Glenn Ligon: America brings into clear focus this New York native’s work in a incisive mid-career survey at the Whitney. Ligon doesn’t rank among the flashiest of contemporary artists, but has steadily balanced powerful content with stunning form to deliver an epiphany both of-the-moment and in tune with history. The exhibition was organized by Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf and runs through June 5.
While his voice is unique, evidence of varied influences abound in his work. Ligon, African American, frequently takes text (often about identity) as a starting point, referencing authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Mary Shelley. He plumbs Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines for punchlines, and stencils vibrantly colored letters atop contrasting fields to create visual vibrations, words that laugh off the canvas. Stenciled matrices of letters, many in grayscale hues, can resemble word search puzzles, or Jasper Johns paintings; black letters merge with black backgrounds, muting language and becoming intriguing shapes in relief. Silk-screened self-portraits and small sketches of beauty products evoke Andy Warhol. Ligon admits being ambivalently and strongly affected by Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous portraits of black men in Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, which pairs the photos with mixed comments from notable observers, many questioning the validity/appropriateness of Mapplethorpe’s project to begin with.
This self-searching, or broader cultural, introspection and concentration on language could be overwhelmingly intellectual, except that it is expressed in Ligon’s breathtaking technique. Phrases repeat down a door-sized panel or horizontal canvas, pooling into dense heaps at the bottom and thereby shedding meaning, or alternately accruing into an overwhelming din. In an anti-Warholian stroke, he incorporates coal (rather than diamond) dust for a scumbled minerality. However, his unstretched, tacked-up silkscreened canvases of the Million Man March, or his cannily unrevealing self-portraits, have the practiced perfection of Warhol’s Factory best. His sculptures show a deft mix of pop and substance. Crates with soundtracks evoke the slave who mailed himself to freedom in the 1800s, and he presents neon “America” signs: one plain white, one muffled in black paint, and a third with some letters that read backwards. Like Ligon’s body of work, you can parse their meanings in depth, and/or appreciate their form and craft. Depends on how much time you have.