way, he challenges the viewer to take in not only the sights and sounds of the American experience, but the tense feelings of inner turmoil, strength and transformation central to his understanding of Black culture.