Gay artist Glenn Ligon rediscovers his country — and his art — with new retrospective at The Modern


BLACK POWER | Artist Glenn Ligon, above, turns words into powerful art on display at The Modern. A protest sign is turned into the subtle painting, ‘I Am a Man,’ below

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer

Artist Glenn Ligon’s simple “I Am a Man” was created by fixing stenciled black letters on a white background. The work is easy to underestimate because, while from afar it looks simply like a sign, up close, it conveys power beyond its simplicity.

Ligon is similarly cast. With his quiet demeanor, he may be easy to overlook, but on closer inspection, silent strength emanates from him.

Glenn Ligon: America is a mid-career retrospective of the gay artist, covering 25 years of his work. From stencils to photographs to coloring-book art, the exhibit, at the Modern in Fort Worth until June 3, delivers a spectrum of emotions that come with being black — and gay — in America.

“Over the years, these have been my explorations,” Ligon says. “In some instances, this exhibit has made me go back and look at my earlier works which I hadn’t done in a long time.”
Interestingly, his text-based paintings of Richard Pryor punchlines stirred up uneasy feelings when he revisited the language. Ligon, who created the works years ago, found fear in Pryor’s words like “faggot” and “motherfucker.” At the same time, the comedian was a beacon for him as a black man, even with seemingly homophobic rants.

“There was this man, this famous man, commenting about homosexuality in ways that were actually positive,” he says.

Pryor’s language is strong in these works, but to take them too seriously undermines Ligon’s point.

They were meant as jokes after all, and the artist hopes that political correctness doesn’t override both a sense of humor and a deeper look at the meaning.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to laugh if they think it’s funny,” he says. “Pryor was a funny man.

These can look at the power of certain words or the power we give them.”

The most charged of these words is “nigger.” Ligon’s work is bold and speaks the language of frustration, of identity and of sex. To only see the word is to misinterpret his work as that of the “angry Black man” — far from it. In his iconic black and white stenciling on door panels, he takes lines from African-American authors and repeats them from top to bottom as the paint gives way to blur. Diverse tones come from the likes of rap group N.W.A. (“Wrong nigga to fuck with”) to novelist Zora Neale Hurston  (“I am not tragically colored”). The question becomes if the word “gay” or “faggot” could be easily swapped in those same sentences.

“Well first, I would never change another person’s writing. These are from their published works,” he says. “But it’s an interesting question. The viewer could definitely see him or herself in there depending on their background.”

Ligon brings a fascinating aspect to his art that leans more to the queer. His Red Portfolio, akin to his stencil work, uses the power of words to make an image, but it’s the viewer who creates its intensity. Taking the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s campaign tool of descriptions of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s works, Ligon retooled those into art to bridge the gap between words and images. Wildmon was denouncing the National Endowment for the Arts use of grants on art considered obscene.

“He would send these to people as a way of censoring Mapplethorpe’s art,” Ligon laughs. “So someone from his church or a high-profile politician would open an envelope or see the postcard with ‘A photo of a man with a bullwhip inserted in his rectum,’ typed onto it. That’s it. And it’s almost worse that way because these people would only come up with possibly the worst version of that image in their heads.”

He echoes Mapplethorpe’s work in the final piece of the exhibit. The photographer’s 1986 The Black Book contained all nude pictures of black men in a variety of poses, but caused outrage because of a few particular depictions. Each page is framed and accompanied by quotes from activists, religious leaders and even the subjects themselves. The result is the poignant and powerful Notes on the Margin of The Black Book.

Whitney Museum of American Art curator Scott Rothkopf, who organized the show with The Modern, sums up Ligon’s retrospective appropriately and perhaps is more willing to talk up his work than the artist himself: “With this exhibition, we can look back and appreciate Ligon’s work that emerged from the culture wars in this country,” he says. “We can appreciate the subtle nature that adds to its social relevance. Regardless of white or black, straight or gay, man or woman, the work addresses all Americans.”

Ligon releases a small, prideful smile.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 2, 2012.