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Collections> Browse Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon
Holdings (27)
23 edition prints/proofs, 1 sculpture, 2 paintings, 1 drawing

Wikipedia About Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon is an American conceptual artist whose work explores race, language, desire, sexuality, and identity. He engages in intertextuality with other works from the visual arts, literature, and history, as well as his own life. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Glenn Ligon, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Glenn Ligon troubles the waters with work that challenges assumptions about race, gender, sex, and citizenship using history as his oar: “If I have a well to dip into, it’s filled with almost four hundred years worth of permutations of what blackness has meant and speculations on what it might mean in the future.”1 Drawing on an art-historical lineage that includes Andy Warhol and Adrian Piper, his practice is conceptually driven and embraces painting as well as printmaking, photography, and installation. He often appropriates, reconfigures, and recontextualizes culturally loaded materials, particularly literary excerpts from the likes of Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin. Making possible a sustained dialogue across past and present, black and white, he stubbornly locates American history in the persistent now.

Ligon’s series Runaways (1993) references the unmistakable stain of American slavery while also calling into question the nature of identity and the power of language to capture it. On black-and-white lithographs, in a style combining the format of runaway slave posters with highly symbolic illustrations of the abolitionist movement, the artist presents ten distinct descriptions of himself supplied by ten friends asked to pretend they were filing a missing persons report. Each starts simply with the phrase “Ran away, …” Surprisingly, these twentieth-century verbal accounts mimic the text of actual fugitive slave posters, offering physical descriptions that bring to mind auction blocks. One short piece ends with the racially and historically weighted phrase “Nice teeth.” Yet adequate and stable definitions prove to be a moving target as Ligon’s skin color is described variously as “black,” “pretty dark-skinned,” and the nuanced “medium complexion (not ‘light skinned,’ not ‘dark skinned,’ slightly orange).” The power of language, oral and written, often gives a visceral quality to his work, at once revelatory, inadequate, confining, and slippery. After all, he seems to remind us, something as complex as a human being cannot be captured in mere words, whether on a slave poster or a modern-day newscast reporting a criminal suspect.

Confronting race and its American twin obsession of masculinity, Ligon collaborated with Byron Kim on Rumble Young Man Rumble (Version #2) in 1993. It is a standard-issue punching bag on which is stenciled a poetic speech by champion boxer Muhammad Ali that begins: “Everything that the so-called Negro do in America seem to be the best, the greatest. So what’s wrong with him saying he is the greatest when everything in America that has been made the greatest has been painted and colored white?” It is a call to rhetorical arms that one can read in full only by circling the sculpture, almost like a fighter dancing around the ring. Language becomes image and performative catalyst, the basic requirements of being black and male in America, which are perfectly captured in the persona of Ali. The metaphorical power of text is further explored in Ligon’s Untitled (Stranger in the Village #16) (2000), a monochromatic painting with a layer of black coal dust obscuring a passage from James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.” The 1953 essay relates Baldwin’s experience of being an American and an African American in a foreign land. The painting’s dense and textured surface of luminescent black with just a hint of warm red beneath—evidence of an abandoned work—alludes to the ever-shifting nature of identity and race. As is his trademark, Ligon presents language just on the edge of illegibility, playing hide-and-seek with our ability to break the code and read the script.

With Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy with Bubbles (version 2) #1 (2000), Ligon makes a radical formal shift with a cacophony of colorful strokes different from anything he’s done before. This painting is the end result of a multilayered process whereby the artist gave young children coloring-book sheets to fill in, which he then copied on a larger scale in his studio. The images were collaged from various black-themed coloring books from the 1970s, a time of immense promise for black America. According to Ligon, the paintings in this series “are about breaking free of constraints by using children’s drawings and inhabiting their casual, indifferent relationship to the images and the whole project of liberation that those images were about in the first place. The paintings are hovering in that space between meaning a great deal and meaning nothing.”2 This piece is a fascinating history lesson spanning a great African American orator of the nineteenth century and a political martyr of the twentieth, then veering into the seemingly trivial concerns of a black child blowing bubbles and a vocabulary lesson on the letter S. Thus, the playing field is leveled as Ligon presents each element as equally relevant to the full story of blacks in America. Perhaps rightly so, since in the 1970s representations of blacks simply living life—blowing bubbles, strolling—were as radical and necessary as those of fiery revolutionaries, and remain so. Again, the artist presents history as a compelling force in contemporary times.

“People are trapped in history,” Baldwin wrote, “and history is trapped in them.”3 In Ligon’s practice, each work is a Rorschach test that drives us to reengage with what we thought were stable moments and meanings safely ensconced in the past. To encounter his work is to enter an ambiguous yet metaphorically rich space of unresolved questions swirling around the complexity of humanity, which is colored, gendered, and ever evolving. At first, we each see what our own personal biographies and attendant limitations allow us to see; then, he encourages us to look past the familiar for those inevitable marks of transformation that bring history past into history present.

  1. Quoted in Byron Kim, “An Interview with Glenn Ligon,” in Judith Tannenbaum, ed., Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1998), 55.

  2. Quoted in Olukemi Ilesanmi and Joan Rothfuss, “A Conversation with Glenn Ligon,” in Olukemi Ilesanmi and Joan Rothfuss, eds., Coloring: New Work by Glenn Ligon, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker

  3. James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, Toni Morrison, ed. (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 119.

Ilesanmi, Olukemi. “Glenn Ligon.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center