Glenn Ligon at LACMA

Hosted by

One of the most startling, intriguing works in the exhibition Glenn Ligon: America is a loosely drawn portrait of Malcolm X as a white man with bright pink lips and blue eye shadow. The painting is stylistically reminiscent of Andy Warhol's silkscreens. It was copied from a child's black pride coloring book and may be a reference to rumors that Malcolm X had a white, male lover. Ligon is a black and openly gay artist, whose work hangs in the White House. The portrait does not mean to question the historic importance of the civil rights leader – he also did a black version of the same picture - but it does question the nature of how we assign identity: by race, by gender, by sexual orientation. Wouldn't everything we think we know about a public figure shift if somehow the color of their skin mysteriously changed?



Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X (Version 1) #1, 2000
Vinyl-based paint, silkscreen ink, and gesso on canvas, 96 x 72 in. (243.8 x 182.9 cm)
Collection of Michael and Lise Evans
© Glenn Ligon. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles


Any sort of representational painting is unusual in this mid-career survey of the fifty-year-old artist from New York yet it summarizes many of the issues that surface repeatedly in two decades of his work. At every turn, Ligon provokes an unexpected response. Ligon is best-known for paintings of texts stenciled in black oil and coal dust on white canvas, drawn from the writings of writers Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, who are black and others like Jean Genet and John Howard Griffin, who are not. The ribald lines borrowed from the black comedian Richard Pryor are painted in bright colors, a carnivalesque display that accentuates the sarcastic humor. 



Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988
Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 25 in. Collection of the artist.
Photograph by Ronald Amstutz
© Glenn Ligon. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles


In all this work, a single phrase is repeated over and over until the painted letters congeal into a mass of illegibility, like an abstract painting. The progression parallels the sticky, uncertainty of thinking about race in America. What is clear and what is unclear are bound together in each of Ligon's pieces just as they are in daily life. The most dramatic examples are three large neon signs of the word America. The most chilling version is turned to face the wall so that America is read in reverse, with the power cords and plugs visible, a not too subtle metaphor for the way many blacks view their relationship to this country i.e. from the back with all the mechanical workings painfully apparent.


Glenn Ligon, Therapy #1, 2004
Oil stick, synthetic polymer, and graphite on canvas, 32 x 32 in.
Collection of Shaun Caley Regen
Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. © Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon: America, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, continues through January 22, 2012.