Glenn Ligon, Whitney Museum, New York

Glenn Ligon tills the narrow strip between self-revelation and self-concealment. He tells us only what he wants us to know, obscuring the rest behind layers of pigment, calculated blur or other wilful acts of evasion, and struggles with the anxieties of miscommunication.

Ligon is the focus of an elegant mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum, thoughtfully assembled by Scott Rothkopf. Ligon is known mostly as a painter but this gathering of 25 years’ worth of intermittently beautiful work illuminates his broader range, juxtaposing text-based pictures with giant neon reliefs, prints, and large-scale installations. This sweeping perspective winds up reinforcing the constancy of his themes. The approach may change from one piece to another but questions of racial, sexual and national identity burn at the core of his practice.

The monumental black canvases of the “Stranger” series, like all his best work, alight at the edge of intelligibility. They depict unreadable words, fuzzy with coal dust and shiny with glitter, bleeding into one another. These deliberately obscured texts come from a kind of private scripture: James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”. In that 1953 essay, which meditates on the author’s experience as the only black man in a wintry Swiss town, Baldwin rages at being seen as an exotic in Europe, but he also ambivalently acknowledges his rootedness in American destiny.

Ligon, too, has always viewed himself as an outsider. Born in the Bronx to working-class parents in 1960, he attended a progressive, mostly white Manhattan private school, and later graduated from Wesleyan University. Like Baldwin, he is both black and gay, and so feels doubly distanced from a mainstream that has nevertheless embraced him. The “Stranger” paintings convey Ligon’s conflicting desires to be known and to remain apart. He invites us to approach and decipher the meaning of his dazzlingly rendered fragments, but then denies us the satisfaction of understanding. As Rothkopf eloquently puts in the catalogue, “the anxiety remains that we are failing to hear what these paintings have to tell us – and this feeling of misrecognition is, in part, what they have to say”.

Ligon started out as an abstract expressionist painter, idolising de Kooning and Franz Kline. But a stint at the Whitney’s Independent Study Program – notorious for its fixation on theory and conceptual art – altered his orientation. He began by scrawling words on to his paintings and then switched to the more impersonal medium of stencils. By the time he made his debut at the Whitney’s 1991 biennial with “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, he had arrived at his signature style of printed phrases on a monochrome surface: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”, and “I am not tragically colored”. Each of these sentences, from a 1928 essay by Zora Neale Hurston, begins legibly at the top of a wooden panel then repeats over and over, smudging into incoherence as it threads its way down. The use of words recalls Jasper Johns, another gay artist who manipulated a monochrome alphabet into a taunting masquerade. But Ligon hatched his own essential metaphor for social and psychological impenetrability. Representation disappears into abstraction, meaning into meaninglessness.

The simultaneous need both to express and obscure himself suffuses all of Ligon’s work and emerges with particular force in his many self-portraits. For the print portfolio “Runaways”, inspired by 19th-century posters seeking escaped slaves, Ligon asked friends to describe him as if they were filing a missing persons report. “RAN AWAY, Glenn, a young black man twenty-eight years old, about five feet six inches high,” begins one typical contribution. The physical descriptions are fairly consistent – “shortish”, “stocky”, with “close cropped hair”, and “oval shaped glasses” – but the man’s character remains elusive. Depending on who is describing him, he “does not look at you straight in the eye” or appears “warm and sincere”, he “laughs often” or is “a loner”. Ligon plays all the roles here: master and slave, active artist and passive subject, bounty hunter and wanted man.

Indeed, Ligon looked to Andy Warhol’s “Most Wanted Men”, a mural composed out of silkscreened mug shots, for a 1996 multipart self-portrait. Like Warhol, Ligon plays off the slippery sense of the word “wanted”, with its connotations of crime and desire. Three of the four giant silkscreens show him from behind, his big, bald skull forcing its way into the vast frame. In the last, he appears in poker-faced profile, an unmissable reference to the photography of accusation.

Who is Glenn Ligon posing as now? On the simplest level, he nods to the stereotype of the black male felon. He also enacts a rite of refusal, rebuffing our attempt to see or know him. The viewer gazes at this larger-than-life figure, multiplied on the wall, knowing it is Ligon and willing him to turn round. He gives us only the back of his head.

Whether he is using words or likeness, Ligon’s abiding topic is himself. Yet the show is called Glenn Ligon: America, and it ends with a series of neon signs spelling out that patriotic word. The luminous tubes are painted black, some wholly, some partially, giving each sign a shadowed, blemished glow. These recent works are easy enough to read, and the artist has been uncharacteristically explicit about his intentions: “There is this sense that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light. That’s how the piece came about, because I was thinking about Dickens’s ‘the best of times, the worst of times’. We can elect Barack Obama, and we’re still torturing people in prisons in Cuba. Those things are going on at the same time.”

Ligon’s manifesto of ambiguity resolves into a different kind of self-portrait, one in which his old ambivalence – and Baldwin’s – is projected on to a complex nation that never lacks for faultlines and contradictions.

Exhibition continues at the Whitney Museum until June 5.

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