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I like least the work that illustrates ideas or makes “critical theory” the exoskeleton of the art. In 2000, in a workshop for children of diverse racial backgrounds, Ligon distributed coloring books created in the 1960s that featured images of kids alongside pictures of prominent African-Americans. For the “Coloring” series, Ligon imitated what the children did. Malcolm X has a pasty face and fuchsia lips. Isaac Hayes has a yellow beard. A sweet young Graduating Girl is defaced with crayon in the way that kids love to “transgress” and color outside the lines. In recent years Ligon has crafted texts in light. He faces or rims or covers neon tubing with black paint, so that the light is in some way “converted” by the white wall the writing hangs from. They pick up themes Ligon has pursued for years — black on white and white on black, in their social and sexual manifestations — but like the “Coloring” pictures, they strike me as one-liners (with none of Richard Pryor’s obscenely shameless exposures and woundedness). One of these, America, measures 12 feet across. It’s a big statement, but visually (and, for me, politically) bland, not nearly as consequential as his serial pictures.

Ligon’s art is a scholarly, contemplative enterprise whose purpose is to deliberate on social or public issues. He’s in his early 50s and continues to test new mediums and materials. His task is to keep freeing himself to fuse personal to public history in a language that’s formally compelling. If he stays loose and doesn’t become hostage to concepts, he’ll continue to surprise himself and us. ■

  • Glenn Ligon: America is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 22, 2012.
  • 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles; 323-857-6000; lacma.org.

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