Illustration: Untitled (I Am a Man) © Glenn Ligon. 1988 Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photograph by Ronald Amstutz
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN we talk about America is more often than not a shadow conversation about who is and who isn’t — or who should and who shouldn’t be — a “Real American.” This is hardly a new phenomenon. The practice of discussing who can and can’t lay claim to the name “American” is itself profoundly American, as Americanizing as it is polarizing. Yet the experience is vastly different for those Americans positioned at the limits of inclusion than it is for those who police its boundaries. Membership, it would seem, has always had its privileges.
For Ralph Ellison, the act of writing from the margins (or, as he put it, the “lower frequencies”) required “a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.” In the introduction to his aptly named essay collection, Shadow and Act, he writes:
When I began writing in earnest I was forced, thus, to relate myself consciously and imaginatively to my mixed background as American, as Negro American, and as a Negro … More important and inseparable from this particular effort, was the necessity of determining my true relationship to that body of American literature to which I was most attracted and through which … I would find my own voice.
Ellison’s enforced interrogation of self and society — a kind of metaphoric digging in the crates of history, myth, and the American literary tradition — shares a frequency with the work of Glenn Ligon, another African American artist for whom the past, whether cast in shadow, steeped in phantasm, or clean and well-lighted, is never truly past. His mid-career retrospective,Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, debuted in the spring at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and opened on October 23rd at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ligon is primarily a painter of text whose references are derived largely from the African American literary tradition, yet this is both a perfectly accurate and perfectly inadequate summation of his artistic practice.
Like Ellison, who as a young writer famously transcribed his favorite Hemingway stories in order to internalize their style and sensibility, Ligon listens to the voices of his literary and cultural forebears — who include Ellison, as well as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Pryor — as a systematic means of finding his own voice among many others. Ligon’s 1990 painting, Untitled (I Remember the Very Day That I Became Colored), exhibited at the 1991 Whitney Biennial, is representative of the work that first brought him acclaim. It features a phrase from Hurston’s 1928 essay “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” stenciled repeatedly in thick black oil stick over the primed-white surface of a wooden door about 80 inches tall and 30 inches wide, until it fades into a kind of incantatory illegibility. And, again like Ellison’s, Ligon’s smart and judicious acts of sampling from history and literature are not mere reverential citations. Instead, they are acute engagements with the weights and forces — historical, lyrical, emotional — of language and image; his works become, by virtue of his brush, oil stick, and stencils, both independent of and powerfully informed by their sources. But it’s primarily Ligon’s own talents as a writer that account not only for his flair for creating art with a kind of piquant import that he’s made all his own, but also allow us a generous glimpse at the man behind it.
Glenn Ligon was born in 1960 in the Bronx, NY, and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He thought he would become an architect, but struggling through physics and chemistry disabused him of that notion. Young, black, and gay (the description to which James Baldwin once famously responded, “I thought I’d hit the jackpot”), he enrolled in 1984 in the Whitney Museum’s prestigious Independent Study Program, which, during that era, was a Lacanian-Foucauldian boot-camp of sorts. It was there that the young abstract expressionist Ligon studied text-based work by contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, and Hans Haacke, and began to introduce into his paintings the words that would soon become central to his work.
Beyond Ligon’s instinct for the telling quote, it is the sumptuously lush surfaces of his paintings that beguiles the eye: letters rendered broad and thick with heaping impasto bound by rigid stenciling, their density expressive of their authority. His work is a typography fetishist’s dream — as words seemingly attempt escape towards the viewer from a flat, white expanse (“I AM SOMEBODY”) — or, occasionally, nightmare, when they bleed into near-incoherence at the bottom (“I LOST MY VOICE I FOUND MY VOICE”). Ligon’s stenciling, like Jasper Johns’s, is alive in its subtle imperfection, and is lent all the more gravity by the provenance of Ligon’s historical and typographical appropriations. The gentle, trembling edges of the black block letters against a white background in 1988’s Untitled (I Am a Man) — inspired by similar placards carried by striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 — suggests a peculiar mixture of defiance and caution that rings true once you’ve seen the workers’ faces in Ernest C. Withers’s photographs of their march through the city. The emotional arc of Ligon’s work then bends from solemn protest toward swagger and fury with a piece like the Ice Cube-samplingUntitled (Wrong Nigga to Fuck With), needling Cube’s blunt threat of a mantra into your brain.
It is, then, no surprise that the monograph produced for Ligon’s retrospective would find its greatest successes and gorgeously-rendered revelations in the details of the text-based work mentioned above, interspersed throughout the catalogue’s plates. It is difficult to do any kind of justice on the printed page to Ligon’s Stranger series, inspired by Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” and whose surfaces are layered with shiny black coal dust that obscures Baldwin’s words while lending them raw physicality, but the reproductions in Glenn Ligon: America somehow capture their metaphysical qualities. Edited by Scott Rothkopf and featuring contributions from Hilton Als, Okwui Enwezor, Saidiya Hartman, Bennett Simpson, and Franklin Sirmans, plus a conversation between Ligon and Thelma Golden, and a rigorous, comprehensive career profile by Rothkopf himself, it’s an impressive chronicle of Ligon’s evolution as an artist.
