For over 30 years, the artist has been making work that speaks to American history — ambiguous, open-ended, existentially observant. At a time in which the fundamentals of fact and fiction are being questioned, his art captures the truth of a culture in decline.
On a wall in Glenn Ligon’s studio in Brooklyn, there is an astonishing 10-by-45-foot diptych bearing the entire text of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village.” It is rendered in Ligon’s trademark style: painstakingly stenciled black-on-white letters partially covered with a layer of coal dust, which adds both weight and shimmer to Baldwin’s sentences. (“From all available evidence no Black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came,” the essay begins.) During a visit to the studio in May, the words “American soul” leap out. One strains to describe the impact of Ligon’s work in metaphoric language: His art provides its own language; it is its own metaphor. But the feeling he imparts is a kind of force field, asking us, as Baldwin did, where we stand, and where our bodies stand, in space and time, in relation to a history we share but, as a nation, upon which we do not agree.
This new painting is a culmination of a brilliant three-decade-long career — a bookend of sorts, as Ligon puts it. In 1996, he made his first “Stranger in the Village” painting, stenciling fragments of the essay on a gessoed canvas with oil stick, black on black: a visual play on Baldwin’s words, the blackness literally hard to read. (On the other side of Ligon’s studio is a black-on-black triptych of the complete text.) The essay, one of the writer’s most famous, recounts his experiences at age 27 in the hamlet of Leukerbad, where he had been staying with his Swiss boyfriend while finishing his first novel. “It did not occur to me — possibly because I am an American — that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro,” he writes. The alienation Baldwin evokes is total, the simple racism of the village becoming a lens through which he sees with fresh clarity the more elaborated and systematized version of it back home.
“In the beginning, it was not only wanting to be with Baldwin but wanting to be Baldwin,” Ligon tells me when I ask how his relationship with the writer has changed over the years. “This intense identification with his queerness, with his Blackness, but also his engagement with what it means to live in America. In some ways it’s less about the specifics of the words, because I’d always taken his words and made them abstract.” Now that Ligon is 61 and one of the most celebrated artists of our time, he says it took him this long to be able to confront the text of “Stranger in the Village” in its entirety. “I’ve only used it in fragments for the last 20 years,” he says. “And maybe I feel like — calling Dr. Freud — this is a moment where I could tackle that in my work. The literal enormity of the text, in terms of its physical size but also its panoramic-ness, its breadth, its depth, you know?”
Ligon has in many ways inherited Baldwin’s mantle to become the foremost philosopher on race and identity in America. Like Baldwin, Ligon was making intersectional work long before it was commonplace outside of academia to think in such terms. (The Black law professor and theorist Kimberlé W. Crenshaw created the term “intersectionality” in 1989, the year before Ligon’s first solo show, to describe the ways in which our overlapping social identities, including our gender, caste, sexuality, race and other factors, influence our experience of the world and our position within it.) When Ligon made his first “Stranger in the Village” painting — on the other side of the civil rights movement from Baldwin’s original writing — he’d been creating paintings with stenciled fragments of text for several years; in 1989-90, when he had a PS 1 residency at the Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan, he began covering the white-painted doors he found there with the words of Zora Neale Hurston (“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”), the repeated statements gradually dissolving into illegibility and opacity. The mantralike repetition evoked an entire psychology, an inner dialogue that blurred into a kind of fog of being. He confronted viewers unambiguously with what it meant to be a Black figure in white space, but more than that he seemed to unearth the unspoken consequences of the failure of human beings to read and know one other.
Looking at the work in Ligon’s studio, I wonder what Baldwin would have made of our current moment. There’s no question that we’ve become savvier about inequality, more aware of how our bodies are positioned in a hierarchy of value: our opportunities, cultural authority, health and finances contingent upon attributes over which we have no control. And yet, at the same time, the inequities defined by race and class have only intensified, and willful obfuscations have proliferated. As I write this, it’s the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents burned and looted what was then one of the country’s most prosperous Black communities, killing hundreds and displacing thousands — an incident still missing from most American history textbooks. The newspapers report daily the latest voter suppression law being enacted, or the newest effort to undermine teachers. It’s not that we haven’t learned anything from this past, exactly; it’s that, rather than setting a course for redress, the response is denial and outright delusion.
‘It sort of drives me crazy when people say, “Oh, the work is so timely,” ’ Ligon says. ‘Antiracism is always timely.’
