Archival Highlight: Glenn Ligon, Unbecoming

Welcome to Archival Highlights–an ongoing series featuring exhibitions and programs from ICA’s 58-year-history, starting with a look back on Glenn Ligon’s 1998 exhibition, Unbecoming, curated by Judith Tannenbaum.

Glenn Ligon, ‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features’, and ‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features’, 1997. Exhibition view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

About the Artist

The work of Glenn Ligon mines the history of African American culture, from slave narratives to the Million Man March, from the icons of the abolitionist movement to the raunchy jokes of Richard Pryor. In the series of paintings that remain his best known, Ligon stencils black text across the surface of white, doorsize canvases. The words presented are not the artist’s own but have been borrowed from such writers as Zora Neale Hurtson, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Typically, Ligon will repeat an especially charged sentence (“How it feels to be colored me,” “I am an invisible man,” “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”) until it verges, through the force of excess paint, on illegibility. The resulting pictures set up a series of dialogues between visibility and erasure, between the naming of color and its painterly absence on the canvas, and between the “black space” of the stenciled letters and the “white space” into which they increasingly bleed. For all the seeming dispassion of Ligon’s formal method (monochrome palette, stenciled letters, repeated words), his text paintings are supercharged with affect. They speak a first-person voice of black subjectivity while registering the denial and relentless silencing of that same voice.

An artist who is always reading, Ligon has said that he “wants to make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it.” He listens hard to specific forms of both spoken and written language, to the inflections of vernacular and period use, and to the subtleties of syntax and style. Equally as important, Ligon looks hard at the material forms and mechanical reproduction of language, at printing methods, paper formats, and typefaces. In a 1993 series of prints entitled Narratives, for instance, Ligon mimicked the rhetoric and typography of nineteenth-century slave narratives while replacing the details of the text with information drawn from his own biography:

The life and adventures of Glenn Ligon, a Negro who was sent to be educated amongst white people in the year 1966 when only about six years of age and has continued to fraternize with them to the present time.

Ligon historicizes the language of self-description to draw out the trauma, but also the ironies, of modern black experience. Rather than situating the slave narrative securely in the past, the artist insists on the continuing relevance of that narrative to contemporary black life, including, and especially, his own. The power of Narratives lies largely in the way it studies (rather than simply appropriates) its source material, in the way it updates such texts as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass while carefully retaining the period format of their frontispieces.
–Richard Meyer
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Southern California


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.



Glenn Ligon, ‘Untitled (I Am A Man)’, 1988. Oil and enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.


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.


Glenn Ligon, ‘Self-Portraits’, 1996. Silkscreen on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.



In Runaways (1993), Ligon revises fugitive slave posters of the mid-nineteenth century by inserting various descriptions of himself in place of the runaway slave. The descriptions were drawn from ten friends of the artist, each of whom was asked to provide a verbal account of Ligon as though reporting his disappearance to the police. The texts that emerged from this process combine the casual language of physical appearance with the brute force of slavery:

“Ran Away, Glenn Ligon. He’s a shortish broad-shouldered black man, pretty dark-skinned with glasses. Kind of stocky, tends to look down and turn in when he walks. Real short hair, almost none. Clothes nondescript, something button-down and plaid, maybe, and shorts and sandals. Wide lower face and narrow upper face. Nice teeth.”

That last phrase, “Nice teeth,” set off as its own sentence, resonates with the blunt language of the slave auction block. The entire print, in fact, closely mimics the format of its source material, down to the crowning visual icon of a white man in hat and topcoat restraining a shackled, half-naked black slave. In Runaways, as in Narratives, Ligon insinuates the historical legacy and language of slavery into a set of otherwise current descriptions of himself. In so doing, he situates slavery as a symbolic force that continues to reverberate within contemporary black life.

Glenn Ligon, ‘Runaways (Ran Away, Glenn Ligon. He’s a Short-ish, Broad-shouldered Black Man…)’, 1993. 1 from a series of 10 lithographs. Courtesy of the artist.


Every Night, by Thelma Golden

The following is an excerpt from Thelma Golden’s essay, Every Night, published in full in ICA’s Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming catalog, available here.

Glenn and I talk every night. Sometimes, I call Glenn in the morning. I like the idea of my voice bellowing out of the machine through his apartment, waking him up. I’m amused when he answers annoyed. Mostly, we talk at night. When we talk, I’m usually sitting on my bed watching music videos with the sound muted. Glenn usually does something more productive. Sometimes, he eats. Sometimes, he washes dishes or makes cappuccino—or sits in the bathtub. Now that he has a computer, sometimes he types. I hear the keys clicking. Our conversations inevitably revolve around three topics:

  • Men
  • Clothes
  • The art world

In a larger sense, I imagine, if analyzed, we are talking about sexuality, the construction of identity and one’s place in the world, but we never analyze. Our conversations are continuous and often circular. From these conversations, we’ve developed a shared vocabulary, one composed of a strange combination of slang, willful misappropriations, our blend of ebonics, and sheer laziness. Sometimes, rather than using an entire sentence, we resort to a phrase or a word. From these conversations—actually, from this particular way of talking about things—I have come to know Glenn, and this knowing leads me to an understanding, however problematized by such intimacy, of his work.

