Unhidden Identities

By Schjeldahl, Peter | The New Yorker, March 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

Unhidden Identities


Schjeldahl, Peter, The New Yorker


Young artists go where the glamour of the moment is; it's how art history moves along, if not how it progresses. Today, that means a frenzied international market and its auxiliary organs, such as art fairs, which, grading all values by prices paid, make each artist a player, ready or not. It's hard now to recall that, less than two decades ago, fashion exalted politically themed work, which, backed by institutions and academic criticism, cast artists as agents of social change. (A down market eased the way to virtue; nothing else was selling very well.) "Glenn Ligon: AMERICA," a striking retrospective at the Whitney Museum, rescues a star of the era of identity politics from a blind spot in the present art world.

The Bronx-born Ligon, now fifty, makes combative points of being black and being gay. He is best known for paintings in black oil stick (and, sometimes, coal dust) of stencilled, racially charged prose, such as a work from 1990 that quotes a line from Zora Neale Hurston: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." The words repeat, from the top to the bottom of a tall, white-painted board, becoming increasingly smudged and illegible. But the show also includes fine, less familiar works in photography, sculpture, and neon. Handsomely and sensitively installed by the Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, the show communicates an appealingly complex sensibility that is subject to self-doubt and aesthetic yearning, even when it is forcefully on message. Ligon emerges as a companionable spirit in an endemic ordeal of American democracy--who we are, beset by what we are taken to be--which most afflicts those, of course, who are most swiftly and carelessly categorized, as by skin color.

Ligon's father was a foreman at the General Motors plant in Tarrytown, New York; his mother was a nurse's aide. Growing up in the South Bronx, he won a scholarship to Manhattan's progressive Walden School. After graduating from Wesleyan University, in 1982, he became a student in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, a hotbed of critical theory and conceptualist styles. His love of painting--he has singled out Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, and Terry Winters as tutelary heroes, and the importance to his work of Jasper Johns's stencilled lettering is obvious--made him something of a conservative on a scene whose preferred mode was the appropriation of photographic images, in works conceived to expose and mock the malignities of patriarchal, "late capitalist" culture. (Leading lights of the movement included Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, and Richard Prince.) Early drawings in the Whitney show, from 1985, find Ligon duly juxtaposing images of African-American hair products with images of canonical modern sculptures, by Brancusi and Giacometti, that display influences of African tribal art. But the satirical point is a mite blunted by Ligon's palpable liking for the sculptures.

Ligon's most apposite forebear is the charismatic and elusive black conceptualist David Hammons, whose needling tactics--like setting up as a street peddler of snowballs priced according to size, outside Cooper Union, one winter day in 1983--channel discontents of race and class without recourse to philosophizing, and without insulting past masters of art. In the Whitney show, another precedent both surprises and makes telling sense: Richard Pryor.

I hadn't known Ligon's series of word paintings of chipperly profane racial jokes from Pryor's standup act, in a series from 1993-96, which Ligon resumed in 2004. (An example: "Niggers be holding them dicks too. White people go 'Why you guys hold your things?' Say 'You done took everything else motherfucker.' ") The paintings' hot, flashing colors are as hard on the eyes as their texts are on the nerves. Ligon has said that he backed off his first engagement with Pryor's scorched-earth hilarity because its intensity scared him. That may be understandable on two counts. …

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