Art Files: Glenn Ligon


Bornday: April 20, 1960
Birthplace: Bronx, New York
Medium: Mixed Media (painting, video/digital, silkscreening, photography)
Alma Mater: Wesleyan University + Rhode Island School of Design 
Relevant Themes: Race, sexuality, identity, representation and language

I first encountered Ligon’s work in the beginning throws of my thesis when I was looking to be inspired in everything and everyone around me but mostly in NYC museums. At that time, my art history professor Nina Felshin brought me to the International Center for Photography (ICP) where Ligon was exhibiting Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93) in an amazing show called “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art”. We spent over two hours sitting with Ligon’s piece alone. This particular piece offered a devastating critique of Robert Mapplethorpe‘s infamous homoerotic photographs of black men in The Black Book. Here is the ICP description:

“Ligon deconstructs Mapplethorpe’s objectification of the black male body as a signal source of sexual stereotyping by using a series of texts drawn from theorists and commentators such as James Baldwin, Isaac Julien, Kobena Mercer, Richard Dyer, Essex Hemphill, and Frantz Fanon. Positioned in double rows beneath the images, the text panels describe the contested ground of this complex issue…In testing the assumptions of Mapplethorpe’s conservative brand of studio photography as a work of authority, the postmodern work of appropriation suggests that what withers is the aura of Mapplethorpe’s iconography of black male sexuality. Ligon’s reading of The Black Book is against the grain, setting it off-kilter, placing it in archival remand.”

Fortunately, Nina is good friends with Ligon and hooked me up with an old brochure from a traveling show of his called “Day of Absence” that exhibited @ Wes back in 1997. I instantly fell in love with these images and even more with his own writings and ruminations on absence and the illegibility and inaccessibility of language. The piece below is the most memorable:

“HANDS” silkscreened on unstretched canvass 82 x 144 in, 1997


“In Hands, one of the silkscreens murals in Day of Absence, a sea of black hands reaches upward as thought grasping or waving at something beyond the bounds of the visual field. The specific context for this photograph was a collective pledge in which march (of the Million Man March) participants were asked to rededicate themselves to the cause of the family. In Ligon’s mural, however, this context gives way to larger series of symbolic tensions between presence and absence (the hands vs. the men to whom they belong), between abstraction and figuration (the streaky expanse above vs. the outstretched fingers below), between the terms of political identity and those of invisibility (the mass of black men vs. their fragmentation and disappearance).” -Richard Meyer from Borrowed Voices: Glenn Ligon and the Force of Language 

I am struck by Ligon’s provocative (de)/(re)contextualization of the hands. How is the image read apart from its iconic almost fixed context? I researched his work further and found an array of text-based paintings in which a phrase is repeated into abstraction:

“I’M TURNING INTO A SPECTER…” oil + gesso on canvass, 1992


“In some ways all the work, through the strategies that you have outlined, has dealt with issues of loss. Trying to grapple with the implications of being descendant from a people whose beginnings in this country involved the systematic stripping away of everything that was familiar. In the text paintings from the early nineties, I used quotes from works of literature as a way of centrally positioning issues of race. In more recent work there has been a gradual withdrawal of the text. The text has become more fragmented and abstract, and the work requires more effort to approach it. Text demands to be read, and perhaps the withdrawal of the text, the frustration of the ability to decipher it, reflects a certain pessimism on my part about the ability and the desire to communicate. Also, literature has been a treacherous site for black Americans because literary production has been so tied with the project of proving our humanity through the act of writing. Ralph Ellison says that Louis Armstrong made poe try out of being invisible, and I am always interested in the ways black people have inhabited these overdetermined, ambivalent spaces.” – Glenn Ligon, Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon, 2001


Ligon is a rare find. I relate to his work in that it strikes a difficult balance between theory and practice. While one might take issue with the “intellectualism” of his work, his medium is consistent with the content and struggles openly with questions of accessibility and communication. Hopefully, you’ve found something compelling or powerful in his work. Not surprisingly, Ligon is without webpage; however check out his new web-based project “Annotations” and look him up to view more works and read more interviews…I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

2 Responses to “Art Files: Glenn Ligon”
  1. flashynista says:

    I am late and I am in awe!!!

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  1. […] and guess what? Glenn Ligon’s “America” piece was featured in the exhibit directly across […]

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