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  • Glenn Ligon's America
  • Susanna Newbury (bio)

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Glenn Ligon, Warm Broad Glow II, 2011. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art. Neon, paint, and powder-coated aluminum; overall (in situ): 27½ × 242 × 4 5/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Marcia Dunn and Jonathan Sobel, E.2010.0309a-b. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

© Glenn Ligon. Photo: Sheldan C. Collins

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One listens for the politics of a lower frequency.

Saidiya Hartman, "Will Answer to the Name Glenn"

A neon sign hung in the front window of the Whitney Museum of American Art spelling out the words negro sunshine in typewriter script with an odd light. Legible against the lighted glass yet not glaring, Warm Broad Glow (2006) — the phrases come from Gertrude Stein's 1909 novella Melanctha — floated among the mirrors and windows of the museum's atrium: traffic on Madison Avenue, the shop awnings across the street, the well-to-do brunching in the subterranean café, Marcel Breuer's recessed eyeball lamps crowding the lobby. The text could have been assimilated into the reflective tableau, a storefront window display approximating photorealism. Except for three [End Page 37] things: the jarringly anachronistic content of the message, its friendly font, and the realization that what made the phrase stand out was the formal fact of the neon's blackness, a dark figure set against the dematerialized ground of white light.

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, a midcareer survey of the artist's work, was mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art from March to June 2011 before traveling to Los Angeles and Fort Worth, Texas.1 The exhibition began with a sea of palms, hands raised and facing the viewer, under a clear black sky. A visually arresting call to attention both as greetings and commands, Hands (1996) was tacked like a banner on the wall opposite the elevators, an anonymous sea of parts that refuses to disclose a single focus. A photographic image, silk-screened in black ink, Hands carries the pointillist grain of the enlarged document whose information falls apart. Which indeed is to the point. Sourced from an unnamed newspaper image of the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, DC, Hands is an appropriation of palms raised, outstretched in affirmation, salutation, and praise. Two-fingered peace signs appear here and there, popping out against the dark background, testifying among the crowd. And then there are the fists, first one or two curled up and potent, then clusters, wordless as the salute of an Olympian, stark as an icon. Last to emerge are the handful of faces, deeply embedded at the lower right. A silent examination of self-representation and group identity, Hands seems to ask whether it is possible to enable interiority and quietude within the unstable and unresolved texture of a historical moment.2

Ligon has long been celebrated as a conceptual, text-based artist who deconstructs identity through language and literature. He is perhaps best known for his classically antifigurative "door paintings," whose restaged quotations and aphorisms addressing race ventriloquize Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Jean Genet. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Whitney's own rigorously theoretical Independent Study Program (ISP), he came to prominence in the watershed early 1990s series of American exhibitions that rerouted art through the politics of identity. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Ligon has maintained a highly painterly visual practice, one that leverages representation against the vaunted and divergent traditions of both modern and conceptual

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Hands, 1996. Silkscreen on unstretched canvas, 82 × 144 in. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

© Glenn Ligon

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Cocaine (Pimps), 1993. Oil stick, synthetic polymer, and graphite on linen, 32 × 32 in. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

© Glenn Ligon

art. This dual interpellation — the materiality of the historical subject and the materiality of visuality — framed this excellent and timely exhibition.

In a small gallery off the entrance, an assemblage of early works counterintuitively spoke to Ligon's interest in the lush affect of surface. Four untitled, previously unexhibited...


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