Asked to describe the artist Glenn Ligon, one acquaintance writes: “He’s a shortish, broad-shouldered black man, pretty dark-skinned, with glasses.” “He’s socially very adept,” says another friend, “yet, paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.” “Distinguished-looking,” another adds. In the “Runaways” (1993) series, the African-American artist Glenn Ligon framed these descriptions of himself to resemble the 19th-century posters that slave owners used to advertise their escaped property – to explore, he explains, “how the institution of slavery and its aftermath might actually have some resonance today on how our society is structured. It’s like the Faulkner quote,” he tells me, and then picks up his iPhone to search for the exact wording: “The past is never dead, it’s not even past,” he reads.
Ligon, 51, is an artist best known for using the words of others. In his early paintings, one of which was recently installed in the White House, he took short phrases from such writers as Jean Genet, James Baldwin and Walt Whitman, and wrote them over and over on to canvases and cheap doors. “I AM SOMEBODY,” reads one painting, echoing the famous avowal by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, “I am a man.” “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND,” reads another, taken from Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”.
Ligon used stencils to form each letter so that the words became crooked, smeared and often illegible. Like paintings by Jasper Johns or Cy Twombly, two of his greatest influences, he is interested in adapting text into image, “like turning a novel into a film,” he says. “I’m interested in when language fails, when it is opaque. I wanted to stage the difficulty you experience on reading one of these texts.”
We are sitting in Balthazar, a restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo, near Ligon’s home on the main shopping strip of Broadway. He likes the area, he says, because it is both bustling and anonymous – a paradox he relates to making art, “an incredibly solitary activity done for a public”. That public is about to expand next week, when Ligon becomes the subject of his largest show to date, a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
As the “Runaways” series advertises, Ligon is good-looking, stylish and warm, but also very private; he has a tendency to crack jokes when things seem to be getting too serious, or to deflect questions with quotations. He grew up in a rough neighbourhood in the Bronx, “so reading was safer than being outside”, he says. His mother, a nurse’s assistant, sent him to after-school classes in poetry in the East Village, and art classes at the Metropolitan Museum, where he made pencil copies of paintings by Cézanne, which he liked for their “openness”.
Later he fell in love with the work of the Abstract Expressionists; for many years, he tells me, he believed that de Kooning’s 1981 painting “Pirate” was transmitting a mystical message because it seemed to get brighter as he looked at it (he adds, laughing, that this was before he realised that he just needed glasses).
After graduating from Wesleyan College, Ligon joined the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1985, a course famous for the theoretical reading it gives its select students. When I ask whether that is why he – like Jenny Holzer, who also attended the ISP just before him – makes such “wordy” works, he shakes his head. “Actually, the Whitney turned me to porn,” he says, deadpan, referring to some of the earliest paintings in the show, in which he etched lines from gay pornographic magazines into paintings. “I really don’t have a clear trajectory at all,” he concludes.
Just as Ligon prefers not to simplify his own narrative, his work insists on the complexity of race and sexuality. In “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), Ligon, who is gay, re-hung a series of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe alongside a range of textual commentaries by, among others, artists, politicians, queer theorists, Christian commentators and drag queens (which meant, as several critics noted, that you had to stand very close to the blown-up pictures of the naked men in order to read the texts Ligon had chosen). When I ask Ligon about his take on Mapplethorpe’s work, he gently redirects my question: “That project was about looking at those images and at all those things that they have meant,” he says. “Are they racist? Are they something else? We don’t agree on what images mean; that’s their power.”
In 1993 he started to make colourful paintings featuring jokes by the African American stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, and found that what had been shown on primetime television caused consternation when written down and placed on a gallery wall. “Pryor is interesting because his jokes are merciless; they’re meant to entertain but for me they’re very astute observations of American society,” Ligon says. While most artists might have enjoyed the controversy the paintings provoked, he chose not to show them again until very recently – in part because he was alarmed by the vehemence of people’s response, but also, perhaps, because he dislikes the idea of “making a statement”.
Black culture, Ligon emphasises, is nothing but “a series of associations, a construct ... it’s this dynamic and changing thing, it’s not a static liquid you dip the bucket into and there you have it, take a drink ... ” He admires the work of the African-American artist David Hammons for his “ephemerality” (one of Hammons’ works involved selling snowballs; in another, audience members walked into a dark and empty room carrying their own blue light, making the work themselves). Ligon similarly wants his work to be hard to pin down, or to feel “light”. Recently he asked children to crayon images from a 1970s colouring book that was issued to spread awareness of black history; the resulting pictures, which include images of Malcolm X painted with red lipstick and rosy cheeks, are both formally interesting (they look like Andy Warhol’s) and poignant for suggesting that these children had no idea who Malcolm X was.
“People I hope will find that some of the work is funny,” Ligon says, “and sometimes in a serious way ... Jokes are serious,” he says.
Ligon’s show, called simply AMERICA, shares its title with its most recent works, which, characteristically, are both light and dark: three huge neon signs, one with the light half-covered with black paint, one entirely covered, and another that flashes on and off. The signs attempt to convey the way “everything is going well and terribly at the same time, something that has been a truism of American democracy for a long time now”, Ligon says.
Even our attitudes to President Obama, he explains, are split: on one hand, people are talking more about issues of race than ever before; on the other, there are still “a ridiculous number of people who believe that Obama wasn’t born in the US – that he’s an alien, a socialist, a communist ... ”
Ligon pauses. “These names are just hiding other fears.” He smiles suddenly, as if stopping himself from getting too heavy. “It’s great to have these conversations on the table,” he says, “but the discussion around them is still coded in some way.”
‘Glenn Ligon: America’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 10-June 5, then touring to Los Angeles and Fort Worth, whitney.org