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Else’s “I”

Some call it self-portrait. But in his touring exhibition called Some Changes, opening at The Warhol September 30, Glenn Ligon says his art is always as much if not more about someone else’s take on the world.





Condition Report
, 2000, Silkscreen on iris prints, Courtesy of the artist and Regen
Projects, Los Angeles.

In black text etched onto a black background run the vaguely legible words: “I am an invisible man …” An early-’70s photo of singer Stevie Wonder, with trademark smile and ever-present sunglasses, is reproduced onto a stenciled print and titled, “Self-Portrait At 11 Years Old.” In the cold font of 18th-century typeset, crowned by a drawing of a chained African, an advertisement describes a runaway slave—a slave named Glenn. In the work of New York City-born and

-based artist Glenn Ligon, the pronoun “I” plays a more pronounced role than in the work of many contemporary artists. In each of these examples of Ligon’s heavily textual paintings, etchings, and, more recently, multi-media artworks, Ligon has managed to contort ideas of high art and literature, popular culture, racial and sexual identity, and self-portraiture itself, to his own needs.

This is the motivating force behind Some Changes, a touring retrospective of Ligon’s past 18 years of work, which comes to The Andy Warhol Museum on September 30: the way Ligon has altered the cultural world around him, returning time and time again to certain sources and subjects in order to discuss perceptions of identity in the contemporary world.

“Perhaps it doesn't make sense to say ‘self-portrait’ [in reference to my artwork] anymore,” says Ligon. “Perhaps it never did. I think in a world where the boundaries of national, sexual, and racial identity are up for grabs, who is to say what the real ‘I’ is? I am curious about this breakdown in certainty. From the very beginning my work has been positioned as self-portraiture; but it was always quotation: someone else's ‘I.’”

Black, Male, and Gay

That something as seemingly simple as a self-portrait could become so conceptual illustrates the complexity of a modern life like Ligon’s. Born in the Bronx in 1960, Ligon grew up both African-American and gay throughout the civil rights era, the black power movement, and an exciting and volatile time for black pop culture. But, as Ligon points out, the era that brought Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Richard Pryor together in his vocabulary was not necessarily an easy one to navigate.

“I wasn't an artist in the ’70s,” says Ligon, “I was simply ‘black, male, and gay,’ which would have been hard for anyone to be in the ’70s.

“The things I learned in my neighborhood about being a black American are things that I also read in Ellison or Baldwin. But Ralph Ellison is not Richard Pryor, and the way they talk about what it might mean to be a black American vary widely. The range of things they articulated informed my own thoughts on the subject.”

Some Changes introduces us to the pantheon of cultural touchstones to which Ligon has returned throughout his career that illustrate certain vagaries of identity. There’s Richard Pryor, whose comedy provided Ligon’s generation with a spokesman for its changing ideas of race in America, in Ligon’s series, “Richard Pryor Paintings (1993-2004).” Essays by Baldwin and Hurston and other literature by the likes of Jean Genet provide Ligon with the text for his etchings—often manipulated, blotted, and darkened to near-illegibility.

And then there’s Andy Warhol, king of the New York arts scene right as Ligon began his own art experimentation. “Warhol has been a tremendous influence on me in that he was unconcerned about switching from medium to medium,” Ligon says. “From painting to film, from film into publishing, from figuration to abstraction. Jean-Michel Basquiat's work is also important to me because he is a poet, and he brought his love of language to his canvases.”

The artwork of others has been as much fodder for Ligon’s work as any other cultural touchstone. Ligon’s most famous manipulation was his revision of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, a series of photos of nude black men, done for the 1993 Whitney Biennial: Notes on the Margins of the “Black Book,” in which Ligon captions each photo with language from the likes of Baldwin in order to change the photo’s meaning.

For another Some Changes work—the recent world wide web project Annotations —Ligon returned to his theme of changing the meaning of imagery through context. It’s an online scrapbook of photos, primarily of African-American families from the first two-thirds of the 20th century, laid out with multiple levels of associations. A photo of an infant is captioned “Future President of the United States”; click on a picture of two women departing a train, hat-boxes in hand, and a photo of the sheet music to “Strange Fruit” appears; click a photo of two women at a restaurant and hear Ligon singing disco anthems.

Don’t expect to see more web work from Ligon anytime soon, though.

“I am done with web-based work for now,” he says. “It requires too many technicians; I like to work solo. And I am not interested in learning programming languages. Life is short!”

Co-curated by Wayne Baerwaldt and Thelma Golden, Glenn Ligon: Some Changes is organized by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto.

With the generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Horace Walter Goldsmith Foundation, Peter Norton Family Foundation, Albert & Temmy Latner Foundation and Toby Devan Lewis.

Additional support is provided by Hal Jackman Foundation, Judy Schulich, The Board Art Foundation, Gregory R. Miller, The Drake Hotel, The Linda Pace Foundation and Dr. Kenneth Montague.

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