Ongoing at the Whitney Museum is Glenn Ligon’s mid-career retrospective, America. Showcasing his work including the well-known text-based paintings of the 1980’s through current day, the exhibition provides a broad perspective into the artist’s continually evolving career.
more text and images after the jump…
America traces the artist’s experimentation with practices such as painting, photography, drawing, and sculptural installation. A significant portion of Ligon’s career is both inspired by and takes advantage of text within the visual medium. His painting, Untitled (I Am A Man), made in the late 80’s, calls out a strong statement of gender and social positioning at the height of America’s fixation with identity politics. Reduced to a monochrome black-on-white composition, the work allows the significance of the exclamation to take precedence. Also featured in the Whitney Museum retrospective are photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book in conversation with quotes relating to homosexuality and African-American identity. Notes on the Margin of the Black Book juxtaposes commentary arranged by Ligon with a decent-sized archive of the aforementioned photographer’s images.
The Whitney also presented various galleries showcasing Ligon’s celebrated text-based paintings that include various media such as paintstick, graphite, or charcoal. The words and phrases in the paintings are mostly inspired by writers like James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston or politicians such as Jesse Jackson. It is often difficult to decipher what the text says, and this silencing effect on Ligon’s poetic voice is appropriate given the social minorities with which the artist is associated. The most recent works in the exhibition showcase Ligon’s use of neon as sculptural form. Rückenfigur implies that one is viewing the subject from behind, which aligns the neon work with the larger theme of America as a series of contrasting dualities. Inspired by the opening line of Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”), the artist has at length stated his interest in the promises and pitfalls of contemporary USA. “I began thinking about how America was at the same place—that we were living in a society that we could elect an African-American president, but also we were in the midst of two wars and a crippling recession,” Ligon told the Whitney Museum.
The multiple turns and twists showcased formally and thematically throughout Ligon’s mid-career retrospective suggest not only a dynamic artist at work, but moreover an animated social history coinciding with his efforts. Ligon’s evolution with various media aligns with the social pulse of the moment, resulting in a vigorous aesthetic historiography. America will run through June 5 before moving to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the fall.