“Glenn Ligon: America” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), Malcolm X (Version 1) #1, 2000. Vinyl-based paint, silkscreen ink, and gesso on canvas, 96 × 72 in. (243.8 × 182.9 cm). Collection of Michael and Lise Evans. © Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X (Version 1) #1 (2000), vinyl-based paint, silkscreen ink and gesso on canvas, 96″ x 72″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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There is a startlingly candid moment that occurs between Thelma Golden, the Director of The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the artist Glenn Ligon during a conversation featured in the catalogue accompanying Glenn Ligon: America, a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Golden speaks of Ligon’s efforts in encouraging a new generation of artists, mentioning the behind-the-scenes role he played in organizing Freestyle, an exhibition of emerging talent mounted by the Studio Museum in 2001. A generous gesture on Ligon’s part, you might think, but you’d be wrong. Explaining how younger black artists aren’t all that interested in identity politics or “reparations to artists of color”—how, in fact, they consider themselves mainstream—Ligon goes on to say that this “indifference to those issues opens space for me.” Laughingly referring to his own self-interest, Ligon cops to wanting to keep the competition small, navigable, and under control.

What’s noteworthy about this exchange isn’t that an artist is looking out for number one or choreographing the most expedient way of insuring career longevity—artists have been engaged in such maneuvers since day one. Instead, it’s the casual, even light-hearted tone of Ligon’s admission. Like any number of art-scene operators, Ligon is savvy to the prerequisites of the market place. He’s less interested in the hard-won victories of pursuing an individual vision than in establishing and sustaining the Ligon brand. As such, he’s adept at pushing certain buttons even as the work, shrink-wrapped as it is in certainty, goes nowhere.

Ligon has been lauded for the “catechesis” he offers on racial and sexual identity: for his “brilliance,” “grit,” “charged subject matter,” and “stark declaration[s] of personhood.” But Ligon’s observations on race, being gay, and the state of contemporary culture are, if some times cleverly presented, unexceptional. Ligon doesn’t aspire to agitprop or revelation; he coasts on received wisdom. Golden admits as much when she thanks Ligon for removing her “intellectual discomfort with the tonality of the rhetoric of . . . multicultural aesthetics.” Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, describes Ligon as a “political artist not a protest artist.” It’s enough to make you think that some provocations are better suited for garnering a collector-base than for genuine political engagement.

Ligon has made a specialty of text-based works. He’s a word artist or, rather, an artist who employs other people’s words. His best-known pieces are a series of canvases, usually vertical in orientation and rendered in lustrous passages of stenciled oil stick, which lift and repeat selected lines from the writings of James Baldwin. (As a gay New Yorker, Ligon appreciated how Baldwin, another gay New Yorker, possessed “the ability to go places where other black people were not and surviving.”) Ligon has also lifted quotes, jokes, and poems from Ralph Ellison, Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, and Ernest C. Withers’s indelible photograph of a 1968 strike of black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in which each carries a sign reading “i am a man.” “I’m turning into a specter before your very eyes and I’m going to haunt you” reads a typical Ligon work; another maintains “Wrong nigga to fuck with.”

Politics-as-usual, you might say, yet America is a fascinating, if inherently disheartening, endeavor all the same: it highlights, with numbing clarity, how creativity can be misunderstood, misapplied, and subsequently ration-alized. After studying painting at Wesleyan, Ligon moved to New York and, as the curator Scott Rothkopf has it, “churned out belated Abstract Expressionist canvases” (a smattering of these pictures can be seen in America). But it was Ligon’s stint at the Whitney’s Independent Study Program where he encountered, and was transformed by, Conceptualism. Rothkopf writes that Ligon experienced “a widening gulf between his technical means and the ideas he increasingly wished his art to convey.” Ligon compares his subsequent stylistic change to that of Philip Guston, whose famed shift from abstraction to figuration was “a response to [a] tumultuous world”—except that Guston found the means to express a “tumultuous world” through paint and didn’t have to resort to bumper-sticker nostrums when the going got tough in the studio.

Over and over again in the catalog, we read about Ligon’s love for painting—de Kooning’s Pirate (Untitled II) (1981) is a favorite, apparently—and how he, um, “opened up the semantic rules of identity and linguistic constructions between object-text and image-sign relations through the use of photography and text based on the appropriation of language, sign, text, and speech as material for his painting practice.” But there isn’t anything included in America that remotely resembles a painting. Sure, there are objects crafted with oil stick, gesso, and canvas, but anyone who mistakes a silk-screened re-capitulation of a child’s coloring book rendition of Malcolm X for painting knows precious little about the art form—of its qualities and capabilities, traditions and possibilities. (Some people, of course, just don’t know what they’re talking about.)

The luxury afforded by appropriation is that one can pass off commentary as art. Whether he or she points to Madison Avenue (Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger), Walker Evans (Sherrie Levine), or Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book (Glenn Ligon), no creative heavy lifting is required—just the smarts to recognize something, do something to it, and then doing something to that. Paraphrasing Jasper Johns’s famed quote is fitting in Ligon’s case, because Ligon poaches upon Johns’s formulas to an almost embarrassing extent. In fact, the most compelling things in America owe less to Ligon than to his source materials: Richard Pryor’s scatological takes on race, Billie Holiday’s coruscating “Strange Fruit” (heard emanating from an installation), and, yes, Mapplethorpe’s suite of photographs of black men. Whether quoting Gertrude Stein, displaying prints of his elementary school report cards (“Glenn has a really fine mind”), or likening himself to James Brown, Ligon is happy to forgo artistic invention in order to concentrate on his favorite subject: himself. Which means you’ll glean almost nothing about America at the Whitney, but plenty about Glenn Ligon.

Postscript: Ligon isn’t alone in his cluelessness about painting. Some of our major cultural institutions are similarly confused about the art form.

For additional thoughts on Ligon’s “practice”, click here.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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