The earliest work in the exhibition Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming is an untitled painting from 1988 featuring the simple declarative statement, “I AM A MAN.” The most recent is a pair of identical, larger-than-lifesize self-portraits made for this show — Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features and Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features. In the early piece, Ligon’s choice of stark black letters on the white painted-canvas ground replicates the placards carried by striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. The letters spell out a message as straightforward and complex today as it was thirty years ago. The “I” and the “Man” are not connected to the image of a particular individual. Instead, his identity is left to the viewer’s imagination. A decade later, in the ten-foot-tall, standing self-portraits, Ligon shows us exactly what he looks like. The images are identical but their descriptive titles are contradictory, indicating how the same man can be viewed in two very different, even antithetical, ways.
This selection of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and installations tracing Ligon’s artistic journey to date underscores how his work has always been concerned with the complexities of race, gender, and sexuality while avoiding the simplistic polarities of black and white. From the earliest to the latest work, the artist suggests that a person’s identity is multifaceted and only understood in relation to the larger social picture. By appropriating material from a wide range of sources — moving back and forth between “high” and “low,” from popular to arcane, historical to contemporary — Ligon explores how his own identity intersects with, is filtered through, and is ultimately shaped by the social and political narratives of American culture, past and present. Starting with the civil rights placards and moving through literary texts by such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, and Richard Dyer, Ligon also turns his attention and analytic skills to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, the jokes of comedian-actor Richard Pryor, nineteenth-century slave narratives, and the investigative crime reporting of The New York Times.