This knowing is by no means complete, because we talk around the work. And it is only upon seeing the work, do many things we speak of make sense. We think differently; I take things at face value, Glenn always asks incredulously, “What does that mean?” When he says this, I know he means, “What does that really mean?”



An Interview with Glenn Ligon

by Byron Kim, September-October 1997.
Conducted by fax, telephone, at the artists’ homes in Brooklyn, New York, and at a WNBA game (New York vs. Sacramento).

Byron Kim: You don’t seem to be a painter per se. That is, you’re not limited to what that term implies. On the other hand, you know a lot about old paintings, and you always come back to painting as a kind of touchstone.

Glenn Ligon: It’s one of many touchstones. When I first started making art, painting was one of the few spaces in my life where I felt free. I was into abstract expressionism — with an emphasis on expressionism. I had a crisis of sorts when I realized there was too much of a gap between what I wanted to say and the means I had to say it with. To me, this seemed similar to the crisis Philip Guston went through when he made the transition from abstraction to figuration in the seventies — in part, in response to the Vietnam War, feeling that the work he was doing wasn’t an adequate response to the tumultuous world he found himself in. The crisis I faced prompted a move toward the direct quotation of texts.

BK: Is there any “expressionism” in your text paintings?

GL: What do you mean by “expressionism”?

BK: I mean non-verbal communication in painting that has to do with large feelings — you know, the kind we now go to therapy for.

GL: When I choose a text, it’s because I’ve had a very visceral reaction to it. The paintings are an attempt to communicate that to a viewer. It’s more group therapy than individual sessions.

BK: I just saw a picture in the New York Times of de Kooning in his studio during his last working years. There were all these incredible paintings stacked up behind him. Considering his purported mental infirmity and the controversy surrounding those works, it’s a very moving scene. There’s no question in my mind that they are strong paintings, in part, precisely because they communicate in ways that humans normally cannot. Talk about communicating viscerally! De Kooning woke up every morning not needing to remember anything, because the paintings remembered everything for him.

GL: Pirate, a painting by de Kooning, is one of my favorite paintings in the world. When I was in college, I made pilgrimages to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see it. A peculiar thing happened when I looked at that painting. I would stand in front of it for a few minutes and it seemed to get brighter and come into sharp focus. This happened with other artists’ paintings, but it seemed to happen most often with de Kooning’s work, particularly with that painting. I took it to mean I had a special bond with his paintings — that I “got” them in a very mystical way. A couple of years later, I was in a car with my brother and I couldn’t read the signs on the side of the highway. My brother said, “You need glasses.” I went to an optometrist and, sure enough, I did need glasses. The next time I went to see Pirate, the thing that usually happened didn’t happen. I realized that what I had taken for a mysterious transmission from the painting to my brain was actually my eyes taking a few minutes to focus on what was in front of me. Curiously, this didn’t diminish the painting at all. I think what I was always responding to, what always moved me, was the traces of the body that I read in the swoops and strokes in the work. The presence of the body is the same thing that I respond to in Warhol’s work: the semimechanical execution: “I want to be a machine:” that he called his studio “The Factory:” all that is in the service of depicting the body in crisis (the Disasters or the Jackie paintings), or the star body (Liz Taylor, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe), or the literal traces of the body (the Shadows or the Piss paintings). De Kooning said that paint was invented to depict flash, and what attracts me to his work is the luscious, sensual nature of the paint. The materiality of the paint does the work, which seems to be about the desire with which we approach the bodies of others. Warhol understands that the depiction of flesh is one of painting’s jobs as well, although he goes about it by using photographic means and letting our investments in the bodies depicted do the work.

BK: People often talk about the luscious, rich surface of your paintings. I wonder whether they are rich surfaces to you or signs for rich, painterly surfaces? If signs, are the paintings somehow signs for paintings?

GL: That they are rich, painterly surfaces is certainly part of what the work is about — and also just a by-product of the process of their making. I hope that the beauty of the surfaces facilitates an engagement with the ideas in the texts, or the ideas behind my positioning of the texts. One art critic said that my paintings weren’t “aesthetic,” which amused me because I think their aesthetic qualities often threaten to overwhelm the content, just as the beauty of the surfaces of a JOhns flag painting overwhelms the sign. Hard to think about the flag when you look at one of his paintings, yet what else is it but a flag?

