Glenn Ligon, When Black Wasn’t Beautiful #1, 2004
NARRATOR: Much of Ligon’s work is austere and quiet. But his series based on the comedy of Richard Pryor shouts in neon colors and profane language. Pryor was one of America’s greatest comedians, famous for his unsparing observations about race. Glenn Ligon:
GLENN LIGON: His jokes are very pointed political commentary. They're funny, but they're also cringe-worthy and that sort of tension between very sharp, biting satire of American culture and their jokiness was something I was interested in.
NARRATOR: As curator Scott Rothkopf explains, the paintings capture—and even re-create—that tension.
SCOTT ROTHKOPF: Often, the colors are so bright that they kind of are actually hard to look at. The paintings feel like they have a vibrating, optical effect, and you can't even sometimes see the text against this colorful ground, they're hard to read. I think another thing that he captures is certainly the difficulty of reading this kind of language which you're used to encountering, let's say, in a comedy club . . . and now you're being forced to look at it in an art gallery. And you are, in a way, implicated in this language, because you're reading this word nigger in your mind, and someone's watching you do that, and you're watching them do that. So, it becomes a kind of public act. Something fascinating happens when you change contexts.
NARRATOR: To hear Thelma Golden’s take on these paintings, press play: