This past weekend I headed up to the Whitney Museum to catch Glenn Ligon: America before it closed on Sunday. For over 25 years the New York-born and based Ligon has explored American history, literature, society, homosexuality, and being African-American in his artwork. The Whitney's compelling exhibit is the first mid-career retrospective of the 51-year-old artist's oeuvre. Featuring about 100 works, several of the galleries are devoted to Ligon's paintings that incorporate text culled from writers like James Baldwin (from his 1953 essay Stranger in the Village about the author's experience visiting a small Swiss town that had never seen a black person before), Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston (from her 1928 essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me), and quotes from comedian Richard Pryor and lyrics by rapper Ice Cube. The selected texts primarily deal with race and being black and the phrases, written out with stencils in black oil stick, are repeated over and over trickling down a white or black canvas (or in some cases, a door) until the letters get smudgy and illegible and seem to dissolve into a deep pool of blackness. The works featuring lines from Richard Pryor jokes were created in dizzyingly bright colors, giving the words a vibrating effect, complementing Pryor's "colorful language" (from the exhibition's notes).
To Disembark is a series of four large, square art crates, each concealing a quietly playing soundtrack within its wooden walls. From one box, Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit is barely audible. From another a Bob Marley song plays, while another plays KRS-One's Sound of Da Police. The fourth box contains audio of Ligon reading the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849 in a 3 x 2 foot box. Hanging from the walls surrounding the four wooden crates are prints displaying descriptions of Ligon written by his friends on "Missing" posters that were once used to search for runaway slaves.
The central gallery features Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93), an installation Ligon created in response to Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial Black Book published in 1986. Mapplethorpe's Black Book featured 91 black-and-white portraits of black men, mostly in the nude. The book was unique at the time of its release because men of color had not been artistically represented in this way before (which is why Mapplethorpe said he produced it). When the book was first released, Ligon could not decide whether he found it racist or exploitative, so he showed the images to various artists, friends, critics, politicians, and bartenders and patrons at gay bars and asked for their opinions. Along with exhibiting all 91 pages from Mapplethorpe's Black Book, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book displays 78 of the varied responses (ranging from homophobic or shocked to thoughtful or humorous) Ligon received from his survey.
A more G-rated gallery exhibits large-scale silkscreen reproductions from a project Ligon worked on with a group of school children. The artist brought the students coloring books geared toward children of color and asked them to color in the images. The racially diverse group of kids made Isaac Hayes a blonde and gave the image of Malcolm X a sort of clownish drag queen make-over. The exhibition closes with three neon sculptures spelling out "America" - each with an idiosyncrasy like a couple of reversed letters, non-stop frantic blinking, or being covered in black paint. While each of Ligon's neon pieces may look a little different from one another, they all still represent America. Learn more at Whitney.org. Closed June 5th.