BK: The form overwhelming a Johns flag is quite different from what happens in your text paintings, because you’re not dealing with an iconographic image. It seems nearly impossible to me, in the format you’ve chosen for your text paintings, for the form to overwhelm the content, because a picture (of a flag, say) is worth a thousand words, but a word isn’t worth a thousand words.

GL: What?

BK: I mean that words are just words and their identity as words is so fixed that you can’t pretty them up into pictures.

GL: Words are pictures the way I paint them. I’d agree that there is a tension between the meaning of the words and the form of the paintings. That’s what’s interesting to me. The paintings are about the desire to communicate and a certain pessimism about the possibility of doing that. I know that the texts I use are not iconographic, but they do exist outside of my paintings; they are available to be read. Making a painting, for me, is akin to making a film adaptation of a text: it’s just one possible way out of many of responding to a given text.

BK: You’ve made some paintings that used Richard Pryor jokes. You seem to find these paintings difficult. Was it partly because Pryor’s jokes overwhelmed the form of the paintings?

GL: That was exactly the difficulty. The jokes are so raw, so in your face, that “prettying up the text” didn’t work as a strategy. The paintings succeed or fail depending on whether the jokes succeed or fail. This is not to say that paintings can’t have raw or gruesome content and still be beautiful. Think of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes. Gruesome as hell, but stunningly and seductively painted.

BK: The idea of self in your work somehow supersedes the issue of race. Your work is all about how we don’t get to represent ourselves as precisely as we want to. We always get lost in the translation. We’re always at the mercy of people’s interpretations.

GL: We’re always at the mercy of people’s desires to place us in certain identities. The idea of superseding rac is problematic for me; it’s been used to say that people of color, because we are “raced,” are limited (whereas, white people are just “people” and seem to have no racial identity). The work of artists of color is often reduced to being simply about race and nothing else, as if our gender, sexual, class, and other identities didn’t complicate any discussions of race as a subject matter, or as if race was our “natural” subject matter.

BK: A few weeks ago, you were talking about an explosion south of San Francisco, where hundreds of black servicemen died and the army psychologically tormented the survivors. Astonished, I asked you if this happened in our lifetime. You said, “Yes, it happened in 1944,” which is almost twenty years before we were born.

GL: James Baldwin said, “If history were the past, history wouldn’t matter. History is the present … You and I are history. We carry our history. We act our history.”* When I said, it happened in our lifetime, I wasn’t simply being dramatic. I really do believe that we have a responsibility to the past.

BK: But Baldwin was very concerned with the present. He thought one of his roles as a poet was to “trouble the waters.” Do you see this as your role as well?

GL: Different works address that question in different ways. Notes on the Margin of the “Black Book” was an attempt to foreground the political, historical, and social context surrounding the men depicted in Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. The project Feast of Scraps was about inserting questions of sexuality into the space of the family photo album. The paintings, starting with Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), are about questions of race and desire, knowability and unknowability, the efficacy of beauty — a much more oblique project than Notes on the Margin or Feast of Scraps.

BK: You are a voracious reader, and you sometimes use your readings directly in the work. To what extent are you a writer, or a poet, even?

GL: There is a discipline to writing, particularly writing poetry, that I don’t have the patience for. I do take great delight in the way people say things and in writers who use language in beautiful and unexpected ways. Byron, whenever you see a new text piece of mine, you always jokingly ask whether I wrote it or not, and the answer is always no. I am much more interested in borrowing and reframing what already exists, which, I guess, makes me a “found” poet.

BK: As an African American artist concerned with biography and history, you have a limitless store of subject matter. To me, content is the most important part of art, and the most difficult to acquire as an artist. The black and white paradigm that frames the issue of race in this country is basically constructed by white people, but I still sort of envy the idea that any time you need subject matter you just dip down into the well of blackness. I can’t do that. I should be critical of the whole setup, which I am, but the setup strangely benefits you as an artist, even if its relationship to you as a human being is more complicated.

GL: Envy is a curious, fascinating word in this context. Why are black people, marginalized and disenfranchised, enviable? The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and the twentieth, I suppose) were not happy times for my people, yet we survived all that and became Americans. If I have a well to dip into, it’s filled with almost four hundred years worth of permutations of what blackness has meant and speculations on what it might mean in the future. It’s curious to me that our experience seems central, seems to be the quintessential American experience. Toni Morrison argues that blackness has been used by other groups to define their Americanness, blackness being placed at the limit of what it means to be American. So, obviously, exploring blackness as a subject matter tells you about what it means to be anything else in this country. Also, blackness — like Malcolm X said about whiteness — is a state of mind. There is no consensus on what it means, and each individual and generation has to renegotiate its meaning. I’m just adding my two cents to the debate.


Glenn Ligon, ‘Hands’, 1996. Silkscreen ink on unstretched canvas. Collection of the Peter Norton Family Foundation.