Ligon’s art is often both an indictment and a kind of reframing of American history. He has worked across a wide range of media, in addition to writing the kind of criticism and curating the kinds of shows that revolutionize canons. He isn’t a painter of the human form, and yet bodies — desired, objectified, pathologized, policed and pitied — are central to all of his work. His 1988 “Untitled (I Am a Man),” often considered his first mature painting, was inspired by signs carried during the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, when more than a thousand Black workers demanded higher wages and increased rights. Even this early piece suggests the elements that would become his signature: the visible painterly touch, the iconographic black on white, the reverberations of the past in our present. But at its core, the work’s central phrase — “I am a man” — is an anguished existential assertion. In this way, Ligon is obliquely present in many of his paintings, his identity filtered through mediated perceptions and narratives. For his 1993 show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., titled “To Disembark,” Ligon was inspired by the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 shipped himself from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia in a bid for freedom, submitting his body to the terms of his objectification in order to escape. Ligon placed a set of wooden crates in a gallery and paired them with audio tracks, among them Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” her classic, haunting 1939 song about lynchings of Black people. The exhibition also included two print series, “Narratives” and “Runaways,” in which Ligon recreated period documents, more or less putting himself in Brown’s place. For “Runaways,” the artist enlisted friends to write descriptions of him as if he were a missing person and they were talking to the police: “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5'8". … Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you.” The more descriptions one reads, the more the personhood in question slips away, leaving a set of projections and abstractions.
Even when the human form is explicitly shown in his work, it serves as a mirror, a refraction of social takeaways rather than a single-pointed critique. This was the case in Ligon’s contribution to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, “Notes on the Margin of the ‘Black Book,’” an installation in which he framed pages from Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1986 book of eroticized photographs of Black men, sandwiching between them commentary from a host of sources, conservative and literary, foregrounding the various fears and fantasies projected onto these men’s bodies. (Among this commentary was a portion of Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”: “… it is one of the ironies of Black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the Black man to be, the Black man is enabled to know who the white man is.”) A watershed exhibition, the 1993 Whitney show was at the time reviled by much of the predominantly white and male critical establishment (the critic Robert Hughes called it “one big fiesta of whining”) — centered, as it was, on race, gender, sexuality and power. Ligon’s work, which spoke to all of these things at once, suggested the extent to which concerns over marginalized identities would shape art for years to come. When, in 1998, he made a clever double self-portrait, a pair of silk-screens on canvas, a homage to Adrian Piper’s iconic “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” (1981), he titled it “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features and Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features” — the joke, of course, being that the two photographic portraits were nearly identical.
In revisiting Ligon’s landmark works, I’m struck by his boldness — a quality he generally isn’t given credit for, perhaps due to his wariness of didacticism, skepticism of simple takeaways and preference for open questions, complexity and ambiguity. In Ligon’s appropriation of texts, I’ve thought I recognized a fellow introvert’s form of intimacy, a deep engagement with the words of forebears in the absence of actual mentors. But it also seems true that reframing the thoughts of others allows Ligon to express himself in a different register through the ventriloquism of art, as with Ligon’s work on Richard Pryor, whose voice he first heard as a teenager listening to the comedian’s albums on his cousins’ stereo. Brash and profane where Ligon is thoughtful and cool, Pryor inspired Ligon’s 2007 exhibition “No Room (Gold)” at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, which featured 36 gold canvases with Pryor quotes stenciled on them in black. (“No room for advancement,” Pryor jokes about the racism he has been subjected to. )
Ligon doesn’t shy from the fact that desire and objectification, power and sex are all a tangle. (In the 1993 version of “Notes on the Margin of the ‘Black Book,’” Ligon includes a personal exchange with his white boyfriend at the time, who confessed to having been asked if he was “into dark meat.”) Over the years, a question Ligon has been confronted with is whether he considers himself to be “a political artist” — a question that now seems preposterously naïve in its presumption of neutral ground. When I mention it, he chuckles. “When I first started showing in the ’90s,” he says, people would say, “‘Oh, your work is about your Black identity.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not a well that you just dip in and drink from.’”
Baldwin was always reminding us of the ways in which our moral lexicons are inseparable from our aesthetic ones. In one agonized passage in “Stranger in the Village,” he writes that even the most illiterate Swiss villagers have a claim on Western culture that he doesn’t. The inherited weight of an entire history of problematic representation is subtext to Ligon’s practice. Back in the late 1980s, he intuited the way semiotics — the academic study of symbols and what they signify, rooted in the human impulse to make meaning out of abstraction — might relate to racial prejudice, the way we essentialize people based on their skin color, as well as other characteristics. The inadequacy — and, often, outright manipulation and politicization — of public language and official narratives has a profound human cost. We all know what happens when phrases, events, even people become abstractions, reduced to signifiers, such as Ronald Reagan using the term “welfare queen” to rally his right-wing base, or the way in which critical race theory has become a straw man for a conversation many white politicians are afraid to have. As a young painter thinking about how to make the work he wanted without leaving too much of himself outside of the studio, Ligon found a mode of expression that exposed the tired binaries of abstraction versus figuration, of conceptual art versus painting, but also of the personal versus the political, as though these things haven’t always been complexly intertwined.
