Glenn Ligon

Whitney Museum, New York

Through June 5
by Jess Wilcox

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      Glenn Ligon
      Rückenfigur
      2009
      Neon and paint
      24 x 145 inches (61 x 368.3 cm)
      Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee
      Photograph by Ronald Amstutz
      © Glenn Ligon

      View Gallery

      The subtitle of Glenn Ligon’s midcareer retrospective at the Whitney, AMERICA, draws attention to the continually disputed ground of national identity and brings to mind the furious debates about the politics of representation of the 1990s, an era marked by the so-called culture wars. One benefit of the retrospective’s timing is that while some hot tempers have cooled over the past two decades, recent events have made clear that many of the central questions raised in this period have not yet been resolved, but rather cloaked in new terminology with distinct threats that rearticulate the Other.

      Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), the artist’s literal and contextual reframing of Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial publication of photographs of sexualized black men, proves as complex as ever. Framed commentaries from artists, critics, scholars, politicians and others that express a wide array of perspectives and opinions are juxtaposed with the stark black and white photographs. Ligon’s subject position as author is not easily simplified into categories such as black, gay, or artist and presumed liberal defender of free speech. This slipperiness—which supposedly comprises interest groups characteristic of ‘identity politics’—thus highlights the fluctuating grayness of identity in relational context.

      With the long view offered by the survey format, the exhibition’s highlight is the opportunity to closely follow Ligon’s investigation of the opacity and politics of language. The perpetual conundrum of language—how context renders meanings distinct, yet language’s inherent iterability continually unfixes itself from one context to another—rises to the fore. Throughout Ligon’s work, modes of transmission a speaker’s voice, repetition, quotation or medium alter connotation.

      The earliest works in AMERICA are paintings smeared with pale colors and scrawled with excerpts from gay erotica written in pencil—making explicit the sexual desire in the expressive palette strokes. Here begins the exhibition’s narrative of Ligon’s journey with language, which he later states as an ambition “to make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it.” What these never-before-exhibited paintings reveal is how the physicality of painterly abstraction informs his mature, celebrated work with language. In contrast to pioneering conceptualist Lawrence Weiner, who also uses language as material, albeit in its most abstracted manner as a dematerialized component, Ligon always insists on reflecting on real world fleshiness and essentially interpersonal conditions of language.

      Ligon articulates that language has power to bring to mind associative connotations as well as explicit denotations perhaps most elegantly in his well-known oil stick paintings that obscure themselves in the process of making. In them, excess pigment builds up, increasingly concealing and blurring the stenciled text of quotes by astute observers of race relations and political oppression such as Ralph Ellison, Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, and in another series, Richard Pryor. In one work, the repetition of Jesse Jackson’s verse “I am somebody” reads in a plethora of ways: as a wishful incantation, a practical mantra, the fading echo of generations of black Americans throughout history, or redundancy’s ability to make plain language strange and drain it of meaning.

      Past criticism of Ligon’s work as literal has been shallow, overlooking the textures and mosaics of language, ignoring rich interpretations, and reducing original sources and context to singular meanings. The exhibition’s thorough and chronological presentation fights this tendency, as language thickens through accumulation and use of materials such as stylized typography, silkscreen, coal dust and neon tubing.

      An encounter with a particularly sticky black on black painting, White #14 (1993-94), serves as a metaphor for how Ligon’s oeuvre produces meaning. Initially inscrutable under lights reflecting off the rippled surface, the painting requires that the viewer change perspective to read its constituent parts. Taking time to examine multiple points of views, single words and phrases emerge: “mask,” “whiteness,” “problem,” “property,” “all the colours,” and the fortuitous “not impossible to analyse,” which could also serve as a key. Upon investigation it can be discovered that this excerpt of a Richard Dyer text ruminates on how whiteness is unmarked and functions as the social norm, rendering it difficult to represent. Perhaps this knowledge will lead to reading Dyer’s essay, or perhaps the viewer will walk away with the observation that this statement is hazy, only visible obliquely. This obstinate murkiness throws itself in front of clear communication, entangling matter and message. Since language is not transparent, discourse about identity and representation is enriched by its unforgiving material re-presentations by an artist such as Ligon. 

      Jess Wilcox is an independent curator based in New York City.

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