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Glenn Ligon was born and raised in the Bronx. He attended Manhattan’s prestigious private Walden School on scholarship, and the experience of shuttling between boroughs and worlds of unequal privilege helped hone his sensitivity to the social realities that he would ultimately explore in his work. After receiving a BA from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1982, Ligon returned to New York and in 1984 enrolled in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. While there, his work, which previously drew on Abstract Expressionist painting, underwent a dramatic change. Growing increasingly frustrated with what he saw as the limitations of abstraction, he began to incorporate text in his paintings as a way of introducing new subject matter and a broad range of references into his work. He then developed what would become his signature technique: the use of stenciled texts that speak declaratively of both his personal history and broader political concerns.
Ligon’s work has incorporated texts from a variety of sources, including the writings of James Baldwin, Jean Genet, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as pornography, theoretical tracts, and the comedy routines of Richard Pryor. Ligon often plays with the legibility of the words he introduce into his paintings by smudging or overlapping them until they blur into abstractions. With his text based paintings, Ligon emerged in the early 1990s as a leading figure in a generation of artists—including Janine Antoni, Byron Kim, Gary Simmons, and Lorna Simpson—who trenchantly explored issues of racial and sexual identity in their work.
Throughout the ensuing years and in a variety of media, Ligon has drawn on a wide range of topics, including the Million Man March, runaway slave notices, and 1970s coloring books targeted at African American children. His works have addressed the identity and concerns not just of black or gay Americans but of all Americans—with their sometimes troubled histories and shared dreams. His goal, he has stated, is to illuminate the fluidity of identity, or, in his words, to demonstrate “how our notions of identity and selfhood change over time and become more complicated, that our very fixed and certain notions of who we are have to change over time.”
What does a midcareer retrospective mean for an artist, and how is a career defined? This roundtable takes up these questions on the occasion of Glenn Ligon’s midcareer exhibition. The Whitney has long supported living artists at key moments in their careers, and the Museum is unique in the number of midcareer exhibitions it features. Moreover, the Whitney has featured Ligon’s work in numerous exhibitions since the early 1990s, and has amassed the largest institutional holdings of his art. Ligon is joined by exhibition curator Scott Rothkopf and art historian Huey Copeland for a dialogue on the joys, fears, and implications of a midcareer show.
Glenn Ligon‘s latest video piece, The Death of Tom (2008), offers an abstractionist recreation of the final scene in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent movie Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Ligon asked experimental jazz musician, pianist, and composer Jason Moran to create a soundtrack for this piece, playing to changes in light on the screen. The film and live, improvised performance are followed by a conversation between Ligon and Moran, moderated by Terrance McKnight.