Born in 1960, the African-American artist Glenn Ligon grew up in housing projects in the Bronx but attended the privileged, mostly white Walden School in Manhattan, a one-hour commute each way. Later, after majoring in art at Wesleyan, he started out as an abstract expressionist painter, but his pictures were derivative. Young abstractionists who don’t already have a self-determining genius are likely to get stuck in a tentative wilderness of forms. For all his painterly skills, Ligon was stuck in such a wilderness. His genius awaited him in a different practice.
In 1984 Ligon was admitted into the Whitney Museum’s theory-heavy Independent Study Program, where he learned that art could be a way of thinking out loud in and for a crowd of listeners. Ligon realized he needed spelled-out statements as an enabling delivery system for his passions and intelligence, so he began to paint appropriated texts into his otherwise abstract pictures. He wasn’t using language for its alphabetic anonymity, as Jasper Johns had done, and he wasn’t floating coquettish, half-cracked Delphic utterances as Ed Ruscha was doing. He was making pictures out of words and giving pictorial form to something a character in a T.S. Eliot play says: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”
The mid-career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Glenn Ligon: America, inserts us into the career at the text-based, identity-politics work and jumpstarts itself with three series from the early 1990s. In the first, Ligon inscribed into washy gobs of paint excerpts from gay porn magazines. The statements have the clingy, slightly sappy intimacy of classifieds. (“Sometimes, if the moment is right, the two of us are comforted by the giving and receiving of the pent up frustrations, the violent need for acceptance that only one man can give another.”) The cursive script is so clogged and swabbed by the surrounding field of pigment that the words look like they’re gasping for air. They’re struggling to come out.
The porn series freed Ligon into autobiography, though he isn’t given to sloppy joe confessionalism that wails or pouts like a neglected child. He was preoccupied with hidden lives, secret knowledge, and wanted a fresh connection between the unconscious and society. He found it in material from dream books that women in his African-American community consulted. (Women in my own Italian neighborhoods also mined them.) A dream book supplied the meaning of your dreams and, since dreams dance with augury and premonition, they also provided numbers to play with the local bookie. Ligon was cannily poker-faced in his selections: “Colored People: To dream of colored people means you will be comfortably rich. Enjoy it now: darker times are ahead.” He was also using for the first time cheap, store-bought plastic stencils to construct his texts, letter by letter.
His first public splash was the “Doors” series showcased in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. He stenciled smoky black texts on house doors primed with dusty white gesso — sort-of-black on sort-of-white. He covered the surface with a single repeated phrase taken from the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston (“I remember the very day that I became colored”), or Jesse Jackson (“I am somebody”), or Ice Cube (“Wrong nigga to fuck with”). Ligon’s art has moral import, it’s public and referential, but at its best it doesn’t give up its character as made art. In “Doors,” even Ice Cube’s in-your-face words are, in their painted iteration, unstable: the repeated phrases at the top of the door stand clear but immediately start to dissipate, and the initial assertive impression becomes progressively meeker, wobbling with uncertainty and ambiguity. Look long enough and you get caught up in the nebular gas pulsing from an “e” or the windswept blur of an “o.” As the text tracks across and down the panel, the letters crowd each other, the spacing collapses, the words run and bleed, so that by the time you reach the bottom line it’s impossible to make out the words. Repetition has reduced sense to unintelligibility. Content has turned to ashes.
For an artist, finding a style means finding a language that’s inseparable from purpose. For Ligon, style is inseparable from moral and historical context, but for all its social-political impetus and psychological neediness, his work isn’t plaintive or clamorous. The way he applies paint determines the emotional texture. The letters in I AM A MAN are iconic, like tablature, but cool, like tar that has set. The picture replicates the signs carried by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 — the strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to the town where he’d be murdered. The affect isn’t angry or polemical; it’s demure but insistent.
Most of Ligon’s work is memoiristic. His most ambiguously humorous conflation of autobiography and African-American history is Wanted, where around wooden shipping crates large enough to hold a man he constellated prints modeled on the “Wanted” posters circulated to run down escaped slaves. For the flyers, the artist solicited from friends descriptions of himself. A sample: “Ran Away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. He’s wearing black shorts, black shoes and a short-sleeve plaid shirt. He has a really cool Timex silver watch with a silver band. He’s sort of short, a little hunky...and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother.’” The posters are a coy, deadpan inquiry into what academics call “constructed” identity. They also represent selfhood as something that’s always on the run, eluding definition and psychological indenture. The crates memorialize the slave John Box Brown, the “Box” added to his name after he escaped from Richmond to Philadelphia by having himself shipped in a crate. Like many of America’s best cultural products, Wanted feels homemade, like kitchen-baked bread, though the recipe dates back to our civil history’s bloodiest passages.
“Never fuck a faggot. I’d like to say this to all American male persons. Never fuck a faggot ’cause they will lie. They always say ‘I won’t tell.’ They lie.” That’s Richard Pryor, whose stand-up routines Ligon used for a series of text pictures in 2004. Pryor’s lustily nasty, razor-wire language makes you want to kill yourself with your own laughter. He had a genius for turning self-hatred outward into accusatory, id-on-fire outrage. The color schemes Ligon used — blue and violet on yellow; pink and yellow on red — outrage the eye: it’s optically painful to puzzle out the text. The visual achiness, like Pryor’s manic delivery, occludes the immediacy of meaning. It’s the riskiest, fiercest thing Ligon has done.