Glenn Ligon

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Glenn Ligon
Born1960 (1960)
EducationWesleyan University
Known forConceptual art

Glenn Ligon (born 1960, pronounced Lie-gōne) is an American conceptual artist whose work explores race, language, desire, sexuality, and identity.[1] Based in New York City, Ligon engages in intertextuality with other works from the visual arts, literature, and history, as well as his own life. He is noted as one of the originators of the term Post-Blackness.

Early life and career[edit]

Ligon was born in 1960 in the Forest Houses Projects in the south Bronx. When he was seven, his divorced, working-class parents were able to get scholarships for him and his younger brother to attend Walden School, a high-quality, progressive, private school on Manhattan's Upper West Side.[2] Ligon graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in 1982.

After graduating, he worked as a proofreader for a law firm, while in his spare time he painted, working in the abstract Expressionist style of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.[2] In 1985, he participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program.[3] He continues to live and work in New York City.[4]

While he started his career as an abstract painter, he began to introduce text and words into his work during the mid-1980s in order to better express his political concerns and ideas about racial identity.[5] Most of the text that he used came from prominent African American writers, including James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Ligon lives in Tribeca.[6] Since 2012, he has been serving on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA).[7] According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), he donated $30,000 to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in September 2016.[8]


Ligon works in multiple media, including painting, neon, video, photography, and digital media such as Adobe Flash for his work Annotations. Ligon's work is greatly informed by his experiences as an African American and as a gay man[9] living in the United States.


Although Ligon's work spans sculptures, prints, drawings, mixed media and neon signs, painting remains a core activity. Highly influenced by wide reading, he has incorporated texts into his paintings, in the form of literary fragments, jokes, and evocative quotes from a selection of authors, which he stencils directly onto the canvas by hand.[10] His source materials concern issues of the lives of black Americans throughout history, often alluding to other prominent black figures.

In 1989, he mounted his first solo show, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," in Brooklyn.[1] This show established Ligon's reputation for creating large, text-based paintings in which a phrase chosen from literature or other sources is repeated continuously, eventually dissipating into murk. Untitled (I Am a Man) (1988), a reinterpretation of the signs carried during the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 — made famous by Ernest Withers's photographs of the march, is the first example of his use of text.[11] In several other paintings, he overlaps repeating text to a point of illegibility, demanding the viewer’s attention as they try to make out the obscured words.[12] Ligon’s Prologue Series #2 (1991) includes the opening text of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, stenciled in various shades of black and grey, the words becoming less discernible as they progress towards the bottom of the composition. He uses this same passage of text in Prologue Series #5 (1991), but obscures the words further, creating a further sense of abstraction and ambiguity about the subject.[13]

Ligon gained prominence in the early 1990s, along with a generation of artists including Janine Antoni, Renée Green, Marlon Riggs, Gary Simmons, and Lorna Simpson.[9] In 1993, Ligon began the first of three series of gold-colored paintings based on Richard Pryor's groundbreaking stand-up comedy routines from the 1970s. The scatological and racially charged jokes which Ligon depicts are expressed in the vernacular language of the street and reveal a complex vision of black culture.[14]

In 1993, Ligon's show To Disembark was released. This show commented on the linkage between slavery of the past and the time's racial injustices. Ligon was inspired by historical moments throughout slavery, and was specifically inspired by the story of Henry "Box" Brown. Brown was a slave who literally shipped himself from Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia via a box crate.[15] Much of To Disembark centers around nine crates that Ligon constructed and dispersed throughout the gallery. Ligon also took note of how Brown was allegedly singing when he arrived in Philadelphia. To incorporate this element, Ligon placed speakers inside the crates quietly playing songs such as "Strange Fruit" sung by Billie Holiday and "Sound of da Police" by KRS-one.[15] The juxtaposition of these two songs, one released in the early 1900s and the other the early 2000s, is a comment on although many years have passed, but the struggle is still present. "Strange Fruit" has been used by other black artists such as Hank Willis Thomas in his photography series of the same name.

In Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-1993), Ligon reacts to Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of black male bodies from his 1996 book titled, Black Book. Ligon separately framed 91 erotic photographs of black males cut from Robert Mapplethorpe's 1988 Black Book, installing them in two horizontal rows. Between them are two more rows of small framed typed texts, 78 comments on sexuality, race, AIDS, art and the controversy over Mapplethorpe's work that was launched by then-Texas Congressman Dick Armey.[16] Ligon explicitly points out the problematics of these visuals in Mapplethorpe's book with his row of textual placards between the rows of photographs. These images, because they were first published in Mapplethorpe's book, had a limited the scope under which they were viewed. Ligon, however, made these pictures public literally in how they were present, in a museum, but also through how they were viewed. Ligon forced viewers to look at these images in a room full of others.[17] This brings forward the uncomfortability of viewing such images publicly, and allows for open discussion of them. It was this show that quickly led Ligon into Feast of Scraps.

In A Feast of Scraps (1994–98), he inserted pornographic and stereotypical photographs of black men, complete with invented captions ("mother knew," "I fell out" "It's a process") into albums of family snapshots including graduation photographs, vacation snapshots, pictures of baby showers, birthday celebrations, and baptisms. Some of the latter photos include the artist's own family. Ligon uses this sort of imagery to subvert the stereotype of the black American family, as well as express part of his own sexuality. In this sense, photography is used as a way of representing multiple identities through the disruption of images, which expresses the fragmentation of black identity, specifically the artist’s own identity. Ligon acknowledges that sexuality is something that is not necessarily visible, so it can be erased in photographs such as photos from his teenage years.[18] The imagery causes the viewer to imagine the identity and narrative of those depicted in these photographs, as well as recognize their own internalized perceptions of the black American family.[18] This project draws from the secret histories and submerged meanings of inherited texts and images.[1]

Another series of large paintings was based on children's coloring and additions to drawings of iconic figures in 1970s black-history coloring books.[19]

Installation art[edit]

In 1994, Ligon's art installation To Disembark was shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The title alludes to the title of a book of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks. To Disembark functions in both works to evoke the recognition that African Americans are still coping with the remnants of slavery and its manifestation in racism.[20] In one part of the installation, Ligon created a series of packing crates modeled on the one described by ex-slave Henry "Box" Brown in his Narrative of Henry Box Brown who escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. Each crate played a different sound, such as a heartbeat, a spiritual, or contemporary rap music. Around each box, the artist placed posters in which he characterized himself, in words and period images, as a runaway slave in the style of 19th-century broadsheets circulated to advertise for the return of fugitive slaves.[20] In another part of the exhibition, Ligon stenciled four quotes from a 1928 Zora Neale Hurston essay, "How It Feels To Be Colored Me", directly on the walls: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background," "I remember the very day that I became colored," "I am not tragically colored," and "I do not always feel colored." Ligon found Hurston's writing illuminating because she explores the idea of race as a concept that is structured by context rather than essence.[20]

Neon works[edit]

Since 2005, Ligon has made neon works. Warm Broad Glow (2005), Ligon's first exploration in neon, uses a fragment of text from Three Lives, the 1909 novel by American author Gertrude Stein. Ligon rendered the words "negro sunshine" in warm white neon, the letters of which were then painted black on the front.[21] In 2008, the piece was selected to participate in the Renaissance Society's group exhibit, Black Is, Black Ain't.[22] It was installed on the Whitney Museum's facade in 2011.[23] Other neon works are derived from neon sculptures by Bruce Nauman. One Live and Die (2006) stems from Nauman's 100 Live and Die (1984), for example.[21]

Ligon's large-scale installation A Small Band consists of three neon pieces illuminating the words "blues," "blood," and "bruise." Commissioned for the facade of the Central Pavilion at the fifty-sixth Venice Biennale, the work has been subsequently arranged in a new, site-specific formations at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Illinois, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. The three words of A Small Band reference composer Steve Reich's 1966 sound piece Come Out, which looped a fragment of the recorded testimony of Daniel Hamm, who was one of the Harlem Six, a group of young black men wrongly accused and convicted of murder in the mid-1960s.


In 2009, Ligon completed a short film entitled "The Death of Tom." It is based on Thomas Edison's 1903 silent film Uncle Tom's Cabin. Playing the character of Tom, Ligon had himself filmed re-creating the last scene of Edison's movie, from which he took his title. But the film was incorrectly loaded in the hand-crank camera that the artist used, so no imagery appeared on film. Embracing this apparent failure, Ligon decided to show his film as an abstract progression of lights and darks with a narrative suggested by the score composed and played by jazz musician Jason Moran.[2]


Ligon's work has been the subject of exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe. Solo exhibitions in the early 21st century include at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2001); the Kunstverein München, Germany (2001), the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2000); the St. Louis Art Museum (2000); the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (1998); and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1996).[24] A first survey of Ligon's work opened at The Power Plant in Toronto in June 2005 and traveled to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston; Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus; Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver, and the Mudam in Luxembourg.

