Speaking of Blackness

John Haber
in New York City

Glenn Ligon: America

In 1988 Glenn Ligon cut through painting and found his voice. He pared away the brushwork and color, to paint thin sans serif block capitals against an even plainer white ground: I AM A MAN. That moment comes early in his Whitney retrospective, and he never looks back.

The moment discarded the weight of tradition, in his own earlier and much looser style, deriving from Abstract Expressionism. It aligned him literally and figuratively with the cutting edge, in a decade thoroughly skeptical about painting. It asserted his identity as an artist and a man—more specifically, a gay black artist and a gay black man. And yet it did so with the words and images of others. Ligon took the text and poster format from twenty years earlier, from striking black sanitation workers in Memphis. Identity may not be so solitary and simple after all, and who is to say how long it will last? Glenn Ligon'a Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When . . .) (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992)

Becoming colored

Glenn Ligon broke another rule as well: in text as art, never ever speak of oneself. Oh, sure, one can do so indirectly. He was following the "Pictures generation," when conceptual art demanded demanding attention. For Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, or Sherrie Levine, appropriation took on Modernism and the male gaze. For Ligon, as for Cy Gavin, "I am a man" has its own sexual and racial implications.

Referring to oneself in the first person, though, was another matter, unless one aspires like Sophie Calle to fiction or confession. One may sternly quote Immanuel Kant, like Stephen G. Rhodes, or sternly erase him, like contributors to "The Last Newspaper" at the New Museum—but one must never take words at face value. Synthetic Cubism rips its materials right out of the newspaper, and if they change meaning in the process, all the better. With Lawrence Weiner, text seems to have drifted free of an instruction manual, in order to exist somewhere between a philosophy department, the space of a museum, and nowhere at all. With Ed Ruscha, cryptic assertions drift free of middle-class anxieties and Southern California landscapes.

John Baldessari can mouth platitudes, and Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer can fling them in one's face, but believe in them? Not on your life. Ligon is very much a believer. He takes his text personally, because he identifies with his sources and with their words. He speaks of himself, blackness, and homosexuality, and somehow people were willing to listen. Identity is fragile all the same.

Untitled (I Am a Man) is not a great painting or even a very good one. It just announces something very good indeed. Ligon, born in 1960, was just eight years old when those sanitation workers went on strike (and just three when the March on Washington inspired a black artist collective in "Spiral"), and the words and the assertions multiply when he turns thirty. So does the contrast between black and white. The brush is gone, and so is the canvas, in favor of readymade doors. For just over two years, he covers them top to bottom with stenciled words—each with only a handful of words, repeated over and over.

He is insisting, not shouting, and he insistently risks effacing his own message. He quotes Jesse Jackson and Zora Neale Hurston, blacks known for their eloquence and pride, and Jean Genet, known for what he had to lose as a prostitute or an ally of black men. For once, he also uses his own words, but the texts take on a scary anonymity. They may lighten, darken, or blur together as they descend. Oil stick and gesso roughen them up, and one in white on white comes close to vanishing altogether. That one bears the words I Was Somebody, in the past tense.

Others, like I Remember the Very Day That I Became Colored, move from past to present to state a shifting identity. One runs I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background, but the boundary between text and background is anything but sharp. I Am Somebody leaves open who or what that somebody is. The line breaks in repeated text fall where they have to fall, given the width of the ground—once, in the case of I Do Not Feel Colored, after Feel. The words can feel confrontational or vulnerable, and Ligon feels the confrontation or vulnerability in his gut. So will you.

Entering the history books

"Glenn Ligon: America" runs to ten rooms and about a hundred works, plus a huge sign downstairs facing Madison Avenue. The neon reads Black Sunshine, a quote from Gertrude Stein that finds hope in self-negation. The retrospective feels uncluttered, however. In fact, it comes down in the end to a burst of activity over five years, starting with the doors. Ligon puts self-definition under suspicion, along with definition by others. That series has come to define him as an artist all the same.

The artist is not denying his blackness or his homosexuality, not by any means. He is boasting of them. He is simply asking how identity comes into being, in the eyes of oneself and others. For Ligon it plainly took a few years, as words started to interrupt his rather old-fashioned painting. Before attaining ambiguity, he first has to deal with ambivalence. He entered the Whitney's Independent Study Program in his early twenties, a time when Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism, and appropriation were fighting it out. Thelma Golden, then at the Whitney, has moved on to the Studio Museum in Harlem—with its own programs of emerging artists and artists in residence.