The centerpiece of Ligon’s 2011 retrospective at the Whitney, “Glenn Ligon: America,” was a 2009 neon work, “Rückenfigur,” in which the letters in the word “America” are reversed. The title, which refers to a pictorial device in which an artist includes a figure seen from behind, contemplating a landscape — a figure with which the spectator might identify — asks us to consider America itself as a makeshift construct, an unfinished argument. During the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, Ligon saw a TV report of a teenage boy whose home had just been bombed by U.S. forces telling a reporter that America needed to live up to its promise. Ligon was struck by this. “America just bombed the [expletive] out of your city, but America’s still held up as this ideal,” he said.
Ligon has also discovered the downside of being a skilled semiotician in our virtue-signaling age, finding his work posted on Instagram by historically white institutions in facile displays of racial awareness. After the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was criticized for posting an image of one of Ligon’s works, “We’re Black and Strong (I)” (1996), a silk-screen painting depicting the crowd at the Washington Mall during the Million Man March in 1995. The museum later posted an apology after comments pointed out the moral laziness of an institution leaning on a Black artist for commentary rather than issuing a statement of its own. A few days later, after Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, used an image of one of Ligon’s 1992 etchings featuring text from Hurston in a letter to the museum’s members, Ligon himself spoke up on his Instagram feed: “I know it’s #nationalreachouttoblackfolksweek but could y’all just stop. … Or ask me first?” (The Met later apologized.)
Such digital-age exploitations point to a longer history of American art institutions’ superficial engagement with Black art. The idea of these institutions only paying attention to Black artists in moments of trauma or anger is all too familiar to Ligon, who knows what it means to be the token artist of color at the fund-raising dinner, or to be grouped in shows in which only artists of color appear, as though art made by African American artists were somehow on a different shelf, or relevant only during Black History Month or after the latest atrocity. “It sort of drives me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, the work is so timely,’” says Ligon. “Antiracism is always timely. Or, ‘Well, you have to excuse that because he was a man of his time.’ I’m like, ‘So was Frederick Douglass.’ I mean, Trump, he’s a man of his time, too.’”
Ligon’s curatorial work has pointedly underlined the call and response across art history’s exclusionary and arbitrary barriers. For his 2015 show at Nottingham Contemporary in England, “Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions,” he contextualized his own work within that of a range of other artists with whom he has found affinities, both elders (David Hammons, Jasper Johns) and contemporaries (Cady Noland, Kelley Walker). In 2017, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, he used a 2001 Ellsworth Kelly wall sculpture originally commissioned for the foundation, “Blue Black,” consisting of two painted aluminum panels, as a jumping-off point for a show full of intriguing juxtapositions: A cluster of portraits, including a 1963 silk-screen painting of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol and Lyle Ashton Harris’s 2002 blue-tinted photograph of himself dressed up as Billie Holiday, became a conversation across time about who appears where and how. Ligon positioned his own 2015 neon work “A Small Band,” which reads “blues/blood/bruise,” the words taken from the testimony of a Black New York teenager savagely beaten by police in the 1960s, so that one could see the Kelly sculpture’s blue and black through it. When I ask Ligon how he decides, in history’s vast panorama, where to turn his attention, he’s silent for a moment, considering. “That’s an interesting question,” he says, explaining that he sometimes feels as though he has a kind of “chronological dyslexia” because of the way in which history can feel so present tense. “I guess I remember things that are attached to an emotion,” he concludes.
It’s tempting, for the critic seeking autobiographical through lines, to create a portrait of the artist as a stranger in the village, making his way among highly insular schools and institutions to became a leading artist of his generation. And in fact, that’s all true, if obviously reductive. Ligon’s story began, fittingly, with letters on a page: an alphabet exercise he made short work of as a bright kindergartner in the South Bronx. “The next day, my mother got a call from the principal at the school asking her to come in for a conference to talk about the fate of her children,” Ligon says. (His older brother, Tyrone, was also gifted.) Ligon’s mother was a nurse’s aide at the Bronx Psychiatric Center and was separated from his father, who worked for General Motors. “She couldn’t afford private school,” Ligon explained. “But she said that during the conference, one of my homeroom teachers said to her, ‘Well, your kids might be smart here but in a real school they would probably just be average.’” “Here” was a public school in what was then the poorest congressional district in the nation. But it’s also where, as Ligon points out, the Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the urban planner Majora Carter grew up. He was once asked in an interview what it was like to have grown up “in a cultural desert,” and Ligon laughed. “I said, ‘Ever heard of hip-hop?’”