NARRATOR: In this monumental work, Ligon captures the scope and passion of the polarizing public debates surrounding the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. The Black Book is a series of black and white photographs depicting nude black men in eroticized, classical poses. Upon its publication, the book became a lightning rod for controversy in the culture wars of the 1980s. Glenn Ligon:
GLENNLIGON: I probably saw Mapplethorpe’s Black Book the year it was published, which was 1986, and I remember having very ambivalent feelings about it, partially because the representations of the men were very de-contextualized. You had no sense of their social lives or histories, you just have a sense of them as objects for Mapplethorpe’s camera. But at the same time, I thought the photographs, as a way of seeing black men, were important on some level.
NARRATOR: For Ligon, the photographs became a starting point for investigating ideas about black masculinity and sexuality. After struggling with his own thoughts, he decided to research the public debate.
GLENNLIGON: I started reading hundreds and hundreds of articles about Mapplethorpe, about the issues around censorship and homophobia that his work generated, scholarly commentary. I did interviews with people in bars that I met and showed them copies of The Black Book and asked them what they thought.
NARRATOR: Ligon presents the responses in panels positioned between the actual pages of Mapplethorpe’s book. Filled with charged language, the texts reveal the staggering array of meanings associated with these images.
This work appeared at the provocative 1993 Whitney Biennial. To hear more about its reception, press play: