"The art world is not a utopian free space…"
Glenn Ligon’s AMERICA
Through January, the LACMA in Los Angeles is showing the Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition Glenn Ligon: AMERICA. The first major show of probably the highest-profile African American artist was previously on view at the New York Whitney Museum; in 2012, it will travel to the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf talked with Ligon about conceptual painting, Richard Pryor’s dirty jokes, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book.
||Glenn Ligon’s paintings speak. They say things like: I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND. They tell dirty jokes. They interpret dreams about sailors, numbers, foreign languages. They make seemingly simple claims. They say “I.” I AM SOMEBODY, I WAS SOMEBODY. Yet it remains unclear whether this I might not be an Other. The voices in Ligon’s paintings resound in a variety of rhythms of text and color—in shimmering violet and orange, earth tones and hues of grey, black, and white. Words and sentences are written on the canvas as though on an empty sheet of paper or a projection screen. They can repeat themselves like a mantra until the text becomes so dense that it covers the entire picture surface—to the point that the words dissolve in color and paint and lose their legibility and meaning.
It’s precisely these volatile areas where language and painting merge that make Ligon’s works so evocative. It remains unclear whether we’re reading or seeing; they are like a concentrate of the unsaid, all the nebulous meaning residing in sentences and fragments. They circle around the themes of language, skin color, sexuality, and racism in America today. Indeed, America is the title of the Deutsche Bank-sponsored Ligon retrospective, which following its first appearance at the New York Whitney Museum is currently on show at the LACMA Los Angeles and will subsequently travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2012. The exhibition spans three decades and documents the complex oeuvre Ligon has developed since the mid-eighties that encompasses painting, installation, and neon works. "The retrospective shows the range and the diversity of the projects that I’ve done [and it] means that many, many more people will see my work than ever before," explains Ligon.
Actually, Ligon should be internationally known by now. His works are part of the most important private and museum collections in the US. He is the youngest artist to have his work in the White House; the Obamas borrowed a piece of his for their living room from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. In 2002 he took part in documenta 11, and in 2006 one of his works was featured on the cover of artforum. This past September, Jennifer Aniston purchased his painting Stranger # 44 (2011) for a record price of 450,000 dollars at the Artists for Haiti auction put on by David Zwirner and Ben Stiller. The fact that Ligon still isn’t known to the general public might be due to his work’s complexity. The America the 50-year-old’s oeuvre depicts is a country that is both poetic and latently violent—as cool as the light cast on the wall by the neon letters painted over in black in his light installation AMERICA (2008). Ligon has presented this work in a variety of different versions: sometimes the black paint nearly covers the letters, sometimes only the fronts or the outside edges.
This neon installation also combines text and painting. Since his artistic beginnings, the Bronx-born Ligon has never relinquished his connection to the medium. "When I started making art," he explains, "the painters I was interested in were de Kooning, Kline, and Rothko." Back then, in the 1980s, the New York art scene was in a state of upheaval. While a resurgence of American figurative painting was celebrated by protagonists such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, during a time of Reagonomics and AIDS New York developed into a stronghold of an increasingly politicized post-conceptual art. In the late 1970s, proponents of the so-called "Pictures Generation" had already begun to appropriate a mass media and Hollywood aesthetic. Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman focused on the commercial mechanisms of seduction in the advertising and entertainment industries to illuminate and critically analyze the gender roles and consumerist dreams of American middle class ideology. In their works with LED signs and public billboards and posters, feminist artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger adopted the look of advertising’s reduced language and particularly its slogans and claims in order to load them with subversive content. Ligon took on this thinking, adopting the thoroughly American movement of Abstract Expressionism and charging it with content similar to the Pictures Generation, thereby turning it into fertile ground for a conceptual politicized painting.
In the mid-eighties Ligon created abstract paintings in hues of grey and pink in which he used a fluid mixture of oil paint and enamel much in the manner of de Kooning. His handwriting stands out against colored backgrounds and alongside broad brushstrokes, texts scrawled in pencil that he took from gay porno magazines. Ligon carved them into the wet paint as though it were skin; the words are also reminiscent of graffiti on bathroom walls. The bodily sense these early works transport was to prove characteristic for many of his later works.