Words first interrupt the paint in the most literal way possible—incised in creamy white with the tail end of a brush. Then Ligon paints words, as if afraid to lose self-expression, imitating silkscreens by hand. His sources, such as "dream books" or a New York Times review of Martin Puryear, place the work within the African American community, but on canvas the words aim to provoke others. Some look at first like dictionary definitions—only to speak of joys, traps, and enemies. "To dream of colored people means you will be comfortably rich," one begins. "Enjoy it now : darker times ahead."

After the stencils, the art delves further into black history, like Umar Rashid in paint, but not to abandon the project of self-description or its fragility. Ligon adopts the posters with which southerners advertised their runaway slaves, but with the actual date, 1993, and modern quotes from such names as bell hooks, Derek Walcott, and Josephine Baker: "The very idea of America makes me sick." Wood crates, alluding to a slave's escape route, contain audio of Billie Holiday's song about lynching, "Strange Fruit." However, Ligon marks the crates Fragile, and other text in Runaways speaks of trials and uncertainties: "I have tried to present the truth."

The artist is inserting himself into history, but history has a way of catching up. As in the Whitney 1993 Biennial, he reproduces all sixty-nine photographs from Black Book, by Robert Mapplethorpe. They show black shaven heads, bare feet, and male butts—but here interspersed with framed text by scholars, critics, and ordinary witnesses. They argue over a book celebrated for documenting blackness and the toll of AIDS, but also angrily dismissed as racist. Were the nudes "a public defense of sexual images" or "not truly pornographic"? Either way, "one half of them are dead," and Mapplethorpe should have had a collaborator like this all along.

Sexuality stenciled words enters around the same time, again darkly. White quotes James Baldwin, but the series is black on black. Even when Ligon attends the Million Man March in 1995, he cannot see things in black and white. We're Black and Strong, some silkscreens have it, and coal dust makes the textures of lived experience vivid. Yet he sees the march not solely as human connections, but also with the detachment of a camera, which sees isolated hands and the backs of heads, much like for Demetrius Oliver and Lorna Simpson. Self-portraits from 1996 again show backs and profiles, like mug shots.

Who are you?

Something did change, though, in that year. Put it down to the thrill of the march or an artist's growing success. At some point, he seems halfway pleased. Hey, he can even tell a joke. As early as 1993 he quotes Richard Pryor, with cock jokes and jokes about a young man who says that "black is beautiful." His elders may reply, "That nigger's crazy," but he and Pryor take that as a compliment.

These paintings return to sloppy lettering and bold, even garish colors. They also cement a form, in text painting about sexuality and blackness. The Whitney calls this a midcareer retrospective, but most of it does take place in those five years. From that point forward, Ligon seems pretty much to be looking back. Some works on paper even mimic end-of-year museum reports. The curator, Scott Rothkopf, reinforces the impression in the room after the stand-up routines, which assembles drawings in no particular order.

The rest cannot help feeling like a postscript, although sometimes a powerful postscript. James Baldwin returns on a larger scale and more illegible than ever. The series again incorporates coal dust, to unsettling effect. It records Baldwin in Europe in 1953, as perhaps the first black man that the Swiss village had ever seen. Ligon has scraped one these surfaces and let others run, and the mutilations and stains reflect the writer's isolation. They may also refuse his discomfort or inflict it.

Other work lightens up too much for its own good. At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Ligon used his residency in 2000 not just to work with the community, but specifically with children. He took images from coloring books and invited them to color them in. He found that he had to teach the kids about black leaders and some basic history. And the room at the Whitney, hung floor to ceiling, cannot help looking like a children's book. It also looks too much like lesser Andy Warhol or Shepard Fairey.

Most recently, the work lightens up in another way, in neon. A final room has three versions of the word America—bright and proud but also discolored by paint and manipulation. Several letters face backward, both as a demand for reflection on America and in sadness at a country's backward march toward prejudice. Ligon says that he was thinking of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Perhaps one could extend that to the old warning against two Americas, one black and one white.

Ruscha and Ligon also appear concurrently at the Whitney, in gifts and loans from Emily Fisher Landau—a collector who prefers chilly art covering fragile identities. Ligon adds white heat to black conceptual art, and he does it while questioning himself. He knows that any text, any art, and any individual changes by going out into the world. It may be a long stretch to a nineteenth-century white woman, but his somebody makes me think of Emily Dickinson: "I'm nobody! Who are you?"

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"Glenn Ligon: America" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through June 5, 2011.


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