Glenn Ligon ’82, the youngest artist whose work has adorned the walls of the Obama White House, returned to Wesleyan on Tuesday, Feb. 16 to discuss his work and post-Wesleyan career. Since graduating, Ligon has explored issues of racism, language, and identity using a layered and complex mixed media approach often centered on text and images. His art makes the viewer reconsideration these subjects.
While studying at the University, Ligon was serious about pursuing art but focused on architecture, which he considered to be more practical than becoming an artist. Ligon considered going to architecture school upon graduation, but with an interest in Abstract Expressionism, he began to emulate the work of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock.
“Everyone’s goals change,” Ligon wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “I guess mine just changed for the better. I would have made a lousy architect.”
While Ligon began to follow the work of these painters he would make regular pilgrimages to see a favorite de Kooning. He described the miraculous moment that would occur after he stood in front of this work for a while and his eyes would finally focus, and the piece seemed to connect with his soul. Yet on a later visit to see the piece, this time donning newly prescribed glasses, he realized that “Ah!” moment was a result of his poor sight and lost faith in the painting. He soon recognized that these works, and his imitated pieces, were formally interesting but carried little meaning. Three years later he created his first text based work, a canvas covered in a painterly white background with the statement “I AM MAN” stenciled over it. This text was based on the signs held by the striking sanitation workers Martin Luther King Jr. was supporting when he was assassinated.
“I am interested in how ‘the self’ is determined by culture, class, history, etc.,” Ligon wrote. “The movement from abstract work to text-based work was an attempt to deal more directly with that notion.”
His series of works created with stenciled oil slick text placed on a white background developed further following this first work. Though at first he attempted to create a perfectly stenciled canvas, he realized that as the oil slick began to stick on the back of the stencil, the text started to coagulate and deteriorated into an unintelligible abstraction, leading to a more interesting product than faultless letters. This mark-making system leads to a tension between the legibility and illegibility of the work, a friction enhanced by the text used in the works.
This series highlights Ligon’s intentional opposition of demanding black text and the omnipresent white background. The text used for these works include phrases such as, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” “I remember the very day that I became colored,” “I am not tragically colored,” and “I do not always feel colored.”
“I use art to figure out what I think about a certain topic or set of issues,” Ligon wrote. “I think by making the work. That is not to say that I use art to solve problems, I use it to figure out good questions. What viewers make of those questions the work poses is up to them. Proust said that a book is like a pair of glasses which the reader puts on to see the world. If you don’t like the view, get a new pair. Same with my work. If it doesn’t help you to see the world in a new way, find some work that does.”
As an artist-in-residence at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Ligon produced silkscreen reproductions of about 100 to 150 children’s drawings in Afrocentric coloring books from the 70s. He saw a connection between this series and his first “I AM MAN” work, finding common ground in the fact that both show the idea of how an image changes over time. For example, the image of Malcolm X has changed over time and for kids today he is simply a figure in a coloring book for Ligon’s parents Malcolm X was an important figure.
After his time in Minneapolis, Ligon spent time in San Antonio placing plaques around the city that described his encounters with people at each site. He also worked in Berlin, where he found (and had a rubbing made of) a street sign that translated to Black Man Street. He continued to create works using text, including spoken text from Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy, and worked with neon, “blacking out” the front, forcing light out from only the back.
Ligon’s work often evolves from mistakes that occur during the artistic process. While creating silk screens of some of his text works, the image turned out incomplete, leaving spaces with little or no ink. Yet the abstraction that arose out of the text was more interesting to Ligon than the product he had originally envisioned.
“I don’t work out all the technicalities beforehand because I am usually trying to figure out what I am making as I make it,” Ligon wrote. “That is not a very efficient way of working but it suits me.”
Navigating effortlessly between many different forms of media, Ligon has built an evocative and dynamic body of work, earning himself a household name: he was recently mentioned on “Law and Order” and his work is now installed in the White House.
“I have a painting hanging in the White House at this very moment,” Ligon wrote. “It is there because the President and First Lady believe that art should be taken seriously and artists are not just problems to be managed.”