In 1988, he created the text painting that would launch his career: I AM A MAN can be read in rough black letters on a glazed white surface. The painting’s gesture recalls Andy Warhol’s early newspaper headline paintings. In Ligon’s case, however, they are signs of protest—posters of black sanitation workers on strike, demonstrating in 1968 in Memphis, which was still racially segregated at the time, because two of their colleagues had been crushed by a defective garbage truck. I AM A MAN was far more than an outcry against inhumane working conditions; the statement spoke of self-confidence and a demand for respect. Ligon removes his theme from its historical context and, like Jasper Johns’s famous Flag (1954-55), the canvas is transformed into an object that poses more questions than it answers. Like its role model, the painting itself can also be read as a protest sign. At the same time, the painting demonstratively lays claim to a body, a sex. In Untitled (I am a Man), formalities of painting and political statement merge with questions of identity that are both completely abstract and entirely personal and intimate.
That same year, Ligon began a series of works on paper that combine abstract painting with texts in stenciled lettering. Once again, he used found text material to give a voice to his paintings. For Ligon, painting is an almost bodily appropriation of language. Images arise that quote dream interpretations from so-called "Dream Books" that Ligon knew from his childhood in the 1960s and that were widespread in many African American households at the time: "EUROPEAN: If you see one in your sleep, it means financial slavery." "SAILOR: If you dream of sailors, it means constant excitement over strangers." In Ligon’s painting, these sayings, removed from their original context, come across as both surreal and explicit. Unabashed, they seem to speak of traumatic experiences, racism, and sexual desire.
In other paintings, Ligon uses quotes from a variety of sources. These can be a veiled racist critique of the African American artist Martin Puryear’s participation in the Sao Paolo Biennial, which appeared in The New York Times in 1988, or Jesse Jackson’s famous statement "I AM SOMEBODY." Ligon uses text fragments by C or James Baldwin, or a phrase from a rap by Ice Cube: WRONG NIGGA TO FUCK WITH. Several times he’s used passages from the essay How It Feels to Be Colored For Me, written in 1928 by Zora Neale Huston, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance. On one of his “Door Paintings” of 1990, which he initially made on doors and later on canvas, he repeated Huston’s sentence “I Remember the Very Day That I Became Colored” countless times. On the upper edge, the stenciled text is neatly written, but the more often it is repeated, the more minimal aberrations and smears accrue. On the lower edge of the painting, the writing is completely blurry, just like the memory it conjures up.
But why does Ligon only use the voices of others in his works, and not his own? "I’ve always found that using other people’s texts for artworks was more interesting to me than using anything I might have written," he answers. "There is something that happens when a text is made into a painting (or a neon) that presents new ideas about the text. (…) When making a work I’m trying to communicate the relationship I have with the text. (…) For me, to make a text denser in a painting is a way to get more into what that text is about."
In 1993, it wasn’t a text, but rather a photo book that served as a point of departure for Ligon’s investigations: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book with erotic nudes of black men, among them the famous Man in a Polyester Suit (1980). Ligon cut 91 photos out of the book, framed them, and hung them in two horizontal rows on the wall. Between them, he placed another two rows with printed sheets of text—78 commentaries from prominent figures, witnesses of the time, and anonymous individuals on sexuality, race, AIDS, and the politically charged debates that the book unleashed between conservative and liberal camps. While Mapplethorpe’s book caused a scandal when it appeared in 1988, Ligon’s installation Notes on the Margin of the Black Book at the 1993 Whitney Biennial did much the same. It wasn’t only because Ligon’s installation met with attitudes that were hardly any less homophobic than those confronting Mapplethorpe’s book; he was treading on delicate territory, addressing as a black man white gay desire for the other skin color, and doing it without resentment. He let everyone have their say: Christian fundamentalists, intellectuals, art collectors, Mapplethorpe’s models. And his own boyfriend, who reports that even his closest acquaintances ask if he’s into "dark meat." The commentaries that Ligon brings together paint a portrait of American society while testifying to Ligon’s own personal search for identity. The way in which he resists even the simplest of categorizations is disturbing to the viewer; Ligon subjects us to the minefield of our own deadlocked prejudices and memories.