The first comprehensive mid-career retrospective devoted to Ligon's work, was organized in 2011 by Scott Rothkopf at the Whitney Museum of American Art and travelled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.[25] Group shows in which Ligon has participated include the Whitney Biennial (1991 and 1993), Biennale of Sydney (1996), Venice Biennale (1997), Kwangju Biennale (2000), and documenta 11 (2002).[3]

In 2013, Ligon started writing letters to artists whose work had made an impression on him in his life, asking if he could borrow that particular work for an exhibition. While some of the letters were sent to living artists, others are letters that Ligon would have sent to those of the past,[26] including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.[27] The resulting show at Nottingham Contemporary in 2015 featured work by 45 different artists from Warhol to Steve McQueen, as well as Black Panther Party posters, press shots and footage from the Birmingham riot of 1963.[26] He also included seven of his own works in the show.[26] Ligon also curated the 2017 exhibition Blue Black at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, which was inspired by the museum's permanent, site-specific sculpture of the same name by Ellsworth Kelly. Featuring nearly sixty works, including several of Ligon's, the exhibition explored the appearance of blue and black in twentieth- and twenty-first-century art. According to critic Holland Cotter, the effect of Blue Black was "a show that isn't reductively 'racial' but includes race on a spectrum of meanings that runs from polemical to personal and poetic."[28]

More recent exhibitions include "Come Out" in 2014, which was shown at the Thomas Dane Gallery in London,[29] and "What We Said the Last Time" in 2016, which was shown at Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York City.[30]


Ligon's work is represented in many public collections, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Tate Modern, London; the Minneapolis Institute of Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; the Saint Louis Art Museum; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; the Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2012, the National Gallery of Art in Washington bought the painting Untitled (I Am a Man) (1988).[31]

In 2012, Ligon was commissioned to create the first site-specific artwork for the New School's University Center building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, on the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. The work features about 400 feet of text from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass rendered in violet neon light, running around the top of a wall in the center's first-floor café.[23]

Other activities[edit]


In 2005, Ligon won an Alphonse Fletcher Foundation Fellowship for his art work. In 2006 he was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Painting. In 2010, he won a United States Artists Fellow award.[33]

In 2009, President Barack Obama added Ligon's 1992 Black Like Me No. 2, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to the White House collection, where it was installed in the President's private living quarters.[9] The text in the selected painting is from John Howard Griffin's 1961 memoir Black Like Me, the account of a white man's experiences traveling through the South after he had his skin artificially darkened. The words "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence" are repeated in capital letters that progressively overlap until they coalesce as a field of black paint.[2] Art critic Jerry Saltz called this work a "black-and-white beauty."[34] At the annual Gala in the Garden at the Hammer Museum in 2018, he was honored by attorney and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson.[35]

In 2018, Ligon was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from The New School.[36]

Art market[edit]

On the occasion of Ben Stiller and David Zwirner's "Artists For Haiti" charity auction at Christie's in 2011, Jennifer Aniston set a record prize for Glenn Ligon's work by purchasing his Stranger #44 (2011).[10] At $450,000, Aniston beat Ligon's previous record of $434,500 for Invisible Man (Two Views) (1991), realized at Sotheby's in September 2010.[37] Untitled #1 (Second Version) (1990), a painting of the repetitious phrase "I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background", sold for $2.6 million at Christie's New York in 2014.[38]

Ligon has been represented by Hauser & Wirth since 2019.[39] He was previously represented by Regen Projects[40] in Los Angeles; Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York; and Thomas Dane Gallery in London.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Meyer, Richard. "Glenn Ligon", in George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman (eds), Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
  2. ^ a b c d Hunter Drohojowska-Philp (December 11, 2009), "Glenn Ligon gets Obama's vote", Los Angeles Times.
  3. ^ a b Glenn Ligon, Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York.
  4. ^ Glenn Ligon Archived December 8, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica.
  5. ^ a b Corpus, Rolando; Tomlinson, Glenn (1995). "Glenn Ligon". Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin. 90: 38–39. doi:10.2307/3795505. JSTOR 3795505.
  6. ^ Hilarie M. Sheets (January 26, 2017), "For Glenn Ligon, Home Is Where History and Friends Are Inspirations" The New York Times.
  7. ^ Foundation for Contemporary Arts Announces 2012 Grants to Artists Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), press release of January 2012.
  8. ^ Ben Luke (November 3, 2016), Artists raise millions for Hillary Clinton Archived November 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine The Art Newspaper.
  9. ^ a b c Carol Vogel (February 24, 2011), "The Inside Story on Outsiderness", The New York Times.
  10. ^ a b Glenn Ligon, Stranger #44 (2011), Artists for Haiti, September 22, 2011, Christie's New York.
  11. ^ Carol Vogel (November 15, 2012), "National Gallery of Art Acquires Glenn Ligon Painting", The New York Times, November 16, 2012.
  12. ^ Kraynak, Janet (March 2018). "How to Hear What Is Not Heard: Glenn Ligon, Steve Reich, and the Audible Past". Grey Room. 70: 54–79. doi:10.1162/GREY_a_00234. ISSN 1526-3819. S2CID 57569761.
  13. ^ Conrad, Murray, Derek (December 18, 2015). Queering post-black art : artists transforming African-American identity after civil rights. London. ISBN 9781784532871. OCLC 930016820.
  14. ^ Glenn Ligon, October 27 – December 8, 2007 Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
  15. ^ a b Copeland, Huey (February 2011). "Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects". Representations. 113 (1): 73–110. doi:10.1525/rep.2011.113.1.73.
  16. ^ Christopher Knight (October 24, 2011), Art review: 'Glenn Ligon: America' at LACMA Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ Firstenberg, Lauri (2001). "Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon". Art Journal. 60 (1): 42–47. doi:10.2307/778044. JSTOR 778044.
  18. ^ a b DeLand, Lauren (2012). "Black Skin, Black Masks: The Citational Self in the Work of Glenn Ligon". Criticism. 54 (4): 507–537. doi:10.1353/crt.2012.0035. ISSN 1536-0342.
  19. ^ Saltz, Jerry, "Art: Sign of Life," New York, March 14–21, 2011, p. 148.
  20. ^ a b c Kimberly Connor. Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition. University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  21. ^ a b Glenn Ligon: Neon, October 26 - December 8, 2012 Archived September 26, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York.
  22. ^ The Renaissance Society Archived July 20, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ a b Carol Vogel (October 26, 2012), "New School's New Neon", The New York Times.
  24. ^ Glenn Ligon: Off Book, December 12, 2009 – January 23, 2010 Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
  25. ^ Whitney Museum of American Art.
  26. ^ a b c Florence Waters (April 7, 2015), Encounters and Collisions: Glenn Ligon looks back on history in his latest, exploratory exhibition Wallpaper.
  27. ^ Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions, April 3 - June 14, 2015 Nottingham Contemporary.
  28. ^ Cotter, Holland (August 10, 2017). "Glenn Ligon Rethinks the Color Line in the Show 'Blue Black'". The New York Times.
  29. ^ Tani, Ellen (2019). ""Come Out to Show Them": Speech and Ambivalence in the Work of Steve Reich and Glenn Ligon". Art Journal. 78 (4): 24–37. doi:10.1080/00043249.2019.1684107. S2CID 213239164.
  30. ^ Liu, Tiffany (April 22, 2016). "Glenn Ligon, What We Said the Last Time". Global Art Daily. Retrieved November 11, 2020.
  31. ^ Carol Vogel (November 15, 2012), "National Gallery of Art Acquires Glenn Ligon Painting", The New York Times.
  32. ^ Artists Committee Americans for the Arts.
  33. ^ United States Artists Official Website Archived November 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ Saltz, "Art: Sign of Life," New York,, p. 148.
  35. ^ Makeda Easter (October 15, 2018), Hammer Gala raises $2.6 million, honors Margaret Atwood and Glenn Ligon for their socially engaged works Los Angeles Times.
  36. ^ "Meet The New School's 2018 Honorary Degree Recipients". May 17, 2018.
  37. ^ Dan Duray (September 22, 2011), "Jennifer Aniston Sets Record Price for Glenn Ligon at $13.7 M. Artists For Haiti Auction", New York Observer.
  38. ^ Glenn Ligon, Untitled #1 (Second Version) (1990) Christie's New York, May 12, 2014.
  39. ^ Alex Greenberger (April 4, 2019), Hauser & Wirth Now Represents Glenn Ligon ARTnews.
  40. ^ Regen Projects
  41. ^ Thomas Dane Gallery.

External links[edit]