Yet it’s Yourself in the World, a volume of Ligon’s own essays and interviews (another joint effort from the Whitney and Yale Press) that truly astounds. Writing about Felix Gonzales-Torres in “My Felix (2007),” Ligon may as well have been writing about himself:
It is Felix’s interviews and writings, however, that convey the fullest sense of his intellectual and artistic gifts … In fact, his interviews and statements are so good that they point to a problem inherent in editing any book on Felix: he was more subtle, engaging, and intellectually nimble than most of his critical commentators.
The old playground retort “it takes one to know one” would seem Ligon-esque if one imagines it repeated ad infinitum on canvas, yet in this case it’s also true. The admirer of writers like Ellison, Hurston, and Baldwin knows how to write himself: how to engage, how to compel, and how to amuse. In the first essay of the collection, “Black Light: David Hammons and the Poetics of Emptiness,” which appeared in the pages of Artforum, he describes the difficulties of being an “African American artist” just so:
“African-American” or “African-American Art” has always been a complicated place to live. A noisy cul-de-sac at the end of a long and winding road that lots of folks are curious about but only want to visit during the summertime.
Throughout, Ligon displays generous wit and startling self-reflection, equal to if not surpassing that displayed in his Narratives series, based on slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (One etching, for example, bears the caption: “The Life and Adventures of Glenn Ligon, A Negro; Who Was Sent to Be Educated Amongst White People in the Year 1966 When Only About Six Years of Age and Has Continued to Fraternize With Them to the Present Time.”)
One piece, titled “Housing in New York: A Brief History, 1960-2007,” takes the form of a diary in which each entry describes an apartment that Ligon has inhabited in New York. From the Bronx public housing projects where he grew up, to the Tribeca apartment where he now lives, each is a history unto itself: a history of blackness, of abandonment and gentrification, of subtle and not-so-subtle racism, of eminent domain, of small-time Dominican drug lords, and of quiet tree-lined streets.
Ligon’s relationship to history is succinctly expressed by Baldwin in “Stranger in the Village”: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Yet Ligon owes perhaps as much to Gertrude Stein as he does to Baldwin. His 2005 piece, Warm Broad Glow, consists of the words “negro sunshine” fashioned in neon, the letters wrought in a typewriter font and dipped in black paint so the light reflects only upon the wall behind it. The phrase (“Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes. Hers was just ordinary, any sort of woman laughter”) is from Stein’s 1909 novel, Three Lives, and she repeats it, characteristically, throughout the story. As literary scholar Werner Sollors observes in Ethnic Modernism, Stein’s “love of repetition … at times seems to deplete racist language of its traditional weight.” By story’s end, “the ethnic metaphor” becomes “a word again, one might say; and it appeared to have shed much of its hurtful baggage in the process.”
Much of Ligon’s work, including Warm Broad Glow, might be said to function in the same way. His works in neon have been called slight, but they might be seen instead as clever riffs on his own methods, turning on and off, “repeating” their cycle and appearing and disappearing into light or darkness. Ligon sees his systematic approach — a sentence, over and over again — as deriving from conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, although the artist may find a truer forebear in Stein.
Stein knew something about “Americanness,” having published a massive novel about it (also chock full of repetition), The Making of Americans, in 1925. But what makes or defines an “American” has rarely been as interesting as what, or who, Americans have made or defined themselves against. More often than not it is those perceived as outliers who are actually central to the conversation. In his reading of Shadow and Act (which he quotes in an interview with Gary Garrels), Ligon seizes upon Ellison’s fantastic satirical metaphor that serves as a rebuke to the exclusionary sort: “[On] the moral level I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds.” A Swiftian modest proposal for sure, but one that speaks not only to Ellison’s attempt to define his relationship to his own nation but also to Ligon’s struggle to do the same. When Ligon “quotes” Ellison’s well known prologue to Invisible Man in his paintings (“I am an invisible man…”), the “I” is certainly Ellison’s, but it is also Ligon’s, and ours as well. We as viewers must confront our own relationship to their work, the slighted histories to which it refers, and the occlusions and lacunae that it makes visible.
“Americanness” is a quality that perhaps best remains eternally undefined; or rather, is more aptly characterized by those, like Ellison and Ligon, who may linger at the borders of visibility, but actually provide the captive “stage and scene” for our nation’s cultural life. “I did not know my true relationship to America,” Ellison wrote in 1964. “What citizen of the United States really does?”