AMERICA documents that Ligon is not only a tremendous painter, but also a master of appropriation. The exhibition traces how he moved from painting to working with found imagery. Ligon explains that Notes on the Margin of the Black Book began as a painting and drawing project. "[But] I quickly realized it was a ridiculous way to approach the photos. To comment on the photographs, it made sense to actually show them. It seemed to me that if one wanted to do a critique of Mapplethorpe’s photographs or images of black masculinity, one had to deal directly with the images. So the piece needed to include the photographs, not representations of them."
Since the 1990s, Ligon has repeatedly made photo and text works such as Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap (1992), an installation in which he combines quotes from James Baldwin with the portrait of a young black man with a clenched fist. The image comes from the book cover of the study Black Rage, which investigated the frustration and anger among young African Americans in the 1960s. Around 2000, Ligon made large-format silkscreens, including Malcolm X (Version 1) #1, which portrays the young civil rights activist in a cross between painting-by-numbers and Warhol’s Marilyn as white and with garishly colored lips. As in other works, Ligon plays off the homophobia that’s rampant in parts of the African American community, but there’s a deeper reason why he portrays the revolutionary icon Malcolm X as feminine: in his hotly debated Malcolm X biography, which came out posthumously, Columbia University professor Manning Marable writes of a sexual relationship to a white businessman that had previously been kept secret.
A series of "Joke Paintings" is dedicated to another icon of African American culture: the stand-up comedian and Hollywood actor Richard Pryor. In his performances and TV shows of the 1970s, Pryor pushed the boundaries of “good taste”—and often went far beyond them. His dirty jokes commented ruthlessly on racist and sexist clichés and phenomena of the time; there was no vulgarity they stopped short of. Ligon’s garishly colored paintings with titles like Cocaine (Pimps) (1993) or More Bitch Than Me # 2 (2004) pick up on Pryor’s jokes and let them vibrate before the eye in an almost aggressive way. They remind one of the famous “Joke Paintings” Richard Prince made in the late 1980s. The appropriation of an appropriation? Ligon lists Prince as an important influence, along with Joseph Kosuth.
But he sees a fundamental difference in an artistic approach to jokes: "One of the things that is interesting to me is that the jokes he uses in his paintings come from a particular tradition, from what we call ‘Borscht Belt humor.’ Those jokes are from the 1950s and ’60s and largely from Jewish comedians. But when rendered in his paintings, they are stripped of that context. My paintings use jokes by the comedian Richard Pryor. He was a very, very astute commentator on American morals, sexuality, racism and masculinity. His jokes are jokes, but in a way they’re not funny, if you know what I mean. They are quite sharp critiques of American society and that’s not what Richard Prince’s joke paintings are about. Also, the Pryor paintings allow me to use voice instead of text. There’s a speaking voice in those paintings that is very different from a written text. The paintings also allowed me to return to color, which I hadn’t dealt with in a long time. The scale of the paintings and the colors used are partially a response to Richard Pryor’s voice and persona. The color in those paintings was also the result of looking deeply at Warhol’s self-portraits from the ’60s. The Pryor paintings allowed me to deal with formal issues like color, but they also allowed me to engage in a deep critique on American society, a critique that in some ways can only be said with humor. A lot of things that Pryor says in his jokes are things that you can read in authors like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison. The difference is that Richard Pryor was saying this stuff on TV."
The amazing thing is how Ligon connects the two: an involvement with art history and formal questions, and an investigation into the core questions of American society. The scary thing is that he repeatedly stumbles upon traces of latent racism and homophobia, even in the apparently enlightened environment of contemporary art. Ligon sees this in a very sober way: “I don’t think the art world is a utopia. It’s not any different from the rest of society. All of the issues that are present in the society at large are also present in the art world.”
Glenn Ligon: AMERICA
23. October 2011 – 22. January 22 2012
LACMA, Los Angeles
12. February – 3. June 2012
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth