Glenn Ligon is an African American conceptual artist whose work raises questions about race, language, desire, sexuality, and identity. Ligon engages in intertextuality with other works from the visual arts, literature, and history, as well as his own life. Ligon’s work is a direct challenge to American sensibilities and is greatly influenced by his experiences as an African American and as a homosexual living in the United States. Given his start by an NEA grant for drawing in 1989, Ligon hasn’t looked back. The artist has produced works in multiple media, including painting, neon, video, photography, and digital media such as Adobe Flash for his work Annotations.
Ligon’s work spans sculptures, prints, drawings, mixed media and even neon signs but painting remains his core activity. His paintings involve hand stenciling of literary fragments, jokes, and favorite quotes from a selection of authors, directly onto the surface. The 1989 Brooklyn art show “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” was his first solo exhibition. This show established Ligon’s reputation for creating large, text-based paintings in which he repeats a phrase chosen from literature or other sources over and over, eventually dissipating into murk. His masterpiece, Untitled (I Am a Man) (1988), is a work which reinterprets of the signs carried by striking sanitation workers during the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968 — made famous by Ernest Withers’ photographs of the march – the first example of his use of text. This march provided the backdrop for the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel. The repeated phrase, I am a man, reinforces the message that all men are created equal and deserve respect regardless of their socio-economic status. Another series of large paintings was based on children’s interpretations of 1970s black-history coloring books.
Glenn Ligon – Untitled “I Am A Man” (1988)
In the photo essay, A Feast of Scraps (1994–98), his examination of black maleness, Ligon inserted stereotypical and pornographic photographs of black men, complete with invented captions (“mother knew,” “I fell out” “It’s a process”) into albums of family snapshots including graduation photographs, vacation snapshots, pictures of baby showers, birthday celebrations, and baptisms, some of which include the artist’s own family. Like almost all of Ligon’s art, this project draws out the secret histories and submerged meanings of inherited texts and images.
For Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), Ligon separately framed 91 erotic photographs of black males cut from Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 “Black Book,” installing them in two horizontal rows. Between them are two more rows of small framed typed texts, 78 comments on sexuality, race, AIDS, art and the politically inflamed controversy over Mapplethorpe’s work launched by then-Texas Congressman Dick Armey.
Ligon has made neon art since 2005. Warm Broad Glow (2005), Ligon’s first exploration in neon, uses a fragment of text from Three Lives, the 1909 novel by American author Gertrude Stein. Ligon rendered the words “negro sunshine” in warm white neon, the letters of which were then painted black on the front. In 2008, the piece was selected to participate in the Renaissance Society’s group exhibit, “Black Is, Black Ain’t” and appeared on the Whitney Museum’s facade in 2011. Other neon works are derived from neon sculptures by Bruce Nauman; One Live and Die (2006) stems from Nauman’s 100 Live and Die (1984), for example.
In 2008, Ligon completed The Death of Tom an abstractionist recreation of the final scene in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent movie Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Playing the character of Tom, Ligon had himself filmed re-creating the last scene of Porter’s movie, which also provided his film’s title. But the film was incorrectly loaded in the hand-crank camera that the artist used so no imagery appeared on film. Embracing this apparent failure, Ligon decided to show his film as an abstract progression of lights and darks with a narrative suggested by the score composed and played by jazz musician Jason Moran.
In 2005, Ligon won an Alphonse Fletcher Foundation Fellowship for his art work. In 2006 he was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Painting. In 2010, he won a United States Artists Fellow award.
In 2009, President Barack Obama added Ligon’s 1992 Black Like Me No. 2, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to the White House collection, where it was installed in the President’s private living quarters.The text in the selected painting is from John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir Black Like Me, the account of a white man’s experiences traveling through the South after he had his skin artificially darkened. The words “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence” are repeated in capital letters that progressively overlap until they coalesce as a field of black paint. In 2010 he was elected into the National Academy of Design.
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