Glenn Ligon’s work shares elements with certain of his peers in the New York art world, such as a palette frequently restricted to monochrome or grayscale ranges, commercially flavored media (neon and screen printing, for example), and a heavy use of text and photography arranged in a grid matrix. However, compared to counterparts such as Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, and Lawrence Weiner, all of whom use text, neon, or both, Ligon’s work can be much more accessible and engaging.
This is for the simple reason that unlike the artists above, who may employ an anonymous authorial voice that seems to come from nowhere and no context, Ligon’s texts are almost invariably products of real people saying recognizable things about the real world. That world, in Ligon’s work, is one of a cultured, sophisticated African-American thinker. (Ligon has said, justifiably, that his work deals with “American history,” not some separate thing called African-American history, since we Americans all share an interest in the topic of race. He might well say the same thing about sexuality. The artist is gay, and the work often has homosexual themes, but we all share an interest in the topic of sexuality.)
To explore Ligon’s work is to be acquainted, or reacquainted, with a canon of black literary and cultural heroes from the nineteenth century through Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights era: Harriet Tubman, Henry Box Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Ernest C. Withers, as well as iconic figures from politics and entertainment: Jesse Jackson, Richard Pryor, and Isaac Hayes. Throughout, Ligon is also in dialogue with contemporary African-American leaders in the art world, such as Eileen Harris Norton, Martin Puryear, Thelma Golden, Adrian Piper, and Darby English. Altogether, as an introduction to highbrow African-American culture, one could do much worse than to use Ligon as a syllabus. Conspicuous by their absence, however, are lower-brow representatives of the same community. One will have to look elsewhere for visual art related to Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry, as they do not seem to have captured Ligon’s interest.
What is Ligon’s perspective on this history? As described in his writings and interviews, it is that of someone who was made all the more conscious of his membership in the black community through having experienced a significant separation from it at an early age, for the purpose of schooling. His striving parents ensured that, though not from a wealthy family, he would have the best possible education, first at the Walden School in New York (there are a few of his old Walden report cards in the exhibition) and then at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. (I can fancifully imagine Ligon’s parents making a remark like that made by Christopher Hitchens’s also not affluent mother, on the importance of education and ensuring that their son made it to Oxford: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it.”)
The experience of elite liberal education undoubtedly gave Ligon a distinctive outlook on the issue of race inAmericathat is at the core of much of his work. It would have combined a certain guilty conscience aboutU.S.racial history with a conviction that matters might be improved through dialogue and policy, as well as a degree of disconnection from the grittier day-to-day experience of less privileged Americans, racial and otherwise. Ligon, as a scholarship student, would probably have been more aware of the gap between theory and experience than his more privileged classmates, and one could very well interpret his later work as partly generated by such a gap. The combination of that experience, plus his own savvy intelligence, would have given Ligon a degree of expertise in addressing well-meaning if not necessarily well-informed white audiences on the topic of racism ways that might be provocative and challenging, without being alienating. This dexterity and sensitivity is on view throughout the show. Although Ligon’s source material includes shocking, explicit texts and images from Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Pryor, and others, his treatment of them is reflective and distancing, allowing them to become objects for thoughtful examination.
Under no circumstances should one overlook Yourself In The World: Selected Writings and Interviews, a book of Ligon’s texts edited by curator Scott Rothkopf. Ligon writes vividly, clearly, and directly, more so than any graduate of the theory-besotted Whitney Independent Study Program has a right to do. The writings in the first part of the book define a canon of artists—David Hammons, Dave McKenzie, Wardell Milan II, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and others—whose work matters to Ligon and sheds light on his own work. In the second part of the book, interviews let Ligon talk about his work and tell stories that illustrate his distinctive perspective (such as the maxim illustrating his parents’ values, which he repeated again to applause in his evening lecture at the Modern: “Private school, yes; hundred-dollar sneakers, no.”) To quote Scott Zumwalt, Ligon’s sixth-grade teacher at Walden, from his 1972 End of Year Report, on view in the exhibition: “Glenn has a really fine mind. He is clever and intelligent… I feel that both intellectually and emotionally, Glenn is an exceptional person.” Indeed.